Neil W. Blackmon
The US Men’s National Team will play the first of two vital World Cup qualifying matches in a five day span Friday night when they take on Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ (6:30 PM, ESPN). The game will mark the second between the two CONCACAF sides this summer, with the Americans claiming a 2-0 win over the Ticos in Arlington, Texas on July 22 to advance to the Gold Cup final. The US followed that victory with a 2-1 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup final, capturing their first CONCACAF Championship in 4 years and continuing the process of vanquishing the sour taste in their mouths from last November’s World Cup qualifying flops, which forced Jurgen Klinsmann out as manager and ushered in Bruce Arena’s second tenure as US manager.
Of course, the teams that met in the Gold Cup semifinals are quite different, on both sides, than the teams that have gathered for Friday night’s tilt just outside of New York City.
Costa Rica, a World Cup quarterfinalist in 2014 and currently sitting in second place in the HEX, played the Gold Cup without the talismanic Celso Borges, speedy fullbacks Cristian Gamboa and Bryan Oviedo, electric winger Rodney Wallace, ever dangerous Johan Venegas and two-time Champions League Cup winning goalkeeper Keylor Navas. To suggest they’ll look a bit different than the deep-defending side the US dispatched of is putting it mildly.
US fans are right to quickly counter that the Yanks will be a different team too. The Gold Cup side lacked defensive anchor Geoff Cameron, playmaking winger Fabian Johnson, forward Bobby Wood, the ageless DaMarcus Beasley and one of the world’s best young players, Christian Pulisic. Put gently, both teams look different at full-strength.
In many ways, this game is the ultimate litmus test for the positive changes the US have made since turning the reins over to Bruce Arena for the second time. The Americans are undefeated in Arena’s fourteen matches back in charge, a number that includes, in addition to the Gold Cup title, a 2-0-2 qualifying record. And while the US were tactically sound in a thrilling 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca in June, they are likely salivating over the chance to put together a complete performance over another quality opponent, and one that embarrassed them 4-0 in San Jose, Costa Rica only ten months ago.
US captain Michael Bradley emphasized Thursday that everything the US have done under Arena has built up to these final four qualifiers and this moment.
“We’ve gotten this far, and turned it around in the right ways. We’ve got to make sure we finish the job.” Bradley told the media. “All the work we put in this year was for these four games. We’ve got to make sure we find the right ways to play in the biggest moments when the lights are the brightest to make sure we get the job done. We’ll need every single guy. We understand the challenge of playing at home against a great team versus going on the road in CONCACAF and I think we have a group of guys who are excited, who realize the path of the last year has made us stronger and better, and now it’s on us to finish the job and allow ourselves the chance to qualify to play in a World Cup next summer.”
Tim Howard agreed, and said the US are all too aware of what happened last November.
“It isn’t just losing to Costa Rica,” Howard said Thursday. “We have two games this month and two next month and we have to flip the script. We have to win at home, but we have to prove we can win on the road too. When you lose 4-0 and get zero points like we did last November, you have a very small margin for mistakes. We know that.”
The US veterans are right, of course. The US are confident, and should be. They’ve put in the work to right the qualifying ship and saw the fruits of commitment to a new regime this summer in winning the Gold Cup. But whatever good momentum and feelings the US have earned this summer, whether in the Gold Cup championship run or the four points in two game World Cup qualifying stretch that preceded it in June, is immaterial without vital results in these qualifiers. The US can still lose more than momentum. They can lose the right to play in a World Cup.
In many ways it’s fitting then that Costa Rica is the opponent that kicks this crucial four game sequence off. There’s the obvious argument that for all the good the US have done in the last year, they haven’t truly turned the corner until they vanquish Costa Rica, the provider of last autumn’s misery, on this stage.
But there’s more than that. The Ticos and the United States have played a number of memorable affairs in the last decade, from Jon Bornstein’s heroics in the aftermath of Charlie Davies car crash in 2009 to Bryan Ruiz’s magic in San Jose in 2013 to Clint Dempsey’s Copa America performance to last November’s fiasco to this summer’s Gold Cup. In the process, international football has gained another fascinating rivalry. Another chapter is written Friday night.
The TYAC Preview then. Usuals. Then the particulars.
Series: 37th Meeting. Series is tied, 15-15-6. The rubber match within the rubber match, if you will. Seven of the fifteen American wins have come in the Gold Cup. Costa Rica have been impregnable against the Yanks in San Jose, whether at Saprissa or the lovely Estadio Nacional. But they haven’t exactly rolled over in the United States, earning the aforementioned heartbreaking draw in DC in 2009 and winning- at Red Bull Arena no less- a friendly against the Yanks in October of 2015. Perhaps more instructive? Costa Rica are 6-4-2 against the United States when Bryan Ruiz is a part of the Ticos team. One of the more underrated figures in CONCACAF history, Ruiz will likely be heavily involved in proceedings Friday night.
