The USA will finally get tested tonight in Connecticut when it faces a familiar opponent, Costa Rica. We last saw Costa Rica in the “Snowclassico”, a match we won’t be forgetting around these parts for a long time– and one that really started this run of terrific form (Belgium aside) for the United States. That was a critical match. So is this one. In fact, Jurgen Klinsmann has dubbed this match “the start” of the Gold Cup for the United States, and with good reason: Costa Rica is the first side this incarnation of the national team has played with the talent necessary to give it trouble and perhaps defeat it. While the opening two matches (and the Guatemala tuneup) have produced a great number of positive stories for the Americans, Costa Rica has the ability to test what have been the lurking US weaknesses: fullback play, a somewhat overadventurous goalkeeper, and the “6” or no “6” dilemma swirling around Kyle Beckerman and Stu Holden/Mix Diskerud/Jose Francisco Torres. Granted the latter is more of a pleasant concern, but Klinsmann would probably like to establish a formula as the Yanks begin the knockout stages this weekend at The Bank in Baltimore. What’s more, the tilt with the Ticos will determine Group C supremacy and seeding for the quarterfinals. A US win or draw means a matchup against Martinique, in all likelihood. A Costa Rica victory means the US, for all their goal-scoring bluster, will drop to second in the group and face a tricky Honduras side in the quarterfinals. Needless to say, the stakes are large.
Without further Freddy Adu, let’s serve up the usuals and kick the particulars.
The Series: 31st Meeting. Series Tied, 12-12-6. Jurgen Klinsmann calls this rivalry, and it is that, a rivalry, “one of the great battles of CONCACAF.” He’s right. From a historical perspective, the Yanks have played only Mexico more times. Interestingly, the Americans are 5-0-1 vs. The Ticos in Gold Cup play, although the lone result for Costa Rica came in the last Gold Cup meeting, a 0-0 tie in Boston in the 2005 Gold Cup.
Weather: A BIT WARMER THAN LAST TIME– temperatures in the mid-80’s around kick. So on the Fabian Johnson (dude hates hot weather!!) misery index, about a 8 or 9.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
The US shouldn’t look to change too much after a 6-1 win and a 4-1 win, but hopefully Jurgen Klinsmann is now close to figuring out his best Gold Cup starting eleven (though he’ll have an opportunity to bring in new players after this match). In fact, Klinsmann has promised that the US “will play its best team” (presumably, the best “team” present at the Gold Cup) against their island rivals. That should be the expectation, with tops in Group C at stake, and the match is an opportunity to start building consistency in the squad, and along the defensive wings, where the US was victimized a couple times in the Cuba match. That probably means stand-in captain DaMarcus Beasley at left back and Michael Parkhurst out on the right, but Parkhurst could become a victim of Klinsmann’s “speed on the wings” fetish. And since this Costa Rica team looked vulnerable on the wings in their match against Belize, I’d look for whoever starts at the fullback spots to do plenty of pushing forward and crossing into the box.
In attack, this is truly the first match where the tactical benefits to Klinsmann’s “no 6” wrinkle could be of use, or better put, could be evaluated to determine its future potential. If Klinsmann decides not to start Kyle Beckerman as a “6” to shield his mix and match Gold Cup center halves, that’s a good indication that he thinks his team holistically is better-off trying to push tempo and put its foot on proceedings from the opening whistle. Stu Holden, who played in front of Kyle Beckerman to start the Cuba match, could be slotted a bit deeper, but not nearly as deep as Beckerman, and paired with either Jose Torres (a revelatory substitute against Cuba) or Mix Diskerud, who has been outstanding in this tournament to date. Either way, the fact that this is a tactical option speaks volumes about how far the US have come since flirting with the idea of returning to Bob Bradley’s deep-lying “dual-destroyers” before the qualifier against Costa Rica in March. It is an extraordinarily positive development to have tactical flexibility.
The US managed much better width in the second half of the Cuba match by slotting Jose Torres out wide for the ineffective Brek Shea, but continuing to give Torres the liberty to drift centrally. He is going to do that anyway, but he was much more responsible about when to drift in the Cuba match and the US earned an effective overlap because Torres stayed put a bit more, allowing Edgar Castillo to overlap and pressure a Cuban defense that was drifting towards the Beltran/Corona flank throughout the first half. Width was a big problem for the US early in qualifying, and while that has changed at the “A” team level, a challenge against the Ticos tonight will be establishing viable width with this roster, especially given how ineffective Brek Shea has been for the Yanks. Landon Donovan played marvelously Saturday, moving all over the field and providing extra width and space for folks to run in behind Herculez Gomez and Chris Wondolowski. It was a bit of the “Clint Dempsey” role that was vital in the US victory in March, and we would expect him to reprise that this evening.
