US Look to Rebound and Make Their Own HIstory Against Costa Rica in San Jose: TYAC Preview

Fabian Johnson and the US look to make history in Costa Rica after being the victims of it in Ohio Friday night.
Fabian Johnson and the US look to make history in Costa Rica after being the victims of it in Ohio Friday night.

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy

             The United States Men’s National Team continues World Cup qualifying Tuesday night with the final “Hex” match of 2016, against Costa Rica at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose (9 PM ET, BEIN SPORT).  The match sets up as a critical one for the United States following Friday night’s 2-1 disappointing upset loss to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.

While it was surprising for the United States to lose its first home qualifying match in fifteen years, and particularly difficult to lose to rival Mexico, the team must quickly regain focus, according to manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

“The message is very simple. We need to go down there and get a result, which we will do,” Klinsmann said. “It’s disappointing, but it’s not a problem. We just have to move forward.”

To get the result Klinsmann is confident in, the US will have to buck history.

The United States have never won a World Cup qualifying match in Costa Rica, holding an 0-8-1 record in nine visits. This will be only the second American team to play at the Estadio Nacional, however, with the other seven games coming at the intimidating and storied venue Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. The Estadio Nacional lacks the character and coziness of Saprissa, but in the world of CONCACAF, that’s a positive thing, as the natural grass surface and modern locker rooms give Estadion Nacional a more modern, comfortable feel for a visiting side. Still, winning in Costa Rica has always proven difficult for the Yanks, and Óscar Ramírez’s Ticos side will feel confident, with both form and history on their side.

Tuesday night’s match could be yet another tipping point in the tenure of manager Jurgen Klinsmann. Under increased scrutiny since at least the end of 2015, Klinsmann had alleviated a great deal of pressure with an impressive semifinal showing at the Copa América this summer. The US won a group at that tournament that featured both Colombia and Costa Rica, drubbing the Ticos 4-0 in the process, and despite a lopsided semifinal defeat to Argentina, the Americans appeared to have momentum heading into the Hex. Two impressive qualifying victories in September only supercharged the sense that Klinsmann had something special building.  

It’s amazing how much can change in one match.

With one tactical blunder, the Americans squandered a summer of goodwill and Klinsmann spent, with interest, much of the capital he built during the summer. Abandoning the 4-4-2 that Trinidad and Tobago manager Stephen Hart said made the Americans “a cut above in CONCACAF”, Klinsmann deployed an entirely new formation for the first thirty minutes in Columbus Friday evening. You know the rest. As Bobby Warshaw wrote at Howler, dos a cero became dos a sorrow and the Americans now head to Costa Rica at risk of leaving 2016 without a single point in the Hex.

The players have said the right things, with captain Michael Bradley noting that Tuesday night’s game is now the focus and Friday night forgotten and Jozy Altidore saying the side is still confident in victory. But history dictates this is a treacherous trip with long odds. And should the US fail, they will enter 2017 with 0 points in the Hex and eight critical games to play catch up.

Since 2002, no team has qualified automatically out of CONCACAF with anything below 15 points. Should the US fail to earn a result Tuesday night, they’ll need fifteen points in 8 games. Not an impossible task, to be sure, but a heady one, particularly with a manager under pressure and a superstar- Clint Dempsey- perhaps finished with the sport.

The US, and their manager, would very much like to avoid that situation. To do so, they’ll need to beat a Ticos side that hasn’t lost since falling 4-0 the US this summer.

The customary TYAC preview then. Usuals and then the particulars.

The Ticos have celebrated many goals when the US visit.
A US visit to San Jose historically has involved Tico celebrations.

Series: 35th meeting. Series tied, 14-14-6. As noted above, the Americans have never won a World Cup qualifier on Costa Rican soil, going 0-8-1. Last cycle, the Americans were undone even before toe met leather- with Michael Bradley suffering an injury in the pregame warmups and the team rudderless without him. Costa Rica dominated the Americans 3-1 in a game that could have easily been worse. The Americans only point in Costa Rica? It came in 1985, when a group of college kids fought to a 1-1 draw in Alajuela.

Weather: Upper 60’s at kick with rain in the forecast. Humid. Muggy. Hamstring-pulling weather, especially after a week of training in the cold, crisp autumn Ohio air. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 8.

Neil W. Blackmon on What to Watch for From Costa Rica:

The Ticos are the favorites tomorrow night, and for good reason.

This website was one of the only to predict Pinto’s side would have a good measure of success at the 2014 World Cup- though we didn’t have them in the quarterfinals. We also were the only American-based preview to suggest Óscar Ramírez’s tactics for the group stage Copa América tilt in Chicago. s

Ramírez’s side dictated the opening 20 minutes against the US with frenetic pressure, proving that you can control a match lining up defensively and then attacking the ball to create transition chances. At their core, Costa Rica are a defensive side that look to absorb pressure with five in the back and pick their spots on the counterattack.

