2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, September 2017, USMNT

Costa Rica Outclasses US 2-0, Puts US World Cup Hopes On Brink: TYAC Analysis

The United States were outplayed and outclassed by Costa Rica Friday night in Harrison, NJ.

HARRISON, NJ- 

The United States Men’s National Team lost a home World Cup qualifier for the second time this cycle Friday night, falling 2-0 to Costa Rica at a sold out Red Bull Arena. Marco Ureña , who plays his professional soccer in MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes, scored both Ticos goals. The defeat, coupled with Honduras’s victory in Port-of-Spain over Trinidad and Tobago, puts the United State in a three team scrum for the final automatic qualifying spot, with the fourth place finisher reaching a two-match playoff and the fifth place team eliminated.

Bruce Arena was conciliatory after the defeat, crediting Costa Rica for a fine performance.

“We lost to a team that played better than us tonight. We were outplayed and we were outcoached,” Arena said. “We still have three games left in the competition and we’re still in position to qualify for the World Cup. We have to put this past us and regroup for Tuesday (against Honduras).”

While the US had their chances to seize the game, particularly after Costa Rica took the lead, the Americans couldn’t find the back of the net. At times it was a lack of quality with combining passes in the final third; other times it was marvelous goalkeeping by Keylor Navas. The save below, on Christian Pulisic, just after the hour mark in particular was indicative of how the evening went for the United States: even when the US threatened, Costa Rica were better.

Regardless of what happens with Panama and Mexico Friday night, the US will sit no worse than fourth (guaranteed a playoff spot) after that match. Still, a result of some sort in a trip to Honduras Tuesday afternoon is now essential- should the Yanks lose- they’ll sit fifth, and out of the World Cup- headed into the final two matches of the Hex. 

Here are TYAC’s four thoughts on the American defeat Friday night.

Costa Rica had a great plan and executed it beautifully.

As I wrote in the TYAC match preview, the Ticos were far more aggressive than they had been in the Gold Cup, pressing the US higher up the field and denying Michael Bradley’s passing lanes. Darlington Nagbe did little to make himself available and help, and the American captain often found himself outnumbered and isolated in the center of the pitch.

The Ticos also pressured the US CB’s when they were in possession, and leaky distribution, particularly from Geoff Cameron, allowed the Ticos to create turnovers and subsequently chances. This type of sequence resulted in the second Costa Rica goal.

When the US countered with their own pressure off the ball, it was chaotic and disorganized. At times, Michael Bradley was the high US midfielder, which was never the design, but a testament to Nagbe and Johnson not really knowing when to move infield, apply pressure, remain high or drop off. 

The Ticos also used the numerical advantages in midfield to create plenty of second ball situations when the US did try to play over the top to areas where it had numbers. The problem was that the Ticos won almost all of the second balls, which stifled the US ability to generate much rhythm in possession and put a stamp of authority on the game.

We picked the United States to win because we trusted the momentum the US had built in 2017.

But this wasn’t just a tactical defeat, and that’s important. Costa Rica have marvelous players, and three of them: Keylor Navas, Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz, were the difference.

Navas first. He was vital tonight, first with how well he organized his defense, preventing the type of wall fiasco the US exploited in the Gold Cup and helping the Ticos avoid mistakes with their shape. It isn’t  just that Navas’s ability to call out the lines on the road prevented spacing errors like this:

Second, when things did break down, he made the plays you’d expect from a world-class goalkeeper. It wasn’t a great night for Christian Pulisic, who was bottled up and often frustrated by Francisco Calvo and Bryan Oviedo. But when Pulisic did break free after a great Michael Bradley run, Navas was there to make the absurd save.

What’s more- Tim Howard wasn’t particularly solid tonight. 

Whether he could do much on the fast break second Ticos goal is a more fair debate. What’s clear is he was off his line and took a lousy angle on the opener. There’s a better slow-motion angle on this- but even on the view below, you can see Howard’s footwork is a problem all the way. And it, along with Jorge Villafana’s lollygag of a jog back here, was why the Ticos had the lead at hafltime.

As for Borges, his ability to pounce on second balls stifled the US rhythm and in attack, his precise passes found Bryan Ruiz often between defenders in space, keeping the US on the back foot. Portland’s David Guzman was outstanding behind him, allowing Borges to roam a bit more than usual, and maintain his high line, keeping the pressure on.

As for Ruiz, he improves to 7-4-2 against the United States in his career, which is persuasive evidence that this game isn’t just a rivalry, it’s a troubling fixture for the United States. 

The talismanic midfielder is only 32, but it feels like he’s been torturing the US for years. The assist above was divine, as was his movement throughout, which kept Fabian Johnson pinned back to help the hapless Villafana too often. Ruiz has only scored two goals against the United States in his storied career, but his assist total is now at 7, and his record speaks for itself.

This was as bad a game as Geoff Cameron has played in a US Shirt. 

An early error by Tim Ream caused me to send this unfortunate tweet.

On the flip side, we did write a whole article at TYAC on the dangers of relying on a 32 year old CB as your defensive anchor. And after logging 250 minutes for Stoke over the last three weeks, Cameron looked tired tonight, if not from a “legs” perspective than from a “focus” perspective. His usually tidy distributions were late or poor, and his typical communication, often effortless with Matt Besler, was lacking with a CB who by most accounts has more technical quality. As good as Ream and Cameron were at Azteca, they were almost as bad this evening, and the US paid for it dearly.

Darlington Nagbe also had his worst meaningful game in a US shirt.

Our “player to watch” in the match preview, Nagbe looked lost centrally, tentative applying pressure and neglecting to make himself available to help Michael Bradley on too many occasions. He was fortunate not to get a yellow card on a sloppy challenge early in the game that showed some of his defensive deficiencies (late to step and react, a bit behind) and never seemed to find the tempo of the game in the opening frame. He stepped his play up briefly in the second half, but then tapered, and he looked far less convincing centrally than he has out wide.

Some of this is the process of playing soccer at this level. Nagbe was only a substitute at Azteca. This was easily the most he had been asked to do in a big game against a good team. He didn’t pass the first test. He remains a unique talent. He’ll get more chances. But it wasn’t his night tonight.

Another great home crowd, another disappointing night. Whatever margin for error the US had evaporated on a gorgeous New Jersey night.

The US have little margin for error.

Whatever goodwill and momentum the US built early this year evaporated Friday night, and along with it, so did any margin the US had for error. Qualifying was always going to be complicated after the 0 points in two matches with a negative five goal difference beginning. It became even tougher now, with the Americans dropping a second home match in the Hex. Rule number one for World Cup fun is win your home games. The US haven’t done that. To qualify without a playoff, they’ll likely need to collect four points from their two remaining road fixtures.

A result in Honduras is now more or less essential.

If the Americans fail to collect any points at San Pedro Sula, they’ll enter the final two qualifiers sitting in fifth position, with a testy Panamanian team likely to park the bus in Orlando and a trip to a Trinidad and Tobago team playing for pride on deck. The Soca Warriors would seem to be easy pickings, but 27 years after Paul Caligiuri thrust US Soccer into the future, one wonders whether they’d be highly motivated to return the favor in Port-of-Spain, and keep the Americans out of the World Cup in Russia.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon. 

Neil W. Blackmon