Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
Both teams enter this game with nightmares of earlier encounters dancing through their heads. Thankfully, those wounds are much fresher for the Costa Ricans. Just five months ago Costa Rica lost one-nil to a reeling USMNT team in a Colorado blizzard. That game has since been dubbed the “Snow Clasico,” and it was a major turning point for the US national team under Jurgen Klinsmann. The seeds of what’s now a twelve match winning streak were planted on that snowy night in March.
But put winning streaks, Gold Cups, and positive vibrations to the side for a minute; the USMNT is playing a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica, the house of horrors. Okay, so maybe the diabolically designed eighth circle of hell known as Saprissa was really the house of horrors, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for a warm welcome at the relatively new Estadio Nacional either. The modern looking venue may not be the CONCACAF equivalent of Philadelphia’s old Veterans Stadium like the Saprissa was (complete with seams in the turf), but this is still Costa Rica away in World Cup Qualifying, and the hexagonal group lead is on the line.
Just how bad has it been? The United States have lost by a combined score of 10-2 in their last four trips to the coastal country. They’ve scored one goal from the run of play (Earnie Stewart in 2000). And the last time they played a qualifier down there- albeit at the Saprissa- Bob Bradley’s side was embarrassed, needing a Landon Donovan garbage time PK to make things appear somewhat respectable.
What’s more- Costa Rica is angry. The Soccer federation abandoned traditional protocol of having the US team shuttled through a private terminal at the San Jose airport earlier this week, instead allowing the Americans to maneuver through the angry throngs in the public concourses. Outside, eggs were thrown at the team bus. Upon arriving at the hotel, several hundred Ticos supporters sang and chanted at the Americans into the night. The reception in Costa Rica has been chillier than the weather, to say the least. All of this, of course, relates to the “Snow Classico”, a game the Costa Rican federation and their supporters felt should have been halted due to inclement weather, but was not. You know the rest. Jurgen Klinsmann feels the blame is unwarranted, saying it was CONCACAF’s call. “That was not our fault,” Klinsmann told the New York Times. “I didn’t call God to give us some snow.” His protests fell on chanting ears in need of a villain.
Tim Howard enjoyed the reception, calling it “fun,” and noting that “we don’t always have that reception.” At least his attitude is good. The US will need to take it in stride. The Ticos are angry. And they’re defending home turf. All in all, it is an immensely difficult test for the United States, who as mentioned, still have the world-best twelve game winning streak to protect.
Let’s dish out the usuals and kick the ballistics, shall we?
The Series: 32nd meeting. The United States lead 13-12-6. As noted, the Americans have not been particularly competitive, save the 2000 match which they lost narrowly 2-1 despite a massive performance from Claudio Reyna, in World Cup qualifying this century in Costa Rica. In 1985, the US earned a point in a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica. All other trips have resulted in ZERO points. This is, of course, the first meeting at the new national stadium. Perhaps the US luck will change?
Weather: Actually, if it isn’t too wet (30 percent chance of rain), the weather should be pleasant, with temperatures at kick in the low sixties. FABIAN JOHNSON MISERY INDEX: 3– this is Fab weather for Fabian. Sorry.
Jon Levy on what we will see out of the Yanks…
We better see organization and steady play at the back. Not the sexiest analysis, especially after we watched the Yanks erase a two-goal first half deficit with a minor tactical switch and ensuing thrilling offensive performance in their last match. But the US would never have been down two goals to Bosnia in the first place had they had better defensive communication and employed a more safety first approach. These were the same problems we had concerns about going into the summer, and they’re rearing they reared their ugly heads again last month. Thankfully, this time I’ve got confidence in a quick fix. The Bosnia match saw new Germerican John Anthony Brooks make his debut on an American backline that was seemingly thrown together with whatever parts were available. Friday night’s match will mark a return to one of the defensive lineups that built chemistry this summer, along with a responsible shielding unit of Michael Bradley and either Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman. If that doesn’t make you feel at ease then you might just be off your medication.