Under the Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto, a fine tactician, the Ticos set up defensively in a 3-4-2-1 n the rare occasions Costa Rica had possession, though it played more like a 5-4-1 with a central defender, Johnny Acosta, and a floating Celso Borges, who stars at Deportivo La Coruña, in Spain, as distribution fulcrums. They’re happy for the opposition to have time on the ball, concede space in midfield, and instead pack their penalty box. It’s a system that allows them to absorb pressure, close down passing lanes, and look for spots to break when they win the ball.

The Ticos will also overload their pressure, looking to hit quick switches through Borges, Joel Campbell dropping deep, or Bryan Ruiz, who may or may not feature Tuesday night after being taken off on a cart in Port-of-Spain Friday night. This ploy has become less predictable as Campbell has become increasingly willing to drop deep and help facilitate attacks, as noted on goal one below, from the fifteen second mark to the thirty second spot.

Costa Rica trust their system and are adept at executing it, especially at home.

In Brazil, this system, a world class goalkeeper in Keylor Navas, as well as an exceptional ability to defend set pieces and dominate aerials, helped the side reach the World Cup quarterfinals, where they were sent home after penalties in a static, goalless defend and counter affair with Holland.

After a contract dispute sent Pinto packing, the side briefly turned the reins over to Tico legend Paolo Wanchope, but he experimented too often tactically and was too combustible off the pitch. His replacement, Ramírez, shifted back to the defense-first mentality of Pinto and, with an improved Joel Campbell and a talented young fullback in NYC FC’s Rónald Matarrita , has the side on a roll, winners of five straight, including a thrilling and deserved victory over Colombia at the Copa America last summer.

Celso Borges, a hero of the 2014 World Cup, still stirs the drink for Costa Rica.
Celso Borges, a hero of the 2014 World Cup, still stirs the drink for Costa Rica.

Everything starts with Celso Borges, a player who was Best 11 worthy at the World Cup in Brazil. A versatile double-pivot with box-to-box 8, Borges is a marvelous passer and dribbler who learned how to play deeper because Pinto needed someone skilled on the ball to facilitate his fast breaks, and either Yeltsin Tejeda, a classic ball-winner who plays for FC Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland, or Ronald Azofeifa, a veteran of World Cups that enables Borges to roam more. Tejada or Azofeifa sit deeper, the go-between and clean up act for when the wing-backs, the pacy Cristian Gamboa, now with Celtic, and Matarrita get forward. I remain surprised that Ramírez starts both these players- neither are good defenders and Matarrita in particular plays with a frenetic attacking energy that borders on the reckless. Bryan Oviedo of Everton would make more sense- he’s quality on the ball and responsible, but his upside doesn’t match Matarrita’s. Nonetheless, both Matarrita and Gamboa are quick and capable of whipping in a cross, and both also enable the Ticos to press a bit when they want, a tactic they use to win the ball higher up the pitch and launch counterattacks with pace.

Gamboa is suspended for Tuesday night’s fixture, however, which opens the door for the more defensively responsible Oviedo. With Christian Pulisic or Fabian Johnson likely on that flank, this may be a blessing in disguise for the Ticos Tuesday evening.

If Ruiz plays, the attacking piece of the side is the best in CONCACAF, with Campbell and Ruiz both regulars at Sporting in Portugal and Marco Ureña, who plays at Brondby, now the forward occupying the role long held by DC United’s Alvaro Saborio. Campbell is a slick passer, as Marco Ureña would attest.

Ruiz, should he play, will look to continue his run of success against the Yanks. Ruiz usually is deployed on the right for Sporting, but has been a false nine and a trequartista for country, depending on the manager. 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. 

When Ruiz is playing more centrally, the onus will really be on Jermaine Jones or Sacha Kljestan and the US left back to make sure they know where he is and provide cover– Ruiz moves the ball quickly from these positions, usually looking to switch the field and create 1 v 1’s, and the US center halves will have their hands full with the forwards in front of them.

Christian Bolaños of the Vancouver Whitecaps isn’t as talented as Ruiz, but is arguably better for the counterattacking system. Capable of using either foot, he’s more likely to cut inside and shoot with his right, Bolaños is a genuinely good ball carrier and therefore capable of turning defense into attack quickly. Johan Venegas and Rodney Wallace add attacking depth.

In defense, the Ticos will be without the anchor, Francisco Calvo, who plays at the center of the back five. Still, The three CBs tonight should be Johnny Acosta, Michael Umaña , who was terrific in Brazil, and Vancouver stalwart Kendall Waston. Two of those three are World Cup quarterfinalist guys, and though long in years, they should feel comfortable at home against the USA.

