2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017, USMNT

USA and Costa Rica Meet in Texas-Sized Semi: The TYAC Preview

Graham’s beard once visited the Virgin Islands and now they’re just The Islands.

Jon Levy & Neil W. Blackmon

ARLINGTON, TX

We’ve set the stage for one of global football’s more undervalued rivalries here, noting it’s more than appropriate the game finally gets the stage to itself. And what a grand stage it is – Jerry’s World – a national audience waiting on FS1.

The TYAC preview then. Usuals and then particulars.

Series: 36th Meeting. Costa Rica lead, 15-14-6. Neil’s piece earlier Saturday noted some of the more riveting games in the rivalry. Despite holding the overall lead in the series, Costa Rica have a dire 0-6-1 record against the USA in Gold Cup action, which goes a long way in explaining why Costa Rica have never won the tournament. Still, the US have been anything but “safe” against the Ticos on US soil over the last ten years, drawing Costa Rica in 2009 at RFK and actually losing a home game to the Ticos in October 2015.

Weather: Outside, it will be north Texas in July, which is largely one of the more insufferable stretches of land and sky north of the equator. Fortunately, the evening’s festivities will play out indoors, with the air conditioner set around 73 degrees.

The US defense have had some shaky moments in the Gold Cup. They’ll need to be better tonight.

What to Expect from the United States:

Bruce Arena will make some changes, but at bottom the US will stick with some variation of the 4-4-2 they utilized in the 2-0 victory over El Salvador in the quarterfinals.

Tim Howard again gets the call in goal, but who sits in front of him will be a significant piece of debate.

Expect changes at fullback, where Jorge Villafaña should replace Justin Morrow, who wasn’t “bad” by any stretch against El Salvador, but wasn’t “good” either. Villafaña’s performances, to be frank, have been similar at this Gold Cup, with the Timbers LB showing continued vulnerability in 1 v. 1 situations on the flank. That’s perhaps troubling, given Costa Rica have been lining Bryan Ruiz up on the right flank, relying on the Sporting Portugal man who has troubled so many American defenders to create from a bit wider a position than he’s accustomed to for country. But Ruiz’s natural instinct is to cut more central, into the channels, and in this respect, Villafaña is capable. If he ushers Ruiz towards help defense, he’ll be more than fine, and the US need what he offers getting forward enough to put him back on the pitch.

Joining Villafaña in the back, we think, will be Graham Zusi (more below) and some combination of Omar Gonzalez and either Matt Besler or Matt Miazga. It won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not certain Matt Hedges deserves the avalanche of criticism that came his way following the El Salvador game. He showed on several Zelaya and Andres Flores forays into the channels the depths of his defensive range, and did a far better job staying goalside in 1 on 1 situations. He was hurt, again, by Omar Gonzalez’s poor positional sense and the early disjoint between Michael Bradley and the rest of the US midfield, who, unlike their captain, struggled with spacing and angles over the opening half hour.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, was again poor despite scoring a goal, which raises significant questions about the American defensive depth moving forward. Gonzalez has three things going for him that will probably keep him on the US roster next summer and a starter on this team. For one, he’s a force on set pieces. Secondly, Arena trusts him, and when you call in a pragmatic fireman to put out a fire, he’s going to do it at least to some extent with what he knows. Finally, he’s a virtuoso at emergency defense. The problem, of course, is the rest of defending, and against El Salvador, it wasn’t just his positioning that was suspect. It was his communication, his tendency to drop too deep, and the unthinkable decision to let not one but two crosses drop to the ground instead of clearing with his feet or head. He must do better, but we’d be stunned if he were benched.

I again think Matt Miazga should start next to him, if only to see what happens when you hold the talented youngster’s feet to the fire. I don’t think he should have signed with Chelsea, and wrote as much last year when it happened. It’s a graveyard for young players, and a treacherous road out. But his loan at Vitesse showed his prodigious talent, and another solid loan spell should keep him in the mix next summer.

The midfield should also see a bit of a shakeup.

Bradley will remain deep, and his presence aided the US from a rhythm standpoint against El Salvador to some extent, but was obviously most recognizable on set pieces, where the US were leagues better than in the group stages because the service was strong. Kellyn Acosta is the likely pairing, playing higher than Michael but not quite high enough to be a diamond. We like what we saw from Paul Arriola against El Salvador, especially his willingness to receive the ball and engage 1 v 1 and in traffic. He’s earned another go on the right, and could be even more dangerous with Darlington Nagbe back in a more comfortable spot as the wide midfielder on the left. With Villafaña behind the US will have natural width on the overlap on the left and a more “safety valve” type situation on the right, with Arriola pushing high and Zusi sitting in. This is smart against the talented Tico left flank of David Ramirez – who isn’t long for the Costa Rican domestic league – and Minnesota United’s Francisco Calvo (more below).

This gives the US a lineup like the inset – but a word on the forwards.