Weather: Beautiful, autumn in New York (okay, New Jersey) come early. Low 60’s and dipping into the high 50’s by nightfall. As pleasant an evening for soccer as you’ll find in CONCACAF qualifying, probably. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 1.
What to Watch for From Costa Rica:
With their full roster, this will be more the aggressive, hard-pressing side we’ve grown accustomed to seeing out of Costa Rica, whether under Jorge Luis Pinto or Oscar Ramirez. The tiniest nation every to reach a World Cup quarterfinal have a system they play at all levels, involving a classic 5-4-1 formation that shifts depending on whether the Ticos have the ball. In defense, it is functionally a 3-4-2-1, with frenetic pressure applied by the middle six. In attack, it morphs quickly into more of a 5-2-2-1, with width coming from two outstanding wingbacks and two advanced midfielders given license to float behind a solitary tip of the spear forward, usually played by Joel Campbell or Marco Urena (Campbell is out with injury, so it will be the latter Friday night).
In Brazil, this system, relying on a flexible approach as to when to apply pressure, 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.
At the Gold Cup, the Ticos still utilized some pressure, but sat very deep and were often content to absorb pressure, close down the passing lanes by remaining fairly narrow, and wait for spots to pounce on the counterattack. Much of this was personnel-based: without NYCFC’s Rodney Wallace and Cristian Gamboa, an influential wide man for Celtic, the Ticos lacked the quality and pace to be too adventurous on the wings, and so they weren’t. That could change almost instantly Friday night, with Gamboa and Sunderland’s Bryan Oviedo back in the fold offering a bit of dynamism at the wingback spot.
The most notable differences Friday night will likely be that Costa Rica situate their back five higher up the field, even on the road. There are two reasons for this.
First, they’ll want to deny Michael Bradley the chance to play incisive passes towards Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic (and Fabian Johnson, should he feature), in an effort to limit the effect of the two primary American chance creators between the lines. To do this, given how deep Bradley has played of late, the Ticos will need to push higher up the pitch. The US will have chances to exploit this- either by pinging quick passes down the wings- which they did to nearly goal-scoring effect in the opening minutes against the Ticos in Arlington in July- or by launching diagonals and route one balls over the Tico defense, whether towards an onrunning Jozy Altidore or into a channel for one of Nagbe, Pulisic, Johnson, Arriola or Bedoya. Still, I think this approach gives the Ticos the best chance to win the ball in dangerous spots and test an unsettled American backline.
Second, expect the Ticos front three to be very aggressive when the US try to move the ball out of the back. This is both because the US will be deploying a new combination in the back and because Tim Howard, by Bruce Arena’s admission, isn’t as effective as a kicker as he used to be. If the US have goal kicks or utilize backpasses simply to settle possession, expect the Ticos to press the American CB combination, denying the Americans the chance to settle the ball out of the back. Costa Rica is superior to the Yanks in the air—and if they win second balls, the US will find it harder to establish a possession rhythm and stamp their authority on the game.
The US will adjust to this, of course, probably by moving Bradley a bit higher or by pinging balls over the top. When they do, however, expect the Ticos to drop much deeper. Costa Rica are one of CONCACAF’s most successful teams because they so often play soccer matches on their own terms.
Finally, it is impossible to discount the influence of Bryan Ruiz and Keylor Navas. While the latter is certainly on the “Fabian Johnson only call me in big games” plan, it’s hard to think he wouldn’t have stopped both American goals in the Gold Cup. At a minimum, he handles Clint Dempsey’s well-executed and clever near post free kick goal, either by setting a better wall, or simply stopping the shot (probably both). As we wrote in this space before that game, the drop-off from Navas to the Eternal Statue Patrick Pemberton is the largest in international soccer. Navas’s “WAR” (win above replacement) status is the stuff of a fable or Greek classic.
As for Ruiz, he’s 6-4-2 against the United States, and while he’s only scored twice against the Americans, he’s been influential in almost every game. With his usual wingbacks returning to the fold (Ramirez favors Oviedo over the injured Ronald Matarrita), Ruiz is even more dangerous, able to drift into wide areas and combine with more freedom thanks to hard-charging overlapping runs from the wingbacks. Ruiz is steady on a free kick, a marvelous between-the-lines passer, and has a wonderful understanding with Gamboa (ask any Italian fan). Ruiz will also switch with Christian Bolanos, the Minnesota United midfielder who is devastating on the incut, which makes it harder to key on him with a man-marker or consistently track where he is.