Finally, the man in goal will be Real Madrid Champions League winner Keylor Navas. In the US rout of the Ticos this summer, the Ticos keeper was Patrick Pemberton, who plays for Alajuelense, in the Costa Rican Primera Division and is nicknamed La Eterna Estatua, which isn’t really what you want if you play goalkeeper.

There is a substantial gap in class between being goalkeeper for the best club in the world and being goalkeeper for a Costa Rican playoff team. The Ticos missed their leader at the Copa, and it would surprise no one if he was the difference between a Tico win or loss Tuesday night.

The Americans have an elite talent in Pulisic. Can he give them a lift in a place that has brought horrors?
The Americans have an elite talent in Pulisic. Can he give them a lift in a place that has brought horrors?

Jon Levy on What to expect from the US:

For the first time in Jurgen Klinsmann’s managerial reign I’m very apprehensive about writing this section.

For as seemingly unpredictable as Herr Manager’s been during his time in charge, his tendencies and rationale have generally made themselves apparent in his squad selection and player deployment. So even if a tactic didn’t seem to make sense, we could all sit back and go, “That’s so Klinsmann,” then list the reasons why. But, after Friday’s surprise debuting of a three-CB’s-and-wingbacks backline, the prospect of writing a section entitled “What to expect from the US” is a newly daunting task. But Washington had to cross the Delaware, so, y’know, I can do this. And I’m not alone in not understanding—no less than the American captain left Columbus with questions, as Grant Wahl reported for SI here.

First off, I don’t think Jurgen sticks with his five defender approach (you can decide on your own if that’s what you want to call it). Nor do I think he sticks with Timmy Chandler, who frankly shouldn’t have been on the field against Mexico in the first place. Not when DeAndre Yedlin was healthy and available.

So then, what does Jurgen do?

In my preview of the Mexico match I highlighted the complicated/impossible(?) task of maintaining the defensive organization that led to Copa América success, whilst building on the offensive momentum sparked by Pulisic and Kljestan in the USMNT’s recent matches. I thought Klinsmann might try to have it both ways in that match. Instead he took a little of column A, a little of column B, and mixed in a new formation and perennial national team disappointment Timmy Chandler for good measure.

This was not a winning formula.

Thankfully for Klinsmann and the Yanks, the either/or question might not apply to this match.

We look at the Copa América 4-4-2 as being offensively limited as compared to the 4-4-2 we’ve seen in recent matches. But that Copa América deployment battered Costa Rica four-nil. Granted, that match felt like a must-win coming off a deflating loss to a good team in the opener. Sounds familiar, right? Now this match is not on American soil like that one was this summer, but Costa Rica was closer to full strength then than they are now. They’re currently dealing with injuries and suspensions, and the US should be able to take advantage of that without taking too many attacking risks with the starting lineup. I think that means a straight up 4-4-2 with Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin as your fullbacks. Brooks is joined by either Besler of Omar as Geoff Cameron’s stand-in at center back. Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley find their happiness together in the midfield, flanked by Pulisic and Bedoya. Put Wood and Altidore together up top again and be done with it. Essentially, as it was in the Copa, with a few subs made for the injured parties. You don’t run roughshod over a World Cup quarterfinalist, then completely abandon that formula for domination in your next big match against ‘em.

Oct 2, 2015; Carson, CA, USA; Mexico player Erick Aguirre and Costa Rica forward Ronald Matarrita get tangled up as they chase down the ball during the 2nd half at StubHub Center. Mexico went on to a 4-0 win. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Ronald Matarrita chases the ball against Mexico.   Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Neil W. Blackmon on the Costa Rica Player to Watch: Rónald Matarrita, New York City FC

A strong debut campaign in the Bronx has helped Matarrita earn seven consecutive starts in qualifying for the Ticos, and the pacy, strong 22 year old has the look of the latest in a long line of Ticos that give America fits. Signed at the start of 2016 by New York City, the Costa Rican suddenly found himself sharing a dressing room with David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard and playing under club coach Patrick Vieira. He’s used that environment to grow as a player. 

“They’re big stars and they’ve achieved amazing things throughout their brilliant careers,” said the young full-back, who has represented Costa Rica since the U17 level. “I’m very lucky to be with them on a daily basis and to be able to get to know them. It helps me to improve on the pitch.”

Matarrita has pleased his manager with swashbuckling runs forward, where he uses his physical strength and talent on the ball to present all manner of complications to defenders. But he still struggles with understanding when to be cautious, and it is here the Americans should see opportunity Tuesday night.

A tracker like Bedoya would make sense on this side, but the Americans may also see benefit in deploying Pulisic on this wing, where Matarrita’s tendency to abandon defensive responsibility could create good chances for the Dortmund youngster.