As the great Jeff Carlisle has written this week, Jurgen Klinsmann does have a choice to make at right back. With every passing roster, it appears increasingly likely that Steve Cherundolo may be out of the mix after all. This is surprising, but only because he’s still playing at a high level and he’s been so reliable for so long. Cherundolo is perhaps the most underappreciated player in the history of US Soccer, and as this website has long written, his absence is being felt finally. Geoff Cameron would appear most likely to play right back Friday evening after the injury last week to Brad Evans. Long term, it may still be Evans’ job to win, but the United States will deputize their duct tape guy Friday night and see what he can do on that edge. If Klinsmann thinks outside the box, Ale Bedoya is on the roster and he might work over there– but on the road in a World Cup qualifier
might is not the time to experiment (see Torres and the US formation, 2009 qualifier, Saprissa).
The defense will have to deal with the best front line in CONCACAF in Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio. This places additional pressure on the US midfield (including Landon Donovan from the whistle?) to provide defensive cover and get the ball upfield to Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. It’s a tough job- but it is one the US has shown signs of being able to do the last few months (see Germany friendly, Bosnia and Herzegovina friendly). That’s remarkable given how difficult it was for the US to do this at the beginning of the Klinsmann era.
No matter how Jurgen decides to deploy his attackers (yeah, we’ve all got Landon Donovan questions), I can tell you with some certainty that we won’t be seeing mercurial Mix Diskerud in the Clint Dempsey “in-the-hole” role in on Friday night. The stark contrast between his amazing performance as a super sub against Panama in the Gold Cup Final, and his out-of-his-depth performance in Bosnia was pretty telling. Diskerud seems most comfortable when he’s got a little more time on the ball, can easily show for it, and has the opportunity to play a creative pass. That makes him a great change-of-pace guy in the Michael Bradley true central midfield role. But it looks like all that also means he’s not up for the constant grinding and fighting at the top of the opposing box all match long. What’s more, Diskerud is an average defender on a good night (Gold Cup Final), and a liability that takes terrible angles on a bad one. Friday night isn’t the night for terrible angles. Not against those forwards.
The key to the game for the Americans will be stand-up defending and organization from the backline against a Costa Rican team that is the best in CONCACAF at testing the offside trap, and the midfield grouping protecting that backline, pressuring the ball and still getting enough link-up play moving forward to create sc0ring chances. If that sounds simplistic, it is. If that sounds difficult to do, it will be. We’ll write more below on why the US midfield must provide cover and why the American center halve pairing of Gonzalez and Besler (Brooks?, nah, right?) can’t get caught out and must remain narrow below. But suffice it to say, the US midfield will need to provide cover, and no more so than the midfielder on Fulham man Bryan Ruiz’s side. Depending on Klinsmann’s deployment, that could be Landon Donovan, playing a tucked-in version of advanced midfield on the left. Landon Donovan used to give you 10,000 m like a Sunday stroll. If he isn’t that active Friday night, the Americans could be in trouble. If it is Fabian Johnson, the question becomes how many chances can he take getting forward, and how useful will he be in attack given his defensive obligations. Heady stuff, to be sure.
As far as scoring goals is concerned, this match looks so much different than the “Snow Classico” not simply because of the weather, but because the Americans have been scoring so much of late with either one forward or two forward deployments. If the link-up play is there, Jozy Altidore is the best player man-for-man against the Ticos back four. How much help Klinsmann gives him is the fundamental question– there is a good argument for two forwards against Mexico next week at home, but will the US lose link-up play given how much defensive cover they need if they try that in San Jose. We think so, and are looking at Clint Dempsey to provide the extra spark needed up top. The good news is Dempsey loves this type of game- gritty, dirty, poach against the run of play. Time for the captain to get back on the scoresheet.
Neil W. Blackmon on What to watch for from Costa Rica:
Forget the Snow Clasico and the USMNT’s nightmare visit to the Saprissa in 2009, this match is set to look a lot more like this summer’s Gold Cup match to finish group play. That match was decided by a late winner from Brek Shea, the only goal of the match. I guess that was a preview of what was coming in the tournament’s final against Panama. But that Costa Rica match was instructional, in that the Ticos seemed to do more with their possession than the US did for stretches of the match. That generally hasn’t been the case lately against inferior opposition, or really anyone else for that matter. Costa Rica seemingly found a way to neutralize, then create, rather quickly. Granted, those attacks tended to fizzle out as they got near the well-protected American eighteen yard box, and the weaknesses seemed to have been addressed by the time we got ten minutes into the second half. But it was no gimmick that had the Ticos finding space and opportunity, it was Jorge Luis Pinto’s side playing patiently and skillfully, and letting the chances come to them. I have no doubt the skill will be on display in front of their home crowd on Friday night, but will the patience that gave Costa Rica a great chance to win be on display?
