San Jose was the scene of an injury that removed Sebastian Lletget from the World Cup qualifying picture, but he returned there with a goal and an assist to spark the USA in its win over Costa Rica.
The U.S. men's national team endured a tale of two halves against Costa Rica Saturday, ultimately winning 2-0 after a pair of goals in the final 10 minutes from Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola.
A sluggish and disjointed first 45 minutes gave way to a more dominant second set, with the U.S. knocking on the door repeatedly before getting its deserved win. Nick Lima and Cristian Roldan each hit the post before Lletget came off the bench for his 80th-minute goal, which wound up being the game-winner. He then played provider in setting up Arriola eight minutes later, as the U.S. made it two wins in two matches against Concacaf foes to close its annual winter camp.
Last Sunday's win over Panama was a more complete performance, but Saturday's opponent, while not a full-strength team, was still markedly improved. New manager Gregg Berhalter will take plenty of building blocks from the two wins as he looks forward to next month's friendlies vs. Ecuador and Chile–his first opportunity to have the full player pool at his disposal.
But before then, let's look back at Saturday's win over Costa Rica with three thoughts from the game:
A storybook return for Lletget
The last time Sebastian Lletget played in Avaya Stadium in a national team kit, it was as bittersweet of a night as possible. A Bay Area native, Lletget got the start in what was Bruce Arena's first World Cup qualifier after taking over for Jurgen Klinsmann. Playing near where he grew up, he was a force out of the gate against Honduras, scoring in the fifth minute. He was subjected to a harsh tackle less than 10 minutes after, though, with Ever Alvarado's physical play resulting in a Lisfranc injury that ended his season with the LA Galaxy and removed him from the USA's qualifying picture entirely.
Almost two years later, Lletget returned to the scene of the injury and was arguably the brightest star on the day. He came off the bench in the 63rd minute to replace Djordje Mihailovic, who was one of the top performers against Panama, and his influence was clear from the start. Lletget is a bold player, one who relishes in taking on opponents and creating from the midfield.
His goal was a just reward for his play, and it capped an aggressive sequence. Wil Trapp lofted a long diagonal into space for substitute Jonathan Lewis. The NYCFC winger picked out Lletget by the far post, and he headed down to beat Esteban Alvarado–from almost the identical spot where he'd scored vs. Honduras.
Lletget, in postmatch comments to FOX, said that he and Lewis had been working on that cross-to-the-back-post finish all camp, and that it came off in a game situation made it extra special. He helped polish off the win in the 88th minute by springing Arriola down the center, where he got in behind the defender and chipped Alvarado to make it 2-0.
Factor in that it all happened in the setting of one of his biggest disappointments, and it all added up to a storybook ending to Lletget's camp.
"Esepcially after what happened in this stadium two years ago ... It put me away for a year, and now we're here, and I'm scoring in the same place, it's truly an amazing feeling," Lletget said.
Clear improvement from first half to second
Lletget provided a spark, but the U.S. was buzzing before he even came on, as soon as the first ball was kicked after the halftime break.
The mark of a good manager isn't always one who gets it right from the start, it's one who can motivate his players to adjust and find another gear over the course of the game. In that light, Berhalter should be pleased with what he saw over the second 45 minutes. The USA's ability to play out of pressure and its willingness to take the game to Costa Rica consistently was a stark contrast to the first half, in which its overall possession and passing accuracy was considerably worse than it had been against Panama. Granted, the opponents were of a different caliber, and it took the U.S. a full half to find its sweet spot.
Trapp, who started in place of Michael Bradley, enjoyed the biggest turnaround of them all. He was a more accurate passer in the second half, and beyond that that, he looked to aggressively push things forward, consistently seeking Arriola across the field, as he galloped into space. One of the USA's close calls prior to the opener came off a long Trapp diagonal to Arriola, whose cross was back-heeled by Gyasi Zardes and looped into the path of Roldan, who should have scored with his open look.
The second half also featured more aggressive forward play from Lima, the San Jose Earthquakes star who was playing at his home stadium. He hit the post on another chance as the USA was building steam, and his transition into the attack from his right back position–a staple against Panama–was clearly made easier by the U.S. maintaining more of the possession and enforcing its tactical will on the match.
Another individual who improved after halftime was Mihailovic. He was one of the true bright spots against Panama–and camp as a whole, as Berhalter has pointed out several times–but he struggled mightily in the first 45 against Costa Rica. During the first half, he completed just seven of his 20 passes, and on a couple of occasions he appeared to pounce onto the ball for passes not meant for him. The awareness and execution just weren't there like they were the other night. In the second half, though, he connected on all eight of his passes and helped direct traffic forward before bowing out for Lletget. He got a few words of encouragement from Berhalter on the touchline as he came off, and the 20-year-old has plenty to be proud of but plenty to work on as well as he returns to the Chicago Fire for preseason preparations.
Lewis, Ramirez help their causes
Bench sparks weren't limited to Lletget. Lewis, for a second straight game, added energy and an assist from the left wing to the equation. Christian Ramirez, meanwhile, had a pivotal role in the insurance goal, flicking on Zack Steffen's long boot into Lletget's path 10 minutes after coming on. That's a goal and a secondary assist for Ramirez in limited minutes, all while Zardes struggled to lead the line and carve out the chances desired of a starting forward. That's not to say that Zardes couldn't be a similar difference-maker off the bench–what's asked of a starter and of a bench player coming in against a tired defense is entirely different.
That said, with the European-based players being worked into the picture for next month's friendlies against Ecuador and Chile, Lewis and Ramirez likely did what was necessary to remain in the fold as impactful substitutes.