Regardless, on a night where the Ticos will be without Celtic star Gamboa, the onus will be on the NYCFC youngster to be on his game, making him a solid player to watch choice.

The US will need a brilliant General to win Tuesday night.
The US will need a brilliant General to win Tuesday night.

Jon Levy on the American Player to Watch: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)

In case you missed the memo, the USMNT’s most consistent central midfielder has become a polarizing figure amongst US Soccer beat writers, pundits, and fans. And as you can probably tell from that last sentence, I’m a fan of the deserved team captain. But in spite of that term “fan,” I’m not fanatical in my devotion to all things MB90. Nor am I above discussing the topic that now must be discussed.

So let’s kick the ballistics for a minute on Michael Bradley.

First off, we’ve got to leave the 2010 World Cup behind.

Gone are the days of the kid that had many fans yelling “hothead” and “nepotism,” evoking unexpected praise from the likes of Arsene Wenger. Yes, Michael elevated both his name, and his game, in that World Cup. But the goal posts have been rightfully moved. He’s not a young kid looking to prove he can keep possession in the midfield anymore; he’s a cultured central midfielder who’s been one of the best players on his national team for years, and that is the standard to which we should hold him. Seen through that lens, MB90 has certainly let the US down in big spots over the course of the last couple years. Mexico (Hex), Argentina (Copa), Mexico CONCACAF Cup), and the list goes on, all the way back to the 2014 World Cup. Yes, he was playing out of position as an attacking midfielder/three positions at once in my latter two examples, but sometimes your star player has to embrace a challenge like that and figure it out. (I’ll argue that he did “figure it out” in the Portugal match in 2014, but the anti-Bradley crowd will counter with the giveaway that led to, well, the counter).

Thankfully, what Michael lacks as a dedicated visionary playmaker, he’s generally made up for with a fighting spirit that won’t let a bad period of play go unanswered.

We saw him respond against Mexico on Friday night, playing much better in the second half than he did in the first (he missed four passes after losing the 50/50), and this is in line with the trend. He was the catalyst to the US taking control of the Copa América opener in between Colombian goals in the first half, and he almost inspired the Yanks to come back from two goals down against Jamaica in the second half of 2015’s Gold Cup semifinal.

Sadly, the common thread in all three of these examples isn’t just Bradley’s positive response to a poor start. We lost all three matches. And there’s a lesson here.

Bradley’s got the skill and mentality to take control of a match and move his team in the right direction, but the USMNT is not good enough to consistently overcome a poor start from a guy who’s supposed to be its most influential player. That’s our reality, and that’s why Bradley must be on his game for 90 plus if this team has a hope of getting three points in Costa Rica. Thankfully, Bradley also has a habit of playing exceptionally in important matches that fair-weather/“big match” US Soccer fan might miss. The midweek, 9PM Eastern kickoff in Costa Rica might just qualify.

So how does he go about playing his best match against the Ticos?

Well, Jurgen Klinsmann included Bradley in a trio of players he said didn’t win enough one on one battles against Mexico. Whereas, Bradley pointed the finger at the manager (without ever actually doing so), saying El Tri came into last Friday night with a good plan, good spacing, and decisive ball movement.

I love this.

Not because I want to expose some crack in the team; this team’s been through way worse than this in the Klinsmann regime alone. No, I love this because many in the anti-Bradley front want to embrace Klinsmann’s criticism of a player they’ll likely tell you we’ve been sold along with the emperor’s new clothes. But they’d be hard pressed to align themselves with a manager who was so clearly outcoached on Friday night, and whose criticisms brought the word “scapegoat” to mind on more than one occasion after the match.

The reality is that the American captain will almost certainly start on Tuesday night in San Jose, and we need to see the Generalissimo that earned respect across Serie A. Whether he’s deployed as a CM or DMF, and paired with either Jermaine Jones or Sacha Kljestan, we need Michael Bradley to lead the team and control the game.

This is possible, but it’s by no means a certainty. Right before this summer’s Copa América I wrote about how the tournament could prove to be a tipping point for the rest of Bradley’s club career. And while it’s probably a bridge too far to say this match is a potential tipping point for the remainder of his national team tenure, it’s time for even his supporters to acknowledge that Michael is not untouchable on this team. But even the Bradley haters should be rooting for him on Tuesday night, because this team doesn’t make history in Costa Rica without him.

Prediction: Costa Rica 1 – 3 USA

The Yanks get their groove back in what seems the least likely of locales. Pulisic and Jozy both get on the score sheet in this one. Plus, it would be vintage Klinsmann at this point to win this match, while being outplayed for an hour. And there was much rejoicing…

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy are co-founders of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon.