Just three days ago, the United States was clobbered by Spain in a friendly that was supposed to be a warm-up for the Gold Cup. While losing in friendlies is no big deal, especially to the best team in the world, the manner of the loss was concerning. With the stars sitting out and the backups taking a beating, we learned absolutely nothing about the team. The only positive to come out of the game was a paycheck.
A few days earlier, Canada played a much weaker opponent in Ecuador. Though the match ended in a 2-2 draw, Canada were the better side than the talented Copa America participants for most of the game as they put in an encouraging performance.
You would be hard pressed to find even the most die-hard Canadian fan who is willing to argue that Canada is a better team than the United States, but taking each team's last friendly into consideration, it's possible that the intangibles are on Canada's side to such a degree that they have a chance to pull the upset. That was, before some injuries.
Dejan Jakovic went down in that Ecuador friendly and will not be playing. Josh Simpson, arguably Canada's best player, is rumored to have picked up an injury and is questionable. There's also the matter of who is first choice for Canada and what the starting formation is; that last game really screwed with the consensus on what Stephen Hart is thinking.
Canada's setup in that Ecuador game was very effective. A 4-4-1-1 formation with Simeon Jackson as a lone striker and Dwayne De Rosario supporting him in a free role. They had decent possession against a team of superior passers, De Rosario looked at home in his natural role, and Simpson was made into the focal point of the attack. However, Jackson isn't exactly 'lone striker' material in the eyes of many, and Ali Gerba or Rob Friend could start up top instead.
However, benching Jackson is not an option. So, many predictions have him fitting on the right side of a 4-3-3 formation that plays De Rosario ahead of a double pivot. Due to Jackson's speed and lack of hold-up skills as a No. 9, this sounds like a good idea in theory, but Jackson has not been great in the past as a right winger for Canada.
The reason the 4-4-1-1 setup seems like a more likely scenario is not all about Jackson's attacking skills or lack thereof as a right winger, though. The reason is because of the matchup it creates on Canada's right, which is where Landon Donovan will likely be playing for the United States. If Canada use a 4-3-3 with Jackson on the right, he's probably not going to be effective (or even present) tracking back on defense. If Canada thinks they can leave Donovan alone on the left, they're going to get skinned. If one of the central midfielders drifts wide to help on Donovan, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones can keep the ball all day.
Will Johnson started on the right against Ecuador, and it probably wasn't Stephen Hart trying something new just for kicks. He probably wanted to get his team and Johnson ready to play that way, because that was the setup that he wanted to run to counter Donovan. Based on Johnson's play at Real Salt Lake as a two-way wide player, it's probably a very good idea.
And while Canada would probably prefer a forward with better hold-up play than Simeon Jackson, he probably wasn't in that role as a simple experiment either. The United States' central defenders are all either slow or inexperienced, and Jackson has speed and great finishing instincts. It might only take one mistake for him to score a goal, and we all know that the United States defense has a mistake in them.
The good news for United States fans is that Canada's defense is less accomplished and less talented than that of the USMNT. A back four of Marcel de Jong, Kevin McKenna, Andre Hainault and Nik Ledgerwood probably isn't keeping Bob Bradley up at night.
It's tough to predict what Bradley will do with his team, but a 4-4-2 setup seems most likely. Juan Agudelo will probably be preferred next to Jozy Altidore, while the usual four of Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley and Jones will sit behind them in midfield.
The back is a different story, and there are conflicting reports on what the first team is. The biggest question centers around Carlos Bocanegra, who has a lot of starts under his belt at both left back and central defense. He's proven equally adept at both positions, and the United States is lacking in clear-cut starting options behind him in both positions. However, Clarence Goodson is probably a better option than all of Jonathan Spector, Eric Lichaj and Jonathan Bornstein right now, so Bocanegra on the left with Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson in the middle seems to be the most likely setup.
Canada will not be favored to get a result tonight, but they are worthy opponents for the United States, especially if Simpson is 90 minutes fit. He's Canada's most entertaining player, and it would be a shame to see him miss this game.
Most of our questions about the two teams should be answered tonight. Until then, we'll just have to wait and see.
Also tonight: Panama vs. Guadeloupe
Both of these teams have a chance to challenge Canada for second place in the group. Panama's players to watch are striker Blas Perez and central defender Felipe Baloy, both of whom have had successful club careers in Mexico. Guadeloupe has a number of players who have appeared in Ligue 1 and who are established players in Ligue 2.