Put all this together: press, pick spots, attack with speed, stay sound on set pieces, great goalkeeping- is a guide to winning as an underdog. The Ticos do plenty of that. Having won on this very field this cycle, they won’t be afraid. And with a chance to wrap World Cup qualification up this month, they’ll have plenty of incentive to go after full spoils Friday night.
What to Watch for From the United States:
What a difference nine months makes.
Under Bruce Arena, the US enter Friday night’s game a confident side, led by an in form and rejuvenated Michael Bradley and the astounding talent of Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. The US are, as Michael Bradley alluded to this week, in a much better place, “confident in their set up and in doing things the right ways.” But joy is fleeting in the small and cruel sample sizes of international soccer, and despite all the hard work, the Americans have little margin for error.
Prior to the June qualifiers, we wrote that US tactical decisions moving forward domino from one central question: where to deploy young Christian Pulisic. In a way, this remains correct. If you utilize Pulisic centrally, you almost guarantee a diamond or a single forward set-up with Pulisic underneath. If you slot him into a more-wide area, you’re probably utilizing Darlington Nagbe centrally, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is an area where he’s demonstrably a bit less effective.
Soccer happens and injuries happen, however, so the American deployment now centers on three secondary questions.
First, do you start Clint Dempsey or use him as a substitute?
This leads to a corollary question: if you start Dempsey, aren’t you then required to start a hold-up forward to open space for Dempsey and Pulisic? In some ways, Pulisic is an ideal intellectual heir to Dempsey: both are genius-level creators between the lines, even if they attack gaps and bust seams in different ways. Both require a guy who can draw away defenders and keep the ball with a man on the shoulder to be at their best. As often as Bobby Wood finds good positions, he still isn’t an elite finisher, and until he is, the Americans should opt for Altidore’s target play—which was nothing short of inspired at the Gold Cup- to free space for the playmakers.
The thinking here is that the US are better off with two forwards even if Dempsey plays off the bench, which seems to be how he is most effective. Further, Arena has two games to think about: if he needs a creative spark in Honduras, Dempsey would be useful—but how much he has in the tank if he starts Friday evening is a fair question.
Second, what combination for the US in the back?
Would the Americans consider a three man backline with two wingbacks again?
The thought here is no, but there’s a clear difference between the CB options in either a three man back or a four man that needs to be discussed. If you go three, you need to play Cameron, Besler and Ream, valuing the latter’s range and ability to hold the offside trap against Urena. If you go two, there’s a sound argument for either Ream or Besler with Cameron, but if the Americans play Besler, they have the option of deploying Ream at fullback, which could be of effect Friday evening.
The man left out? Omar Gonzalez, of course, who is coming off an injury and has been anywhere from below-average to woeful historically against the Ticos frenetic pressure. Gonzalez had a nightmarish game against Costa Rica last November, failing to hold the offside trap repeatedly against a hard-charging Urena and Joel Campbell. He was better, but by no means persuasive, in the Gold Cup semifinals. The reality is that as good as Gonzalez is as an emergency defender or in the air, you want to privilege positional defenders against the Ticos, and that’s not his strength.
There’s a myth floating around that the US have depth at fullback in a world where Timmy Chandler isn’t on this roster. Don’t believe that myth. While the ageless DaMarcus Beasley is a pleasant enough security blanket, he’s still a spot-start in a hostile road environment solution at best. Jorge Villafana, an average defender and a liability one on one, has played one match since the Gold Cup for his club, and it is fair to question his form. It is hard to be comfortable with either option at left back. Tim Ream out wide would actually make some sense.
As for right back, Arena is old Mother Hubbard and only Graham Zusi’s defensive positioning issues and Eric Lichaj’s inconsistency as a passer are in the cupboard. If the US play Dempsey, there’s a strong argument for starting Bedoya, who will provide cover and have a better understanding of when to get back than a younger player like Paul Arriola. My choice would be Lichaj: for all his problems passing the ball in the Gold Cup, he still managed to score and provide an overlapping presence, and his defense- as a fullback at least- is leagues better than Zusi’s. Given those choices, you go with the proven commodity at the position, even if Zusi is more seasoned international soccer player.
