SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – A personnel crisis has struck the United States at the worst possible time with the men's national team in danger of being without four influential players for its biggest match of the World Cup campaign.
The U.S. hosts fierce rival Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday, knowing that a victory, combined with a win or a tie for Honduras against Panama, would be enough to clinch a spot in next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
However, key midfielder Michael Bradley, who scored both goals in the 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus four years ago and played a starring role when the teams tied 0-0 in Mexico City in March, is likely to be absent in what would be a major blow for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Bradley was scheduled to start for the Americans in Costa Rica on Friday night, but suffered a severe sprain to his left ankle moments before kickoff, ruling him out of the team's 3-1 defeat.
And while Bradley will undergo an MRI as soon as the team returns home on Saturday and will continue to be examined by medical staff, his chances of taking the field looked slim as he hobbled out of San Jose's Estadio Nacional on crutches.
"We have everything set up for him to get an MRI and the checks done, and we will go from there," Klinsmann said. "It swelled up right away and he couldn't put his foot down at all."
Bradley's energy and stamina in midfield are particularly useful against a team like Mexico, which, despite its struggles in qualifying so far, enjoys a slick passing game.He was sorely missed on Friday, with Costa Rica bursting into an early lead through goals from Johnny Acosta and Celso Borges within the first eight minutes. Clint Dempsey later pulled one back for the U.S., before Joel Campbell's late strike sealed three points for the hosts.
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"It is not an excuse, but it hurts," Landon Donovan said. "This team has, in large part, been built around Michael. You lose a leader, a good player and a lot of stability."
The U.S. is also guaranteed to be without defenders Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, and forward Jozy Altidore against Mexico. Each of the three had already been yellow-carded during the six-team final CONCACAF qualifying group, and another booking on Friday means they must serve a one-game suspension.
The top three teams in the group reach the World Cup, with the fourth-place finisher forced into a home-and-home playoff against New Zealand. The U.S. defeat in San Jose pushed it out of the top spot, now sitting one point behind new leader Costa Rica on 13 points.
Mexico, the traditional powerhouse of the region, is remarkably in danger of missing out on qualifying, and will be desperate for a victory when it visits Columbus. Given the likely intensity of the game, the suspensions could be critical.
"We will sit down and discuss all the elements of what we are going to change for Tuesday," Klinsmann said. "We knew the risk, we knew the situation, but it is upsetting when it happens. If we need to call players in, we will do that and be very focused."