Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez

Last stand in Denver? United States meets Costa Rica, with so much on the line in World Cup qualifying

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DENVER – Dicks Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver seems an unlikely place for a U.S. Soccer last stand – and yet here we are.

Technically, this does not qualify as “do-or-die” in ongoing World Cup qualifying; Jurgen Klinsmann’s team could fall tonight and then again Tuesday down in Mexico, and still have seven matches in this final round to gather up 15 or 16 points probably required for safe arrival into a seventh consecutive World Cup.

But this sure feels like a last stand considering injuries and absences to important figures, bubbling locker room issues and a final round schedule set-up that had this one tagged “critical” long ago. It has the weight of an Alamo-type stand, and the team would certainly drag a battered psychological state out of Colorado with anything less than victory here against Costa Rica.

(MORE: US team news, notes and quotes from Thursday’s final prep)

It’s no big stretch to say that Friday, in a very cold Denver suburb, the United States will either regain its footing in a march toward Brazil 2014 or see the effort possibly be mortally wounded.

So, yes, a sold out DSG Sporting Goods Parks in Denver (fairly light in U.S. national team history) is the site for the most pressure packed World Cup qualifier in at least 10 years. Kickoff tonight is set for 8 p.m. locally (10 p.m. ET) on ESPN.

“We’ve always come through when there’s pressure on,” veteran midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. “It’s always been that way when I’ve been there, it won’t be any different come tomorrow. We embrace the pressure. We know we are at home, we know we need three points. It’s a very important match, even though it’s very early in the tournament. Everyone knows that. In qualifying you need to win your home matches, for sure. Tomorrow will be no different.”

The team chemistry isn’t right; we can still debate the level of tumult, but it’s safe to say there are issues that need sorting. A provocative Sporting News story put some things on the table, and at a nervous time when the United States faced a near must-win match anyway.

Lose tonight and the very real possibility exists of being 0-3 in final round CONCACAF qualifying; the Americans began this round with a loss in Honduras – where the young back line could not quite pass the test – and do battle down in Mexico next week at Azteca Stadium, where they have never won in World Cup qualifying. Never.

(MORE: Digging into the “Why?” over Klinsmann and his critics)

The sear of concern is particularly intense along a U.S. back line, where three starters are injured. Plus, former captain and stabilizing arm Carlos Bocanegra is not part of this camp, the latest in a series of Klinsmann’s controversial roster or lineup choices.

Tim Howard’s injury absence isn’t making anyone feel better about things, although backup Brad Guzan is having a wonderful season at Aston Villa and sure looks up for the job. As for Guzan playing behind a young and untested defense? He calls that a “Saturday.”

The mood of the camp seems typically relaxed, and even Klinsmann seems underwhelmed by all the ongoing talk of his performance. His response is more or less a shrug and smile and to say something about this being part of his job.

(MORE: Klinsmann responds to criticism and player unrest)

Besides, veteran players like Michael Bradley have come to his defense. So has Herculez Gomez. And from the center of it all, Bocanegra even had positive things to say about it all.

The U.S. attack, at least, is mostly intact, Landon Donovan and his ongoing sabbatical as the one obvious exception. Clint Dempsey has overcome a recent injury with Tottenham and looks set to start. He leads the team with six goals in 2014 qualifying, and has been named captain for this one.

Past the injuries and whispering malcontents in their midst, there is reason to like the U.S. chances here. The weather is to their liking; with more players who earn their living in Europe, they are presumably better equipped to deal with temperatures in the 30s and potential precipitation.

The United States’ dominance in home qualifiers cannot be understated. They have not lost one of these since 2001; the unbeaten streak has reached 22 matches (a 20-0-2 record).

(MORE: Most pressure on a World Cup qualifier in a decade)

The United States is 5-0-2 against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifiers at home. This Ticos version launched the final round with 2-2 draw at home against Panama, so there’s pressure in the Costa Rican camp, too. Plus, leading scorer Alvaro Saborio may have an injury concern, depending on which report you believe.

Either way, the Ticos have other attacking options.