Up top, much has been made of Chris Wondolowski (more on that below), but it is probably safe to say that he has earned the right to start tonight’s match. What he has earned beyond that is a larger question, and is explored well by Neil W. Blackmon (along with other issues) here. Who will support Wondolowski is an altogether different question, but Mix Diskerud could capably fill that role as could Joe Corona, who played better against Cuba once he stopped trying to do too much. Corona has a bit of Clint Dempsey in him– but it is a young, “tries stuff” Clint Dempsey, and he needs to play within himself to be effective- a much bigger ask against Costa Rica than one half vs. Cuba.
In the center of the defense, Klinsmann will need to decide between another Clarence Goodson run out, which of course means his one moment of lost focus and low quality per match, or Oguchi Onyewu, who was victimized on the Cuban goal Saturday, although that was more class finish than Gooch being out of position. Michael Orozco-Fiscal seems to have Klinsmann’s trust, and is likely to pair with whomever Klinsmann selects between Goodson-Onyewu. Finally, for the first time in a while, the American goalkeeper will need to play an alert, effective match. Costa Rica isn’t particularly daunting aerially, but Rimando will need to be in command of his box on set pieces and under control when the Costa Ricans get out on the break. There have been shaky moments in all three matches for the Real Salt Lake man– tonight is the night to clean that up. Goodson played one of his better matches in the “Snowclassico”, and was commended by Klinsmann for it. That might be enough for him to edge out Gooch for the other starting spot tonight.
And what will we see out of Costa Rica?
An MLS-heavy lineup that has the quality to dictate the game for spells and catch the US napping on the counterattack. Even without playmaking dynamo Bryan Ruiz, the Ticos have class attacking talent in this tournament in the form of Alvaro Saborio of Real Salt Lake and Jairo Arrieta of the Columbus Crew. What is lacking is the link-up man in the hybrid formation to get them service, which tends to come from Ruiz. The absence of Everton’s Brian Oviedo, Real Betis man Joel Cambpell and speedy winger Christian Bolanos (who is basically Brek Shea if he came up for air more) mean that this version of the Ticos will be a bit more direct in attack and predictable, but they are still dangerous. The fundamental difference is that they have been a great deal less fluid in attack at times, and when they get stagnant in their ball movements, it is difficult for Saborio to influence proceedings up top.
Formation-wise, they have still played their trademark hybrid 4-5-1/4-3-3 in this tournament and still tasked their fullbacks with bombing forward in support, particularly after midfield zone turnovers. Thus far, however, the quality has been lacking on the service provided by these fullbacks. As a result, the Ticos need a moment or two of brilliance to be threatening in longer build-ups, and they’ll happily play a bit deeper this evening, hoping to catch the US out and get numbers on the counter. Christian Meneses does have the technical ability to play fast on the counter and provide lethal service– he just hasn’t done so in this tournament. That said, he’s still talented and pacy enough on the left flank to trouble the US defense, and the American fullbacks will need to be responsible about when they decide to come up in support of lengthy US possession in the Costa Rican final third.
Ahead of the back four is a double pivot midfield that serves as ball-carriers who receive the ball from the back and quickly switch to generate the attack on the flanks. Celso Borges and Michael Barrantes have been that pair in this tournament- although it should be noted that Borges does so playing a great deal deeper than he does for his club, AIK of Sweden. Barrantes is the deeper-lying player, who maintains defensive responsibilities to allow Borges to get forward and apply pressure- somewhat similar to what Michael Bradley does for Jermaine Jones- though Barrantes will do it from a deeper-lying position at the outset.
While the Ticos prefer to use fast movements on the flank to press the issue and get service to the uber-talented Saborio or capable target man Arrieta, they do offer a wrinkle when they get sustained possession in the opponent’s final third. In that position, they tend to individually hold the ball longer, connecting short midfield passes until Saborio makes an incutting run at the eighteen or a midfielder off-the-ball attacks late. Overlapping fullbacks sometimes help this proposition, but again, generally speaking, they are more effective on quick counters than sustained buildups, and in this tournament, they have suffered from a desire to play the “perfect ball”, often losing possession before making the probing, dangerous pass. This was no more evident than late in the Belize match, when they continually conceded possession deep in Belize’s final third because they became too picky in their final ball distributions.