As noted above, the Ticos are (by some stretch, I’d argue) the best team in CONCACAF at diagnosing and attacking the offside trap. They do this in a couple of ways. First, their midfield switches the ball quickly out of a double-pivot formation, and they are very good at identifying fullbacks who have space on the wings further up the pitch. Defenses then have to choose: come out to close the width, leaving space for the forwards to maneuver at the gaps, or mark-up, and prepare for service. Because the Ticos are a good team on set pieces and in the air, this isn’t an easy choice. It is made more difficult because defenses lose shape when they are sucked out wide. Brian Oviedo plays frighteningly high up the field, and is often who the double-pivot pairing of Ariel Rodriguez and Celso Borges look for first. In the Gold Cup, the Ticos lacked a little bit of extra quality necessary to get the final ball through the middle, and became predictable, settling for wide service and aerially efforts. That won’t be the case with the full unit present on Friday night. Borges is wildly underrated– a tenacious tackler, a good passer, faster than you think and good in the air. Some think he is out of position with the national team- he isn’t– more on that in a moment.
The second way that the Ticos can attack the shape and organization of your offside trap is through the forward grouping of Bryan Ruiz, Alvaro Saborio and Joel Campbell. Watching film of Bryan Ruiz was a large part of the preparation for this piece, and it was extremely instructive. The danger in the Ticos attack starts and ends with Ruiz, a player who can beat you in a variety of ways and is extraordinarily difficult to defend.
Ruiz usually is deployed on the right for club and country, and he’s smart enough to beat you with incuts off his left boot and fast enough to blow by you on the dribble off his right boot. At Twente, he would often do the latter, getting out nearly to the sideline before receiving the ball, waiting for an incutter, and then blowing by his defender on the ball. There’s a reason he led the Dutch League in penalties drawn before moving to England- he’s a rare combination of sneaky fast and strong.
Ruiz is also capable of playing a “trequartista” role where he comes more central and finds the game when it is missing him. This comes in handy for the Ticos on the road obviously where they enjoy less possession but it also serves a purpose at home: it lets Pinto get away with playing Celso Borges, by most accounts an attacking midfielder, further back because Ruiz can come into the center and link-up with a more withdrawn central midfielder, providing a critical link between a midfield tasked with defending first and the forwards. When Ruiz is playing more centrally, the onus will really be on Jermaine Jones and the US left back to make sure they know where he is and provide cover– Ruiz moves the ball quickly from these positions and the US center halves will have their hands full with the forwards in front of them. Those forwards are…
Alvaro Saborio and Joel Campbell. Campbell turned heads at the 2011 Copa America, where he scored a fine goal against Bolivia and was by most accounts in the tournament’s best eleven. He parlayed that into an Arsenal move, and although he is now on loan, he isn’t necessarily out of favor with Arsene Wenger, who prefers to sell out-of-favor players rather than loan them out. Campbell is a slick passer, especially for a wide forward, and has scored in World Cup qualifying in the run of play. His long frame begs the question why he isn’t a bit more dangerous on set pieces, but like Ruiz, he is fast and strong.
Saborio is on a bit of a goal drought, by his standards, having netted only one goal in the Hex. But like Ruiz, there’s no real booking on defending him. He can beat you on the break with better than you think pace. He is devastating on set pieces as anyone who has watched a Real Salt Lake match in the last few years is well-aware. Together, they hammer away at back lines and can test the American offside trap in a variety of ways– all ways that Ruiz, playing at least in practice slightly behind them, is adept at exploiting. And even when they don’t get past a trap, both Saborio and Campbell are capable of knock-down, target play that allows Ruiz to clean up behind them with smart, incutting runs. It’s a handful. Randall Brenes adds depth as sort of a poor-man’s Eddie Johnson, who can play either “swing forward” in place of Ruiz or tip-of-the-spear, but if he’s on the pitch against the Yanks, it is likely the top options are injured. Brenes has only scored in qualifying against lowly Guyana, and against more elite teams, he’s not anything to worry too much about.
