HARRISON, N.J. — Soccer games are shaped by momentum and decided in moments and Friday night at Red Bull Arena, neither went the USA’s way.
Coach Bruce Arena summed it up following a historic—and deserved—2-0 loss to Costa Rica that imperiled the Americans’ World Cup qualifying hopes: “We didn’t make any plays that mattered and we probably were outplayed at most positions on the field and made critical errors ... they outplayed us and out-coached us tonight.”
Arena was correct about that. But there were other mistakes made in a game that marked the USA's first home qualifying loss by multiple goals in 60 years. It also was Arena's first defeat in 15 games since taking over for Jurgen Klinsmann last November. Arena was masterful in the ensuing nine months, helping the national team rediscover its confidence, identity and comfort zone. The USA pulled itself out of the qualifying abyss and won the CONCACAF Gold Cup to boot. He’d earned the trust of his players, and the benefit of the doubt from just about everyone else.
That trust and benefit of the doubt certainly shouldn’t be erased after one bad night, but any notion that the manager and his team suddenly were infallible—and destined for a trip to Russia—was swept away by Los Ticos. Indeed, the Americans were outplayed and out-coached, and what unfolded at Red Bull Arena was a case study in how narrow the margins can be in the Hexagonal.
“Qualifying has been in jeopardy since last year for most teams,” Arena said. “Right now, Mexico and Costa Rica are [in good shape to qualify.] … It’s going to be a battle among the remaining four teams.”
It’s been in jeopardy for the Americans since last year because of the home loss to Mexico and then the 4-0 beat-down by Costa Rica. Klinsmann sent the USA out in a 4-4-2 that November night in San José with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the center of the park and Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson on the flanks. Jones freelanced too frequently, left Bradley exposed and Los Ticos burst forth from their trademark 5-4-1 and tore through the American midfield at will.
There were moments when Friday’s match at RBA looked somewhat similar. Bradley once again was the deep-lying midfielder, while Pulisic and Johnson remained on the wings. In Jones’s place was Darlington Nagbe, who plays a more disciplined game than the German-born veteran but lacks his bite and menacing defensive presence. The Costa Rican quartet of David Guzmán, Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Cristian Bolaños—aided at times by the overlapping wingbacks—hounded US players on the ball, forced turnovers and had options on the break.
It was apparent within the first quarter hour that the Americans were having trouble establishing any rhythm. Pulisic, Johnson and the two U.S. forwards, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, weren’t receiving the ball with support in dangerous spots. Goalkeeper Tim Howard said the USA didn’t want to just lump the ball forward because Costa Rica’s back five would simply “head it back down our throats.” But the USA had difficulty building out of the back as well and when the ball turned over, Costa Rica had room to find striker Marco Ureña. What was called for probably was a 4-2-3-1, which would’ve given the American back four and Bradley an extra outlet in the middle (and an extra US player to counter through for Costa Rica.) Perhaps Pulisic and Johnson would've been more advanced or available. But it wasn’t until Clint Dempsey entered the game in the 65th minute that Arena made any changes. By then, Costa Rica was up 1-0, composed and compact.
Arena and his players said the tactics were sound.
“We played the same exact team … in the Gold Cup, and we seemed to have no problem there with the way we played,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “We just weren’t the better team. They were better tonight.”
Said Howard: “I don’t think it was about the tactics. They sat back in a back five and they held one up and hit us on the break and we just weren’t good enough on the ball. Technically we weren’t good enough.”
And Graham Zusi said, “I think their two goals came from exactly how they wanted to play the game—concede possession, let us have the ball and take advantage of a mistake or two. And that’s what they did. ... They performed their game plan better than we did. We’re not going to make any excuses about that. We have to be better about keeping the ball in the build-up.”
In the Gold Cup semifinal Altidore referenced, it was Kellyn Acosta who played in front of Bradley. Compared to Nagbe, the FC Dallas product is a bit more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball. Either way, the untimely turnovers that bedeviled the USA could’ve been the result of simple mistakes, or they could’ve been because Costa Rica was well organized and had numbers where they needed them. Arena himself said Los Ticos typically ensured a second player was watching Pulisic when the ball came the teenager’s way, and that the visitors “came out with a very aggressive posture and pressed us up the field.” Whatever the cause, those issues prevented the Americans from playing the game they wanted to play, which left the match to be decided by bounces, decisions and twists of fate.
“We had some good moments. We had some good advantages,” Bradley said. “We weren’t quite sharp enough to make the final part of the play. … I’m not complaining in any way. These are plays that sometimes they go for you and at times they go against you.”
The USA thought that Ruiz handled the ball before passing it through to Ureña on Costa Rica’s first goal. Altidore appealed for a penalty kick six minutes earlier when he was bumped from behind in the box, but Panamanian referee John Pitti wasn’t interested. Pulisic saw his shot from close range blocked in the 38th, and defender Tim Ream’s header bounced down and over the Costa Rican goal in the 47th. The USA’s best chance came in the 67th when Pulisic took a shot that was deflected on its way in. Then, Ticos goalkeeper Keylor Navas made the incredible save Howard couldn’t muster earlier on, raising his right arm and blocking the ball as he dove to his left.
“I think it’s probably a penalty with Jozy. I think there’s a good chance it’s a handball with Ruiz,” Bradley said. “You play a game against a good team, and especially the way they’re set up, if they get the first goal you know it’s going to take a big effort to get back in the game.”
In the end, Geoff Cameron’s turnover led to Ureña's backbreaker. Maybe it was a simple mistake by the Stoke City veteran. Maybe it was the result of pressure and marking the U.S. couldn’t figure out how to bypass. Either way, it didn’t matter in the end. Neither the big picture nor the small battles were going the hosts’ way.
“We’ll take a day to reflect on this and come up with a plan,” Arena said of the quick turnaround before a game in Honduras that suddenly has a lot more meaning. “We’ll move on. This is how you deal with competition in sports. You don’t win every game and when you get a bad result, you got to put it past you real quick and get ready to play the next game and that’s what we’ll do.”
Now tied for third/fourth with Honduras at eight points, and just a point above fifth-place Panama and elimination, the USA (2-3-2) has no choice. It’s capable of getting a result in San Pedro Sula and more than capable of qualifying for Russia. But it now knows its game and its game plan must be better.
“We’re all professionals. We’re big boys,” Howard said. “We’ll figure it out.”