If there is a glaring weakness, it is the centerbacks, Roy Miller, Giancarlo Gonzalez and Michael Umana, who are slow to pick up marks on set pieces (see Belize match- nearly two equalizing goals on long free kicks), and foul-heavy. This has been troubling to the Ticos qualifying campaign– they were victimized by Mexico on a set piece and Panama scored on a long throw-in. Look for the Americans to really crash the six on all set pieces. This is not a team you play short corners against, unless you’re in the mood to do them favors. Protecting the net will be Patrick Pemberton, who plays domestically in Costa Rica and at 31 has just 15 caps. While he hasn’t surrendered a goal in the group stages, he hasn’t had to much outside of half an hour against Cuba and late against Belize, and he is a large step down from World Cup qualifying goalkeeper Keylar Nevas, who this publication believes is the third best keeper in CONCACAF, behind Howard and Guzan (your argument is bad, Mexico). Pemberton’s quality will be tested tonight.
Costa Rican Player to Watch: Alvaro Saborío
This isn’t the first time I’ve made the Real Salt Lake star my “Costa Rican Player to Watch” in a match versus the States, but my reasoning is just a little different this time around. Costa Rica is without their best player and captain in this tournament. That’s Bryan Ruiz. Ruiz is like the Costa Rican Clint Dempsey with a little less bulldog and a slightly greater emphasis on “pretty play.” When Ruiz is on the field, Saborío can play like a traditional target striker, but as RSL fans and half the CONCACAF Champions League regulars know, Saborío’s got more skill in his feet than your traditional MLS or CONCACAF number nine. And those skills will have to be on display if he’s going to make the impact that he’s capable of against the Yanks. That means touches outside the box along with well taken dribbling runs to open up this American backline, which seems to be in a constant state of new combinations and auditions during this tourney. Without Ruiz, Saborio has been starved too often for service, and tonight he’ll need to do something about it if that trend continues. He has the quality to make a brilliant play on his own, and if he does, it could be a group winner.
US Player to Watch: Chris Wondo(w)lowski
Sorry, we had to take that jab at the USMNT managers for Wondo’s misspelled shirt in the Belize match; we only work with what they give us.
As most of our readers and Twitter followers know by now, we here at TYAC haven’t been big fans of the idea of Chris Wondolowski as an important player on the United States Men’s National Team, primarily because we have many doubts about his quality in general. To us, he’s the guy that gets bags of goals in MLS. But whose game doesn’t translate to the international stage. But now Wondo’s earned a real chance. A chance to start an important match (first in the group is on the line!) against a good CONCACAF opponent. Six goals in a three match span against Guatemala (B), Belize, and Cuba doesn’t quite add up to Wondolowski shoving our opinion of him back in our faces, but it should earn him the opportunity to try and replicate those performances on a bigger stage, and perhaps really stick it to The Yanks Are Coming. We’d welcome that. So let’s take a quick look at all the good the 30 year old San Jose striker can do for fans of US Soccer:
– First on the list is obviously the fact that a guy with a four syllable Polish last name ending in “ski” gives us ample opportunity to make The Big Lebowski references. The writers here at TYAC abide.
– At his best, Wondolowski really ties the American attack together. Never underestimate the value of a guy that knows his role. In this case, that means there’s always someone in the box to aim at, or that’s drawing defenders and opening up the area at the top of the eighteen for guys like Landon Donovan to weave a little magic.
– Wondo’s tireless work-rate reminds us of Brian Ching, a dude who was criminally left off the 2010 World Cup squad. Ching was a nice complement to Jozy Altidore within Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2. The team may not play that formation or style anymore, but it’s always nice to have a guy that you can put in the game to change the formation and the attack.
– Chris Wondolowski just proved he can do something that we always attribute to Herculez Gomez, and he did it in his stead. In the Cuba match Wondo (along with our last player to watch, J.F. Torres) was a game-changer as a substitute. Let the competition between Herc and Wondo officially begin… yes it took six goals in three matches to get that sentence out of me.
Prediction: USA 2 – 0 Costa Rica
I expect a comprehensive performance against a good Costa Rica team, and in this case that means keeping a clean sheet. A fourth match in a row in which the Yanks create double-digit scoring chances should lead to a fourth match in a row with multiple goals scored.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!