SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- If there was one big lesson from the U.S. national team's triumphant summer and record-setting 12-game winning streak, it was this: The squad is now deeper than ever, with quality players at a number of positions and so much internal competition that some useful players were left off the roster for this week's World Cup qualifiers.
That's a good thing, and it's what happens when the U.S. has performed well with different teams in the Gold Cup and June World Cup qualifying.
But now comes a stiff test of that depth as the U.S. prepares to meet Mexico on Tuesday after a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica on Friday. Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron will all be suspended after picking up yellow cards, Altidore's coming on an unwise play after coach Jurgen Klinsmann probably should have left him on the bench late in the game. Then there's midfielder Michael Bradley, the U.S.'s most indispensable player, who "rolled his ankle really, really bad," as Klinsmann put it, during Friday's warmup and looks unlikely to start on Tuesday.
For all its newfound depth the U.S. doesn't have another Bradley, and it showed in the chaotic opening minutes against Costa Rica, which scored twice early. "We had to make the last-second switch, and it kind of maybe shocked the team for a couple moments," said Klinsmann.
"[Losing Bradley] isn't an excuse, but it hurts," said Landon Donovan. "This team is in large part built around Michael, and in my opinion he and Clint [Dempsey] have been the two most influential players over the last few years. That hurts. You lose a leader, you lose a good player, you lose a lot of stability, but that doesn't account for how we started and how we played. We still had to do a better job."
The U.S. rebounded from the early two-goal deficit, controlling the ball a bit better and pulling one goal back with Dempsey's penalty kick late in the first half. Dempsey even hit the post from distance early in the second half, but while the U.S. equalizer seemed imminent it never came, and Joel Campbell's breakaway goal in the 75th minute iced the game for the now first-place Ticos.
It was probably wise not to make too big a deal of the U.S.'s 12-game winning streak, and to the team's credit the players and coaches never really did. Let's call it what it was: An impressive summer run that gave the U.S. a Gold Cup title and put Klinsmann's team in great shape to qualify for the World Cup.
"We've been playing unbelievable the last four or five months," said goalkeeper Tim Howard on Friday. "We've dug out some results we shouldn't have, and tonight was maybe a bridge too far, and it happens. You have to give [Costa Rica] a lot of credit."
But if you look at the U.S.'s depth, it's fair to say that while it has increased of late, it only goes so far. In the Yanks' last loss before Friday, a 4-2 friendly defeat to Belgium in May, the main lesson was that Bradley was indispensable. (Sound familiar?) Missing from that game, in which the U.S. was overrun in the midfield, Bradley returned against Germany a few days later and helped marshal a 4-3 friendly victory that started the U.S.'s run.
With Cameron unavailable against Mexico, who fills in for him next to Jermaine Jones? Kyle Beckerman perhaps? Besler's absence may be filled by 20-year-old John Brooks, who could become cap-tied to the U.S. in the same game where he faces Mexico for the first time. As for Altidore, he might not have started against Mexico anyway, given his hamstring issue, but not having him will potentially put more onus on Eddie Johnson and Aron Jóhannsson.
"With the yellow card situation, we're going to sit down now and discuss all the elements that we want to change going forward into the Tuesday game based on what happened tonight," said Klinsmann. "We knew about that risk, and it's always upsetting when it happens, especially when I look at Jozy Altidore's yellow card toward the end. It was absolutely not necessary. But it is what it is. We'll adjust to it. If we need to call in players we can do that."
In the big picture, Friday's loss is hardly a killer for the U.S., which can still clinch a World Cup berth with a win over Mexico on Tuesday combined with Honduras winning or tying at home against Panama. But the U.S. does need to figure out how to perform well without Bradley. The Americans actually did have the upper hand during the middle stretches of the game on Friday, but they never could fully recover from Costa Rica's two-goal fusillade to start the night.
There should be fewer surprises right before kickoff on Tuesday, and perhaps that will help the U.S. as it prepares for one of the great rivalry games in North American sports.
"Part of qualifying is how much depth do you have?" said Donovan after the game. "Fortunately, we've built a team with a lot of depth. I think we're confident about other guys stepping in and doing a job. There are guys who have wanted to play and maybe deserve to play, and now they have a chance."
Who those players will be -- and how they'll respond -- is something we'll all find out very soon after another dispiriting night for the U.S. in Costa Rica.