Up top, the US will likely change things a bit, and even if it is simply about fitness or sparing Clint Dempsey’s legs for the final, that’s a net positive. As Matthew Tomaszewicz explained this morning:

He’s right – and it was especially true as Dempsey tired, which took only a half or so. For all the goals Jozy Altidore has scored internationally, finding the game when things get hard has never been a strength, and as Dempsey ages, it is a weakness that limits the long-term effectiveness of the Dempsey-Altidore partnership.

Because Dempsey is likely to get rest, the likely replacement is Jordan Morris. It isn’t remotely like for like, and Morris doesn’t often make the hard, space creating off ball runs that Dempsey’s always made. But he’s shown he can move brilliantly in the box, and if Altidore makes the hard runs, Morris can find space to attack, both in the channels and in the area. This could be a good game where he finds a goal far post with Altidore eating space near post. And with Bobby Wood in Germany, that’s the best option the Yanks have.

What to Watch for From Costa Rica:

Is it finally the Ticos time?

The Gold Cup has been dominated by the US and Mexico, who have won 12 of the 13 competitions, with Canada’s victory in 2000 the lone exception.

That could change this year.

This is certainly a good enough Costa Rica team to win the Gold Cup with what is on their roster, but it will still be difficult for Óscar Ramírez’s side given what’s missing.

The injury to Arsenal’s Joel Campbell was disheartening, not just now, but moving forward towards Russia next summer. And while the decision to send Bryan Oviedo back to Sunderland so he can earn a spot on a new side wasn’t surprising, I was surprised to see the Ticos send Cristian Gamboa back to Celtic, despite the Scottish champions having Champions League qualifiers this week. Gamboa is a mainstay for Brendan Rodgers’s team at Celtic Park, but didn’t feature for the Hoops this week, and certainly could have been useful tonight against a United States side with questions at fullback. But the Ticos pummeled the US without Gamboa in November, so they can make due with what they have, most likely.

The largest absence, of course, is Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who is spelled by “La Eterna Estatua” Patrick Pemberton. It is not good when you play goalkeeper and your nickname translates to “The Eternal Statue.” Goalkeepers matter for small nations – ask the Ticos about Brazil in 2014; ask Trinidad and Tobago about Shaka Hislop in the 2006 cycle. As sharp as Costa Rica’s attacking talent is, they don’t win a World Cup group with Uruguay, England and Italy without their goalkeeper and they don’t weather the storm on the road against a desperate US either.

It’s not just shot-stopping either. Navas’s command of the area, his thoughtful distributions, his understanding of when to play quick to give his speedy team a chance in transitions are all extremely valuable. Put simply, there isn’t a larger drop-off in international soccer I can think of than the chasm between Navas and Pemberton.

The other absences are markedly easier for Costa Rica to weather.

Under Jorge Luis Pinto, a fine tactician, the Ticos set up defensively in a 3-4-2-1, looking to absorb pressure and pick spots on the counter. On the rare occasions Costa Rica had possession, the formation shifted to function more as a 5-4-1 with a central defender, Johnny Acosta, and an underrated, floating Celso Borges, 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 the passing lanes, and look for spots to break when they win the ball.

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.

At the Gold Cup, it’s still Acosta central to settle things, but the team has flipped to a more traditional 5-4-1, with a double pivot ahead of Acosta. That duo consists of Yeltsin Tejada, who sits deep and functions as an intermediary between Acosta and the wings, who push high, and David Guzman, one of several MLS players on the team. As noted above, the wings are Ruiz, who is more a wide midfielder that will float and look to tuck central, and David Ramirez, a speedy and talented youngster who plays with Saprissa and stands out on film. The Ticos will miss the creativity of Rodney Wallace, who is one of several wonderful attacking players at NYCFC. Wallace hurt himself after knock out round roster changes were due, leaving his side a bit short on midfield options.

The team almost certainly will start Marco Ureña up top. The Earthquakes man has scored 12 times for country in 42 appearances, including this dandy at the World Cup.

He’s a capable target player, and can handle on-shoulder defenders and carve out space due to his strength. But he’s best as a powerful channel runner on the break- as in the Uruguay goal- and the US will want to make sure they are responsible and spot him on breaks. They can’t shade help- they’ll need to do that to Ruiz—but they absolutely can’t have any of the jailbreak moments they had against El Salvador Wednesday night.

The strength of the team is what’s in front of Pemberton, and they’ve played like they know it in the Gold Cup, conceding only one goal. The CBs are Kendall Waston and Giancarlo González, who plays in Italy. González is highly technical and positionally sound, but not as dominant in the air. Waston is a strong emergency defender and good with his head, but sometimes foul prone. Veteran Michael Umana is in the team, a capable deputy and a player with over 100 caps. Little phases him.

Francisco Calvo of Minnesota United has been slotted wider in this tournament, but has the pace and ability on the ball to play a proper fullback. The fact he’s out there, coupled with the absence of Gamboa and an injury to Ronald Matarrita, have forced the formation change, in truth. The tenacious overlapping flank will be the other side, with Jose Salvatierra spelling for Gamboa, charged with thundering down the right to attract help away from Ruiz.

