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It's certainly nice to see that U.S. fans have confidence in their team -- an overwhelming 75 percent of them on our Soccernet poll believe the U.S. will win in Saprissa on Wednesday, when the U.S. takes on Costa Rica (10 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360). I can't say I have the same level of confidence. We're talking about a road game at a place where the U.S. has never won a qualifier and has a 0-6-1 record. Not to mention how nervous the U.S. looked in the hostile environment in El Salvador, where it barely escaped with a point. Anyway here's what I'm thinking Monday:
1. The U.S. lineup against Costa Rica. I fully expect coach Bob Bradley to be on the back foot and select a more defensive lineup for this game given the acknowledged difficulties of this matchup and the fact that the U.S. will be happy with just earning a point in Saprissa. Given that Jozy Altidore isn't 100 percent match fit, it's extremely unlikely the U.S. will field two forwards and I expect it will open in some variation of a 4-5-1 with Brian Ching as the lone striker. Debating the merits of whether or not Ching should start would take up a whole blog in itself. However, while I believe Ching is best utilized as part of a two-forward lineup in a 4-4-2 alongside someone like Altidore -- for this game I do think he's the best choice.
Given that the U.S. is likely to be under heavy pressure, the midfield needs an outlet to pass to, someone who can hold up/keep the ball and then lay it off. There's only one U.S. forward on the current national team outside of the retired Brian McBride who is proven to be capable of doing this, and that's Ching. Where Ching falls short compared to McBride is in his ability to score at the international level against higher-class opposition, so in a game in which you play with a lone forward and you're counting on that forward for goals, Ching probably isn't the best option. For the game in Saprissa though, and for the tactical role that Bradley will require his lone forward to play, Ching makes the most sense. As for the rest of the starting 11 and assuming that Frankie Hejduk is out, I think the key decision for Bradley is having to choose between starting either one of his former Chivas protégés, Jonathan Bornstein or Sacha Kljestan -- and I think that choice will boil down to who's been better in camp. This being the case, I think Bradley will opt for one of the two following lineups:
GK -- Tim Howard; D -- Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Bornstein; LM -- DaMarcus Beasley; CM -- Michael Bradley, Pablo Mastroeni; RM -- Clint Dempsey; AM -- Landon Donovan; F -- Ching
Or alternatively, GK -- Howard; D -- Spector, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Beasley; LM -- Donovan; CM -- Bradley, Mastroeni; RM -- Dempsey; AM -- Kljestan; F -- Ching
2. Showdown in Chinatown Part 2. Those of you who were present for Steve Nash's charity game in New York last year witnessed the spectacle of NBA stars and soccer stars turning out to benefit Nash's foundation. Well, the good news is that the event is back and scheduled to take place once again in Chinatown on June 24. From what I'm hearing, the organizers expect bigger names to participate this year and if this video promo is anything to go by, we could be in for a real treat (although given that Brazil is likely to be playing in the Confederations Cup on that date, I'd say the chances of Kaka appearing are slim to none). For a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the event, you can go to the Football For Good Web site.
3. Howard's FA Cup performance I have to say that I think Howard has received a ludicrous amount for criticism for allowing Frank Lampard's game-winning goal for Chelsea. Granted, Howard could possibly have done better given that he did manage to get a hand to it, but at the same time I'd argue he actually did pretty well to get a hand on it. Even if one agrees with the line of thought that it was a savable shot, it still doesn't qualify as a goalkeeping mistake or error, which is how it's largely been portrayed. An example of dodgy goalkeeping or an actual goalkeeping error would be this, not Howard's effort on Saturday.
4. Ancelotti takes the reigns at Chelsea As had been widely rumored, former AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti has officially taken over from Guus Hiddink at Chelsea. I have to admit, I'm not the biggest Ancelotti fan -- I think he's a tad overrated and questionable with his tactics over the long haul of a domestic league season. Chelsea fans better get used to a variety of head-shaking decisions involving taking off all your team's strikers when trailing 1-0. For that reason, I can't imagine that Ancelotti will be any better for Chelsea in the English league than the failed Phil Scolari was. However, presumably the hope is that Ancelotti will be an improvement over Scolari in European play. With the Champions League becoming an obsession for owner Roman Abramovich -- this summer's huge projected spending on a couple of more marquee players flies in the face of everything Chelsea have said the past few years about fiscal responsibility, being self-funding and no longer reliant on Abramovich's largesse -- Ancelotti will be under extreme pressure to deliver.
5. Where now for Owen? It's rather sad to see the continued decline of Michael Owen, who ended the Premiership season on the bench for a pitiful Newcastle team. There's no question that he'll be moving on this summer as a free agent, but considering his weekly salary (approx $160,000), decline in productivity and injury-plagued past, which top team is likely to make a play for him? I think Everton will make a push to sign him, but the most intriguing option could come from Liverpool if Rafa Benitez decides he could fill a role as a backup striker. Granted, a large part of the Kop have never forgiven him for the way in which he left the club for Real Madrid in 2004 (a move which I argued at the time would be highly detrimental for him) -- but if Owen is willing to take a pay cut and if his ego can handle the supporting role to Fernando Torres, then he'd be a smart acquisition. His loss of speed means Owen is no longer a real threat to create goals on his own, but he's still a quality finisher and certainly more adept as a secondary option than French youngster David N'Gog.
That's all from me for now, I'll be back on Wednesday night with a live play-by-play of the U.S. game against Costa Rica.