If there is good news, it’s that the way the Ticos like to aggressively push forward on the flanks often leaves a center back pairing that isn’t particularly steady to begin with in tough spots. Michael Umana and Giancarlo Gonzalez have both lost marks and borne responsibility for Hex goals, particularly in 2-2 draw with Panama, where both were left to defend on islands after fullbacks were caught entirely too far forward, resulting in multiple chances. (The goals actually came on throw-ins and set pieces, but that’s about finishing more than good Tico organization, in my view). That’s great news for the Americans, who have eaten better back fours alive of late (Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Panama). Levante’s Keylor Navas, in goal, is good enough to clean up some of the issues, but if you can counter, you can score on Costa Rica. (That said, they’ve only conceded five goals this calendar year.)
All in all, this is easily the toughest regional test the United States have had during the winning streak. And that’s with the great deal of respect shown by this website to Panama, both full team and Gold Cup team, considered.
Jon Levy on the Costa Rican Player to Watch: Bryan Ruiz
This is not the first time I’ve made Fulham’s playmaker-in-chief the Costa Rican player to watch, and it probably won’t be the last time. But this time’s different in that recently we’ve been witness the Ruiz’s greatness by his omission. Ruiz was injured and omitted from the Costa Rican Gold Cup squad, so we saw a lot of the above-mentioned stalled attacks this summer. Striker Álvaro Saborío worked his butt off to try and compensate for the Ruiz absence, but that’s just not possible, at least not from the guy in the Saborío’s position. So we saw a lot more of the Real Salt Lake man’s frustrated face than we’ve ever seen before. Well Álvaro will probably be smiling a lot more on Friday night. The dog days are over. Bryan Ruiz is back. And where I’d usually write about all the different ways that Costa Rica’s Swiss Army knife can beat you, I’ll just draw your attention to each Ticos foray into the American attacking zone. Those moments where Tim Howard and the US defenders are called into action in their own box, rather than just positioning themselves properly and watching the defensive midfield do work; our boys can thank Mr. Ruiz for most of those “opportunities.” By the way, Ruiz, who this site ranks as fourth best player in CONCACAF, absolutely clobbers the United States more often than not: see the video below- two minute mark…
Jon Levy on the US Player to Watch: Omar Gonzalez
Like Bryan Ruiz, Omar is another guy whose worth has been exemplified through omission recently. When he was in the “two steps forward, one step back” process of developing great chemistry with Matt Besler on the USMNT this summer, the LA Galaxy were struggling to stop anyone from scoring. Those massive defensive frailties have of course been corrected since Omar returned to the club, and that’s a big part of the reason he’s LA’s newest Designated Player. But with Matt Besler getting a few starts in the Gold Cup and Omar having to settle with coming off the bench and dominating Panama on fifty-fifty balls for a few minutes in the final, it seems Omar’s hold on his starting spot might not be as strong as his partner’s. And that’s fair, Gonzo’s made more mistakes in the shirt that Besler. But you can also argue that Omar’s made more plays than the Sporting KC defender, more key tackles and interventions. Yes, I know mistake are worse at that position, and to argue otherwise would be to let a quarterback that throws an interception off the hook because he completed a few passes before turning the ball over. But Omar has made a lot of progress since May, and I’m eager to see how he performs with a John Anthony Brooks and (still) Geoff Cameron waiting in the wings.
Prediction: Costa Rica 1-2 USA
The winning streak lives on. A penalty to Costa Rica, but the US survives with another goal from a newly healthy Jozy and Landon Donovan strike for the winner. The US have one point in Costa Rica and that was in 1985. But we had less in Jamaica a few months ago…
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded the Yanks Are Coming. You can follow them on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon and @nwb_usmnt. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com – and as always, comments are encouraged.