(Look for more later today at ProSoccerTalk, including a lineup prediction)

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Manchester United

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  • United 6 points outside the top four
  • Sunderland winless in four
  • MUFC has one loss in 27 vs. SAFC (W20, D6, L1)

Manchester United’s uphill battle for a top-four finish continues on Saturday when the Red Devils travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

United won this fixture in September 3-0 behind goals from Memphis, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Sunderland sit 19th on the table four points from safety as the time has come for Sam Allardyce‘s side to start getting results. Without a win in their last four matches, the Black Cats must turn things around if they want to stay up in the Premier League. Jermain Defoe scored last time out in a draw at Liverpool, and he’ll once again be tasked with finding the back of the net if Sunderland are to win.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League Picks for Week 26 ]

For Manchester United, the pressure is still on Louis Van Gaal as rumors and reports circle linking Jose Mourinho to the job. Fifth on the table and six points behind Manchester City, a top-four finish is slipping away from United if they don’t rattle off a few wins. A late goal at Chelsea last weekend cost the Red Devils all three points, but they’ll look at this matchup against Sunderland as a good opportunity to get a positive result.

What they’re saying

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce: “Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in nine matches. We need to start putting a zero against us in games and if we start doing that we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble.”

United manager Louis van Gaal: “We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now. You can only say that we are mentally very strong and that we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimize the gap to our competitors.”

Prediction

Sunderland need all the points they can get to try and stay up, but United always seem to cause the Black Cats problems. Jermain Defoe is kept off the board as Louis van Gaal takes the win. Sunderland 0-2 Manchester United.

Costa breaks nose, will be fit to play for “Zorro team” vs. Newcastle

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Diego Costa of Chelsea reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea striker Diego Costa broke his nose in training after a clash of heads, but should be fit to play in Saturday’s match against Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

Costa has six goals in his past seven Premier League games as Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 in all competitions.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Manager Guus Hiddink spoke about the injury in his press conference on Friday, saying Costa collided with an Academy player in training. Hiddink said he believes Costa will be ready to play this weekend for his “Zorro team” as Costa joins Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, and Cesar Azpilicueta as Chelsea players to wear a mask this season.

It was not a tough duel but he put his nose on the back of the head of one of the youngsters from the Academy that we like to participate in our training games. He was very unlucky.

They are putting a mask on Diego as well, we are the team with a lot of masks, a Zorro team, and he will come back do some light training this afternoon as he must experience how he is dealing with the form and the fitting of the mask.

Costa scored a stoppage-time equalizer against Manchester United last weekend as Chelsea continue to get results under Guus Hiddink. The Blues are up to 13th on the table, just three points outside the top half.

[ RELATED: Frank Lampard urges Chelsea to sign John Terry ]

Chelsea will look to extend their unbeaten run to 12 matches on Saturday against a Newcastle side that is just one point above the drop and in need of a result.

Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Copa del Rey Round of 16 first leg match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on January 6, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has won every individual award imaginable, but now he can add another trophy to his shelf.

For the first time in his career, Messi was named La Liga’s Player of the Month for January.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

It’s hard to believe, but somehow the Barcelona superstar had never won this honor before. Despite winning a record five Ballon D’or trophies as the best player in the world, this trophy had eluded Messi since its inception in 2013.

Messi scored six goals in six January matches as Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, currently holding a three-point lead over Atletico Madrid.

Despite their dominance in La Liga, this is only the second time a Barcelona player has won this monthly award, as Neymar took home the honor in November of 2015.

USWNT-Mexico preview: Energized Yanks look to keep rolling toward Rio

FRISCO, TX - FEBRUARY 10:  Team USA poses for a photo before play against Costa Rica during 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at Toyota Stadium on February 10, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The United States women’s national team looks to keep rolling through CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying with a match with Mexico on Saturday.

Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, is again the scene after the Yanks battered Costa Rica 5-0 on Wednesday.

[ MUST WATCH: Christen Press’ dazzling first touch, spin, goal ]

A win over Mexico would move the USWNT into the all-important semifinal, where a win would gain them entry into this Summer’s Olympic Games.

Mexico staged a blowout of its own on Wednesday, cruising past Puerto Rico 6-0 thanks in large part to a hat trick from Maribel Dominguez.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

Mexico has only beaten the USWNT twice in history, and only the 2010 Gold Cup semifinal is considered official.

In recent history, the USWNT beat up Mexico 5-1 last year, and thrice in 2014 by a combined score of 15-0. Expect very little to change with an energized, impressive U.S. side on Saturday.

[ SATURDAY: Watch USWNT vs Mexico live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]