In the end, this is a quality starting eleven, but unlike traditional Ticos sides, there is little help off the bench. To his credit, Óscar Ramírez has recognized this, adapting and playing a very deep, narrow defense, but maintaining his usual counterattacking principles. It could be enough to win- but the Ticos can’t afford to fall behind.

Welcome to AT&T Stadium aka Jerry’s World.

Costa Rica Player to Watch: Francisco Calvo, Minnesota United

Calvo has scored more goals for the Ticos in 2017 than any other player in the side, including the usual suspects Campbell, Ruiz and Ureña. Most the damage he does? In the air, where the US have looked exceedingly vulnerable in this Gold Cup.

The Minnesota United defender has dazzled for the expansion side this season, becoming the captain after the costlier winter signing, Vadim Demidov, fell out of favor. Calvo is a smart and technical defender, decisive in his distributions and fast enough to recover against high-level forwards. He’s tenacious in the air, which means you need to keep it on the ground and pull the Ticos out of position. This is easier said than done, however, as he’s responsible, and doesn’t foul much, evidenced by his committing the least fouls in the Hex of any defender to start multiple games. On a wing opposite likely American starters Paul Arriola and Graham Zusi, he’ll have an interesting task, choosing when to help centrally and, in my view, earning plenty of chances to pop forward when an adventurous US pair join the American attack.

US Player to Watch: Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City

The great right back experiment, we think.

We’ll find out pretty quick whether he’s actually being considered as an option alongside DeAndre Yedlin for one of the RB spots on the full-strength version of this national team. If he gets the start on Saturday night (and TYAC favorite Eric Lichaj certainly left the door cracked for that possibility), the signal will be that Zusi’s very much in the mix, or at the very least is being given a legitimate audition against good quality opposition in a meaningful match.

Whether he’s given that start or not, it’s constructive to view Zusi’s trial at right back through the lens of two prominent USMNT midfielders who’ve attempted a switch to defense in recent memory. We’ve got a decent sample now, so how does Zusi stack up in comparison to DaMarcus Beasley and Jermaine Jones?

We’ll start with Jermaine because his foray into the world of central defense was comically bad (and mostly not his fault). Klinsmann had a vision of Jermaine Jones playing in the middle of a back three, essentially imitating Beckenbauer. Given Jermaine’s skills, one could see him in the sweeper/libero role, tackling hard then dribbling out or picking his pass up the field. That’s all well and good in a video game… with Geoff Cameron controlling JJ. But in reality, Jermaine’s freelancing nature won out over the rigidity of central defensive responsibilities. He was all over the park, and certainly was not playing center back in any recognizable way, so that experiment ended as quickly as it started. Point Graham Zusi I guess.

DaMarcus Beasley’s transition to left back was probably more the inspiration for Arena giving Zusi this look, but the similarities in rationale stop right after “can provide good service.”

Bob Bradley (once) and then Jurgen (consistently) played Run DMB at left back in meaningful fixtures because his speed makes all the difference. Speed like that allows guys like Beasley and Yedlin to play fullback without effectively without being the best technical defenders. Beasley proved that he could defend well enough on a given day, and that he could track back in full flight to great effect, arriving in time to impede almost every break during his tenure as the starter.

Even in the 2014 World Cup DaMarcus was able to weather a suspect first 20 minutes in the Ghana match before settling down and defending well for the rest of the Yanks’ time in the tournament. His job protecting the far post from a menacing Ayew late kept the US in a game they ultimately won.

Beasley is the bar that Zusi’s looking to jump over, but Graham will have to do so in a completely different way. Zusi’s never been particularly fast for a winger, and he certainly hasn’t picked up any speed since turning 30 last year. Aside from being a sublime passer, the rest of Zusi’s best attributes reside above his shoulders.

There’s the hair, of course, but we won’t dwell on that for a change. Let’s call his hair/beard game “elite” and just move on. 

Graham Zusi’s incredible work-rate, soccer smarts and high level of coachability are what’ve kept him on the pitch for the national team all these years. How do you respond when you haven’t clipped in an assist-worthy ball for the last half or two? Graham puts his head down and works his butt off to realize the manager’s vision for his role on the pitch. He did it with Jurgen. We joke that all Jurgen ever said was “enjoy yourself!” and “play for each other!” and there’s truth in that jest. But he was also bullish on working hard once you lose the ball, and moving the ball quickly once it got to your feet. I don’t think either of those attributes is particularly instinctual to Zusi, but you could really see him working hard to do both those things in every match under Jurgen.

No doubt Bruce Arena’s instructions to Zusi are far more wide-ranging, especially with him taking on a new position, but the right back experiment continues because Graham’s been working his butt off to make that grade. Now comes the best challenge he’ll have had thus far. We’ll find out on Saturday night whether the human spirit and sheer “want to” can contain the second or third best team in CONCACAF. 

Prediction: United States 1, Costa Rica 0. Dempsey, of course, in a scrum, late. US to the final for the first time since 2013.

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

Neil W. Blackmon