Two curious fullback options are Cristian Roldan and Alejandro Bedoya. Roldan has played the spot for Seattle and is a capable defender and good runner. His future as an international might be brighter at this spot than as an undersized, offensively limited deep lying mid. Bedoya is a tremendous tracker and solid defender and can put in a good cross. If he didn’t have value to Arena in the midfield, this was the position-switch I would have preferred to see Arena make rather than Zusi. It’s a big risk to try either of these things out in a World Cup qualifier, however, so don’t “expect” this type of move to occur.
One final aside: Fabian Johnson isn’t a fullback. He didn’t fly across the ocean coming off an injury, while having not played fullback in over two seasons for his club just to start at fullback for the national team. He also was a top ten chance creator in the Bundesliga two years ago and a top fifteen winger chance creator last season. You don’t play that in the back, unless you think getting fired is cool.
Finally, can the US get the ball to Nagbe and whoever the other wide player is in good positions?
It’s difficult to know how much Fabian Johnson has to offer from a fitness standpoint, which suggests either Bedoya or Arriola starts on the other side of a tucked-in Darlington Nagbe. This leaves the US with a lineup that looks like the inset.
Whoever the US play out wide will have two tasks.
First, they’ll want to drift infield to provide support to Bradley and Pulisic, hoping to play incisive between the line passes and assist with possession against the Tico pressure.
Second, while Bradley will need some help against the Ticos pressure from a release valve standpoint, you can’t trust an American fullback alone to do some of that work. Plus, with one of the fullbacks likely to be Zusi or Lichaj, the US will need an east-west coverage mid. Perhaps that player is Bedoya. Perhaps it is Fabian Johnson, stripped of some attacking responsibility. Maybe it’s Nagbe. But if that’s the case, the other wide player needs to be more north-south, a hard-charging Paul Arriola given instructions not to allow himself to be pushed back possibly, or Nagbe, more likely. This would give the US a bit of a symmetry issue, but allow for some balance and protect a new backline combination.
Costa Rica Player to Watch: Celso Borges, Deportivo La Coruna
I didn’t mention Borges above simply so I could isolate him in this space.
Borges’s absence was sorely felt at the Gold Cup, as the Ticos looked anywhere from pedestrian to impotent in attack and lacked fluidity in their combinations and ball movement centrally.
Borges is a vintage number eight, a genuinely good footballer and one of the more underappreciated players in CONCACAF. He was marvelous at the World Cup despite being asked to play a deeper role than the advanced midfield role he was playing for his club at the time, and he’s been steady since. He can spray the ball to all areas of the field, puts in his fair share of tackles, has good range and gets into goalscoring positions on secondary runs. With a classic ball-winner behind him (traditionally Yeltsin Tejada but sometimes David Guzman), Borges is very good at being the distributional fulcrum. He’s less good at being the playmaker- a task far better suited for Bryan Ruiz and even Christian Bolanos, who isn’t as good as Ruiz but is terrific in transition, on the incut and dangerous on either foot.
Borges dominated the Yanks last November, only months removed from being very poor against the United States in a 4-0 loss at the Copa America Centenario. Which version of the La Liga midfielder shows up will help dictate how successful the Ticos are Friday night.
US Player to Watch: Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers
The temptation here was to go Bradley, who has only lost two games for club or country in 2017, or Pulisic, for obvious reasons.
Choosing Nagbe, however, is a more longview take that peers into what the US will need to be successful and make a deep run in Russia next summer, should they qualify.
Nagbe, is, as Landon Donovan noted recently, “maybe the most important” of the American players at present because of what he offers in two areas: possession in traffic and secondary chance creation. Christian Pulisic will need help, as defenses key on him and chop and scrap and foul him to oblivion.
“Who is the guy that plays the devastating ball anyway, when Pulisic has two or three men in his lap,” is how Steve Cherundolo described it. “That’s where Nagbe comes into play.”
He can do this:
Costa Rica are precisely the type of team where a player that can carry the ball out of traffic or move it with tempo and precision can be devastating. We’ve seen what Nagbe can do against “B” teams and lower quality CONCACAF sides. Tonight is a big step forward- a better opponent at close to full strength in a tough spot. In truth, given Nagbe’s relegation to the wilderness of Jurgen Klinsmann’s mind last autumn, tonight marks on the second time Nagbe will be tasked with a prominent role in a big spot (the other being Azteca, where he came off the bench to help the US hold the ball a bit better, and graded out fine). Whether the Portland man can deliver will go a long way in informing American fans- and this coaching staff- of what they can hope for from him moving forward.
Prediction: USA 2, Costa Rica 1. The US will concede from the run of play, which has only happened once with Michael Bradley on the field under Arena. But they’ll also diagnose and break the Ticos press early- and late- to secure full spoils.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.