Featured, March 2013, USMNT

USA-Costa Rica Preview: Part II – Three Points, Any Which Way

Oh Captain, My Captain??

Oh Captain, My Captain??

Jon Levy

The United States Men’s National Team faces a number of crises ahead of crucial World Cup Qualifiers against Costa Rica in Denver, and away to Mexico at the Azteca. The team lost its first match in this final hexagonal round of qualifying, and looking back to last month, those were the good times. Since then the USMNT’s been faced with the most poorly timed large spate of injuries in recent memory, and manager Jurgen Klinsmann has compounded his problems by dropping team captain Carlos Bocanegra from the squad. And now comes Brian Straus of The Sporting News with an article voicing all the questions about Klinsmann’s reign that have been rumbling through the US Soccer community, this time voiced through interviews with anonymous USMNT players.

All of this provides one hell of a backdrop for a couple matches that the team absolutely must get points from. As I sat down to write this preview, I kept thinking back to a post-match interview I did with Oguchi Onyewu after the US beat Trinidad and Tobago in the 2010 qualifying cycle. The Americans had won, albeit with a makeshift defensive lineup and after dealing with loads of pressure throughout the match, forcing Tim Howard to be active early and often. I asked Gooch what if he felt any uneasiness moving forward given the performance. Gooch’s answer? “I feel like we got three points, any which way. I feel good. I feel great.”

The Americans will take three points, any which way, Friday night in Denver. Let’s run down the usual specifics.

The Venue: Dick’s Sporting Good’s Park, Denver, Colorado 

Weather: COLD. Thirty-five degrees, snow in the forecast as the evening rolls on.

Time and Television: 10 PM, ESPN. Yes, you’ll have to turn off March Madness. Not that this will be a problem for any of you.

The Series: Costa Rica lead, 12-11-6. The Americans are 11-3-4, however, on home soil against Costa Rica. The last time the United States lost to Costa Rica on American soil was 1995, when the Ticos clipped the Yanks 2-1 in Tampa. That match was a friendly. In World Cup qualifying, the Yanks are 4-1-2 against the Ticos on home soil.

Jermaine Jones and MB 90 must keep things in front of them with such a young back four.

Jermaine Jones and MB 90 must keep things in front of them with such a young back four.

What will we see out of The Yanks?

Jurgen Klinsmann has been far from perfect in his first year as the boss, but he got it right from the start in emphasizing a “ball-possession through width” approach. That’s why his narrow and negative tactics in the Honduras match were such a surprise. What was even worse was how much of that was self-inflicted through roster choices. Thankfully, Jurgen’s midfield selections for this match were spot on. Instead of bringing eight defensive midfielders, Klinsmann selected a balanced group that should be capable of possessing the ball in the center of the pitch, and running the wings.

Some of the width issues in January were magnified by the Americans desire to sweep the fullbacks high up the field and “cover up” a midfield that lacked natural width. This is really problematic on the road because the opponent is likely to be much more aggressive in seeking to dictate the run of play. This is more than really problematic when one of the opposing midfielders runs circles around your “6” most the match, and Jermaine Jones is manning the right flank, aggressively hurling himself forward at every opportunity despite very evident defensive responsibilities. So what to do about that?

I think you can assume, safely, that the US will be aggressive in both posture and in terms of trying to dictate proceedings. It is also likely that MB 90 slots back into his home in the right center of the midfield, as we noted in Part I of our preview here. While Klinsmann has hinted at a return to the “dual-destroyer” deep-lying midfield of the Bob Bradley tenure, that combination sounds more like a Mexico idea than a home in Denver one. Bradley is also more likely to stay at home on the right than Jones is, and that matters against a Costa Rican side that likes to hurl bodies down the right flank. Bradley can play the ball out to wide spaces, where either Herculez Gomez (slotted wide), or perhaps Graham Zusi, can attempt to make life difficult on the Costa Rican defense. But even if the US lack width, they should have more possession at home, and that should at least help the forwards feel a bit less isolated, and make Clint Dempsey a bit less likely to disappear. More on that in a moment.

The really good news? Well, at least in our view, it’s that the at-times-successful defensive midfielder turned horrible-failure-as-Klinsmann’s-Swiss-Army-Knife Danny Williams was left at home. Of course, because it’s been such a cheerful news week for US Soccer- the Williams omission comes with bad news.

Williams came down with an illness, but many of his fellow national teamers including fullbacks Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, and Fabian Johnson are all out with injuries. Please notice that I just named all three USMNT wing defenders that you should have any degree of confidence in. That means you’re likely looking at Justin Morrow of the San Jose Earthquakes starting at left back, and unless Jurgen favors moving Geoff Cameron out of his spot in the middle, we’ve got Tony Beltran of Real Salt Lake starting out on the right wing. So much for the USMNT’s Bundesliga pedigree at fullback. The MLS folks will say this is a big moment for MLS- and I suppose that’s true– but the bigger story for the game stateside is that this is a huge night for the Federation- and no one can be sure if we want Beltran and Morrow on that wall. But we don’t have Colonel Jessup or anyone else to put on that wall.

