Ahead of its all-important match with Costa Rica, the United States men’s national team is prepared for the challenge and knows what’s at stake
CHICAGO — Jurgen Klinsmann has had a couple days to watch tape of Friday’s Copa América Centenario loss to Colombia, contemplate the performance, read the reviews and consider the implications. And he hasn’t changed his mind. Despite the 2–0 setback, the U.S. national team manager said Monday at Soldier Field that he was pleased with a lot of what he saw in California.
“We believe that we had a good start besides the result,” he said. “Obviously if you break down everything by result, then it’s a negative start. But the performance was a good performance. We went through that game again, we talked the team through that game as well and there was a lot of good stuff coming out of that game which makes us very positive going into the next game.”
That next game is a big one. On Tuesday, the U.S. (0-1-0) will meet CONCACAF rival Costa Rica (0-0-1) in its second match of the group stage and must win or tie to ensure it stays alive in what Klinsmann called “this very prestigious Copa América.” A loss would doom the Americans on home soil after only two matches.
That harrowing possibility, especially following a year in which the U.S. finished an embarrassing fourth at the Gold Cup, would be tough to digest for fans of a program that’s invested so much in its ambitious and expensive coach.
Klinsmann took over in 2011 and promised to target the global footballing elite. Falling short Tuesday would represent a significant step back.
“I think we all do understand what’s at stake,” he said. “It’s a must-win situation when you lose your first one. There’s only two games left, so you’ve got to get the first three points and then see how things play out in the third game. But tomorrow night, we’re full of energy, full of optimism to get three points. As I said, we have respect for this Costa Rica team, but we’ve got to get it done tomorrow night.”
It didn’t appear on Monday that getting it done would require starting from scratch. The loss put the U.S. in a Group A hole, but there wasn’t much indication that it’s prompted a tactical rethink. Klinsmann and his players have said they're happy with their ball possession against Colombia and with the overall defensive performance, save the isolated errors that lead to Los Cafeteros’ two goals. Their mission Tuesday will be to build on those elements, improve the end product and emerge with a win.
“I think it was pretty positive that we could keep up with a team like Colombia. That’s the positive we took,” Bobby Wood told SI.com.
The negative was that Wood and his fellow forwards, Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes, didn’t get the service or make the runs required to turn American possession into goals. Colombia was well organized and comfortable sitting back, pressing when the U.S. was vulnerable and counterattacking through the likes of Juan Cuadrado or James Rodríguez. Costa Rica will present similar obstacles. Los Ticos typically defend with nine behind the ball as two wing backs retreat alongside three center backs when possession is lost. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas (injured) and Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston (suspended) will be missing, but Costa Rica’s defensive chops remain solid. It yielded only two goals in five World Cup games two years ago and was beaten only twice in four 2018 qualifiers. In five USA-Costa Rica matches since Klinsmann took over, the Americans have scored three goals.
Although it wasn’t effective against Colombia, there’s a good chance the front three of Dempsey, Wood and Zardes will start again at Soldier Field. Though some have made the argument that Dempsey isn’t a prototypical center forward and that Wood and Zardes are less effective attacking from wider positions, neither Klinsmann, Wood nor captain Michael Bradley agreed.
“There’s no excuses. You’ve got to find a way, no matter where we play,” said Wood, who scored 17 times for Union Berlin last season. “I think just looking what runs could’ve happened during the game — we had some good runs but we just couldn’t find that last pass.”
Klinsmann said, “They all try very, very hard, all in a little bit of a different role. I think they’re just building chemistry right now. They’re building a feeling for each other. When they run off each other, when they maybe play a one-two, when one guy goes, the other guy does an opposite move, this develops over time a little bit. We’re satisfied with all three of them, playing their different roles.”
Shouldn’t that chemistry have been built before the tournament? Has Klinsmann’s search for depth and his dependence on intra-squad competition robbed his team of a chance to gel?
He said Monday that a tournament like the Copa forces a manager to “zoom in and try to make sure that the 11 that get on the field for the best team possible,” and that he has a “pretty clear picture” of who belongs where. Bradley, meanwhile, argued that worrying about tactical minutiae could lead to missing the bigger picture.
“More than talking about little things, details like that, my point is that again, you guys at times want to find a few things, talk about them, dissect them, and I would actually go the other way and basically say that to win a big game we need more guys to play better and we need to play better as a team — very simple,” the captain said when asked about the offensive approach.
“The other night we made a hard game against a good team that much harder by going down early and having to play from behind, obviously that played into the way they wanted to go about it,” Bradley continued. “We need to be better. We need to be sharper. We need in certain moments to create a few more chances, defend a few more plays in front of our goal better. It’s the entire package of just understanding that to win big games, you need a lot of guys to play well. It’s a basic way to put it, but its the reality.”
Moving Fabian Johnson up to midfield (and slotting Edgar Castillo in behind) or introducing the likes of Darlington Nagbe or Christian Pulisic earlier also are among Klinsmann’s options. But those are particulars. As Bradley said, the U.S. has some experience with do-or-die games. Just three months ago, it faced early elimination from the 2018 World Cup when it hosted Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio.
The Americans won easily, 4–0, and put their qualifying campaign back on track. They’re accustomed to pressure and they know what’s on the line in Chicago. They don’t need the press or fans to remind them, and on Monday, they sounded like they knew what they had to do.
“I don’t spend two seconds worrying about what the reaction is or what the narrative on the outside is,” Bradley said. “Ultimately we’ve got much much bigger things to worry about then what goes on on the outside. Since I’ve been in this team, one of its strengths has always been to respond on big days and to be able to close the door, know who we are, know what needs to be better, understand what was still good and get ready for whatever comes next. That’s what need to do tomorrow night.”