Analysis / USMNT

What went wrong for USMNT Friday night

Photo by Earl Gardner

Defensive discipline

Injuries meant that this was never going to be a best-choice back line for the United States. DeAndre Yedlin was ruled out early as he’s just getting back to training with his Newcastle teammates, but the more significant loss was John Brooks, whose torn thigh tendon will keep him off the field for at least three months. Bruce Arena was in the unenviable position of having to build a back line using “depth” players in one of the US’s shallowest talent pools, which is how you wind up with situations like this:

A lot of the blame has come down on Fulham’s Tim Ream for that goal (left center back in this clip). His position on the field at the time Bryan Ruiz got the ball was very wide, leaving an all too simple pass to Marco Ureña. But that position isn’t without justification, as he was leaving Tim Howard the option to play out of the back rather than booting the long ball that just gets cut off at the beginning of this clip. If Ream made a mistake, it wasn’t in positioning but rather in failing to react once it became clear that Costa Rica had won the ball. He started drifting inwards as soon as it looked like Costa Rica was going to gain possession, but he didn’t really move to cover Ureña until the San Jose striker already had the ball at his feet and was off running. Ream did a creditable job of reeling Ureña back in, but it was too little too late.

That isn’t to say John Brooks would have been better to prevent that goal. If you look, Michael Bradley took even longer to process the Costa Rica’s change in pace. He’s approximately the same distance from Ureña but more realistically could have cut off Ruiz’ pass had he been more aware of the Costa Rican’s positioning. But he didn’t, and Bradley is unquestionably the best American right now at that deep midfield position. If lapses like that are going to happen with a top player, then it isn’t shocking that it went in on the US’s less than ideal defensive lineup.

Offensive chaos

In complete contrast with the other end of the field, the US offense was arranged as well as anyone could realistically hope for in this cycle. Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, and Christian Pulisic are all Bundesliga starters. Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe are quality MLS players with every right to be on the field for the US. And yet it took just two saves from Keylor Navas to keep them from scoring a single goal. Play felt disorganized and honestly Klinsmann-esque in that the players didn’t seem to be on the same page and there was no discernible plan to break down the Costa Rican defense.

The difference is that while Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT head coach was defined by his insistence to put players out of their natural position, often ignoring evidence that it wasn’t working, on Friday everyone was where they were supposed to be, playing the positions they play for their club regularly if not always. Still, there seemed to be a disconnect, with several attacks being broken up not by a particularly adept Costa Rican defense, but by wayward passes that killed momentum. Overall passing accuracy was at 81%, and 65% in the final third. Those numbers beat Costa Rica, who logged 70% and 50% respectively. But while the Ticos managed to have a short enough memory to forget their own rough passing, the US did not. Part of this might be due to the rough treatment Christian Pulisic received. His creativity and technique would have been a crucial addition to the US attack, but he received the hack-a-Shaq treatment that’s all too common in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. There isn’t a place to justify the kind of play style that relies on repeatedly fouling opposition talent, but it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. For the US to have the best chance it can in the future, it’s very important that the 18-year-old from Hershey learn how to avoid getting taken advantage of like that, or at least prevent it from completely shutting down his game like it did on Friday.

Respect for the opposition

As easy as it would be to look at this game as a bad one for the US, we have to also consider that it was a very good one for Costa Rica. As a whole, CONCACAF is improving. We saw it three years ago in Brazil, we saw it in the 2015 Gold Cup, and we saw it in this summer’s Gold Cup as well. The few World Cup cycles where USA and Mexico could count on easy qualification are gone, with ascendant teams like Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama making it a closer race than ever before. While that’s nothing to celebrate, it’s nothing to panic about either. Three of the six teams in the Hex still advance, and the fourth place can still win-in through an Inter-Conference Playoff against the fifth-place Asian Football Conference team (which looks like it will be Australia). That’s not ideal, but it’s still very good odds that the US will make it to the World Cup. In doing so by playing against better teams, there is every reason to expect the US will be made to be a better team as well.

Looking to Tuesday and beyond

More than anything else, this loss makes Tuesday’s game in Honduras especially important. As it stands both nations are tied at eight points, with the US getting the third automatic qualification spot by virtue of goal differential (+1 vs -7). The US bested Honduras 6-0 when they met earlier in the cycle, but the trip to San Pedro Sula is never an easy one, and the US will need to play significantly better in order to secure all three essential points. How will Bruce Arena and the players adapt to what they learned on Friday night? Is a change of lineup, or formation, needed in order to change the result?

3 Comments

  1. Unlucky.

  2. Tim Ream looked as bad as Zusi looked good in the full highlights. Unfortunate result considering the chances. Incredible save in the 69th.

  3. Horrible back four and no one with an edge to their game out there…….what did you think Costa Rica was going to do?

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