- Going back to the basics and slotting players in positions where they are more comfortable would go a long way in helping the U.S. win for the first time in Costa Rica.
On Friday night in Columbus, the U.S. national team gave away three World Cup qualifying points it had come to count on. Tuesday in Costa Rica (9 p.m. ET; BeIN Sports, NBC Universo), the Americans can get them back.
It’s a familiar and forbidding statistic: the U.S. has never won in Costa Rica—0-8-2 in the country, 0-8-1 in the capital of San Jose and 0-1-0 at the Estadio Nacional, which replaced the more inhospitable Estadio Saprissa in 2011. In the past, the U.S. might be forgiven for considering this trip a sunk cost. The Hexagonal is a long, 10-game slog, and points have been plentiful elsewhere. But Friday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico has raised the stakes. The U.S. hasn’t lost two straight qualifiers in 15 years and desperately wants to avoid becoming only the fourth team since 1997 to start the Hex with two defeats.
So the Americans must find a way to get a result in San Jose. And if the circumstances and surroundings help convince coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players to simplify their approach and fine-tune their focus, they’ve got a chance.
The U.S. took Columbus, the crowd and whatever curse came with it for granted last week. Starting with three defenders for the first time in nearly two years, asking a ton from the midfield and deploying 18-year-old Christian Pulisic as a central playmaker was pretty cocky. Doing it against Mexico proved to be soccer suicide. Klinsmann permitted his players to revert to the more tried-and-tested 4-4-2 after a half-hour, and they deservedly drew level in the second half. But they seemed to think Columbus would carry them through the final frenzied moments, or they were tired after chasing the game for so long, and they switched off during Mexico’s 89th-minute corner kick. Klinsmann blamed John Brooks for the missed assignment.
“It gets a sense of anger in us. It gets a sense of absolutely urgency, because you don’t want to be behind,” the manager said following the match. “All those qualifying games are nail-biters. All these qualifying games are difficult. That’s what the players are prepared for. I think we if we pick up that second half and play [in Costa Rica] the way we played the second half, I’m not worried.”
The U.S. was in the 4-4-2 during that second half in Columbus, and it was in a 4-4-2 for most of the 4-0 demolition of Costa Rica at this summer’s Copa América Centenario. Klinsmann made the case Friday that the 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3) suits the national team’s personnel. Perhaps, but it’s far from second nature. National teams typically have only a few days to prepare for a game, which doesn’t leave much time for tactical innovation. That happens over the long haul. Against a team with the skill and dynamism of Mexico (which can’t be replicated by a scout team in a couple practices—“OK, Alan Gordon, you’re Carlos Vela…”) or in a place like San Jose, comfort and predictability are paramount. In the 4-4-2, the U.S. seems to have found both. Players have enough on their plate without having to learn new roles, rotations and responsibilities on the fly.
“[Costa Rica] always makes it tough when we play against them,” Jermaine Jones told BeIN Sports on Monday. “We have to be 100% and everybody has to be focused on that, and not look at what formation, who you play next to. We have to go away from here with three points. It doesn’t matter how. We have to go and concentrate.”
Klinsmann pinned the 3-5-2’s (or 3-4-3’s) failure on Jones’ and Michael Bradley’s inability to win one-on-one battles in midfield. But the real problem was that they were tasked too frequently with making impossible decisions. The U.S. was overloaded and pulled apart, the wingers couldn’t cover all that ground and Bradley and Jones had to either shift wide in support or remain central in order to plug gaps in front of the back three. It was a lose-lose proposition.
Once the switch to the 4-4-2 was made, the U.S. was able to cover the flanks properly (which will be key in Costa Rica) and reduce the burden on Jones and Bradley. The defenders returned to their customary roles and Christian Pulisic, who seemed hemmed in playing behind two forwards, suddenly posed more of a threat with room to roam on the left.
“I thought once we rearranged ourselves in the second half and were able to step up a little bit more, I thought it meant we were able to tilt the bar in our favor,” Bradley said.
Klinsmann told reporters in Costa Rica on Monday that he wanted to see Bradley be more of a “difference maker.”
The manager said, “For Michael to play the same role he does in Toronto for us, just being in front of the back line and floating, being a nice passer, which he does undoubtedly well, it’s all nice, no doubt. But he’s not making a difference for us.”
Unless Klinsmann is certain that Jones is ready to retreat and cover, and that’s not what he does best, the manager might want to avoid the temptation to urge Bradley forward on Tuesday. This is a game in which the U.S. must stay simple. Bradley can make a difference by keeping the Americans organized and patient against the host's 5-4-1 and by keeping on eye on midfielder Celso Borges. Jones and Bradley surely will start, and Klinsmann didn’t call up any of his other defensive midfielders. It’s the captain or nobody. And despite all the duress the U.S. was under in Columbus, Bradley missed on only one pass from inside his own half (Jones missed 12). He’s the best option in that role and needs to remain on a bit of a leash, at least until after Tuesday.
Klinsmann does have veterans in Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya who are comfortable on both sides of the ball. It would make sense to see Bedoya start Tuesday on the right, opposite Pulisic. That also would allow Fabian Johnson to return to left back, where he typically plays for the national team. If Jones can’t go another 90 minutes—Friday was his first full game in four months—Kljestan is a solid if not like-for-like replacement.
The attacking partnership between Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood is flourishing and is another argument for the 4-4-2. Altidore has been plugged in lately and is reading the game well—his intelligence and work rate allow him to be an asset even if he’s not scoring. And Wood’s knack for staying high, moving off Altidore and causing problems with his speed creates chances and room for his teammates. Together, they're an outlet for longer passes if Costa Rica presses.
Costa Rica is especially dangerous on the counter and from wide areas. In Joel Campbell, Christian Bolaños and Bryan Ruiz (if healthy—he left Friday’s win at Trinidad & Tobago early), Los Ticos have attackers who can cause problems quickly and who’ve hurt the U.S. in the past. All the more reason, then, for the visitors to stick with what’s familiar from the start. Yielding an early goal is a recipe for disaster. San Jose has proven to be the roughest of environments. There’s no reason for the Americans to make it even tougher.
If they prioritize what they do well and stay balanced, focused and composed through 90 minutes and beyond, perhaps the Costa Rica hex will die like Columbus’s. And then the U.S. can recover what was lost.