Herculez Gomez offers sneaky width- and he's earned this moment with his play of late.

Herculez Gomez offers sneaky width- and he’s earned this moment with his play of late.

The onus will be on the US midfield to out-possess Costa Rica by a wide margin to protect a second/third string back four. If Michael Bradley and a bunch of players he’s used to playing with (hopefully at familiar positions) can get this done, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore should get enough service as a byproduct to score a couple against Los Ticos.

We talked at length about how to get Altidore service, and how to get Dempsey involved and free to “poach” in part one– but it bears repeating: the US really need Herculez Gomez on the field in this match. Gomez (even more than Sacha Kljestan- although he will also be useful Friday night) offers a work rate the USMNT can trust in terms of defensive shielding and cover and might be able to do just enough to push the sometimes too-aggressive Costa Rica defense out wide with him. If he can do that, it allows Dempsey more space to make runs off the ball, and it gives Altidore the breathing room he needs to do what he’s being doing in Holland on the reg. Gomez, like Brad Guzan, has earned this moment, but unlike Guzan, there isn’t an injury guaranteeing the gaffer hands him the keys.

Alvaro Saborio leads a well-oiled Costa Rican group of forwards that can score from anywhere, any way.

Alvaro Saborio leads a well-oiled Costa Rican group of forwards that can score from anywhere, any way.

What to watch for from Costa Rica:

Anyone who remembers the qualification wars with Costa Rica last campaign, including a complete dismantling by the Ticos away at the Saprissa, knows this team isn’t coming to the States looking for a scoreless draw like El Salvador or Gautemala has done in the past. They also probably feel like they have a score to settle, as Honduran hero Jon Bornstein’s header in Washington DC sent them into a playoff with Uruguay for the final World Cup spot in 2010, and they failed to qualify. It was a historic playoff, really– Costa Rica fell behind Honduras in the process and Uruguay began a run that is still going today, with Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan and company currently ruling CONMEBOL as the South American champions.

Some central figures from the 2010 qualifying campaign that started so remarkably are gone, but this team has real attacking talent in the form of Álvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz, and if they can create chances they will score on this suspect US backline. That’s why beating Costa Rica’s likely three man midfield will be of paramount importance in this match. And that should be a doable task against Costa Rica’s 4-3-3/4-5-1 where fullbacks bomb forward and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz plays the role of the attacking wild card.

Defensively, Costa Rica’s hybrid formation makes it hard to dictate who will start, but Everton’s Brian Oviedo will likely be involved in proceedings and the one word to remember is pressure. Costa Rica plays its fullbacks extremely high up the pitch, regardless of venue,  and they play aggressively, attempting to generate quick turnovers to set up fast-break counterattacks. They have the distributors to get the ball to the brilliant Ruiz and Saborio, too, as Joel Campbell of Real Betis is a heady player and fine passer and speedy wing man Cristian Bolanos is a fine crosser of the ball who plays with great awareness– think Brek Shea if he came up for air more. All in all, Costa Rica will thrust bodies forward in an effort to dictate, and the US, as noted, must win the run-of-play possession battle to make the game more methodical.

Costa Rican Player to Watch: Bryan Ruiz

Think Clint Dempsey, or, more appropriately, think Gio dos Santos with Mexico, when it comes to this player’s role within the Costa Rican attack. Ruiz may start out right center, or he may start out wide up top, but he’ll constantly swing into the area just above the eighteen yard box.

Ruiz can beat you in a lot of different ways, so the onus will be on Geoff Cameron and the defense to close out quickly.

Ruiz can beat you in a lot of different ways, so the onus will be on Geoff Cameron and the defense to close out quickly.

Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborio will likely stay more advanced than Ruiz, and as MLS fans know, he’s similarly multi-talented when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. But Ruiz will provide the fulcrum for the Costa Rican offense with his dynamism, and it’ll be incumbent on the inexperienced US defenders not to give the Premier League star too much respect. He can launch a 30 yarder into the top corner just as easily as he can play the perfect through ball or go on a mazy run into the box. Pretty scary. And his left foot is deadly, so the US defenders will need to close out quickly or Guzan will be called into action early and often from distance. Starting to see why it’s so important to beat these guys in the midfield and keep the ball out from under the feet of Ruiz and his RSL buddy?

US Player to Watch: Geoff Cameron

Coming off of an error in communication with Tim Howard that led to the loss in Honduras, Geoff Cameron is faced with a unique opportunity and a daunting task all at once. He’ll get a start in Denver, and whether he’s playing right back or center half he’ll be tasked with leading this untested group of defenders. If this group performs well, Cameron will get much of the credit for holding the US defense together with duct tape and determination. Conversely, if they perform as badly as many fear, Geoff runs the risk of becoming a poster boy for a new error-prone class of American defenders.

Prediction: USA 1-0 Costa Rica

I put my faith in Michael Bradley to spearhead the possession dominance necessary to create this scoreline. Hopefully Jozy Altidore can do the unthinkable and score for country. Three points. Any which way.

Jon Levy is Co-Editor and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon