Questions loom as USMNT tries to end skid in Costa Rica
The U.S. men’s national team faces a pressure-packed World Cup qualifier on Tuesday night in Costa Rica, a country where it has never won in this competition.
The last positive result for the U.S. against the Ticos? A draw in 1985. The eight straight losses since will certainly give Costa Rica a mental edge, though it has lost some of its home field advantage by moving out of Saprissa Stadium and into the new national team home in San Jose.
Here are three questions the U.S. faces tonight in Costa Rica.
How will Guzan perform?
There really were two major losses on Friday night in Columbus. The U.S. saw the death of Dos A Cero when it fell, 2-1, to rival Mexico in what had been a stronghold. It also absorbed the loss of starting goalkeeper Tim Howard, who will be out four months after suffering an adductor injury.
Howard had just reclaimed the No. 1 role with the U.S. team, but now his top competitor, Brad Guzan will step back into the top role. Just one problem: Guzan has not been playing any club soccer with Middlesbrough.
Prior to his substitute appearance against Mexico, Guzan’s last appearance in a competitive match was a Sept. 2 qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Guzan hasn’t played for Middlesbrough since a 0-0 draw with West Brom on Aug. 28.
A goalkeeper’s form can depend significantly on game minutes played, and that should be at least some concern against Costa Rica. Guzan, though, has proven more than capable when called upon in the past, and the U.S. can take comfort knowing that the goalkeeper has plenty of experience with the back line; he served as the starter in this summer’s Copa America Centenario.
The performance in net, though, will be worth monitoring as the U.S. tries to break the 31-year-old losing streak.
What will the midfield look like?
Jurgen Klinsmann’s irrational need to tinker reared its ugly head on Friday night against Mexico, and the biggest victim was the midfield. Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley were put in a bad spot in the first half-hour against Mexico, and only after the U.S. shifted to a 4-4-2 did we begin to see the effectiveness of the duo.
After the game, Jones was asked whether he is healthy enough to put in another 90-minute shift. He paused before saying he would rest and recover and be ready to go against the Ticos, but there is certainly some doubt about whether Jones can manage another full game. It’s an important factor because Jones, even at age 34, remains a critical part of the U.S. midfield when he is healthy. His ability to cover ground, track players defensively and push forward into the attack are all qualities that have not yet been filled by anyone else on the depth chart. Most important, Jones’ mentality and enforcer-like play in the middle of the park makes a difference in these CONCACAF qualifiers.
The U.S. players said after Friday’s loss that they need to beat Costa Rica. That may change how Klinsmann opts to line up against the Ticos, and Jones’ availability and role is central in that debate. Will Sacha Kljestan get the green light to play next to Bradley and be that offensive boost? Will Jones be asked to put in a 60- or 90-minute shift? The direction of the U.S. team’s mentality and formation likely hinges on this decision in central midfield.
What will the Ticos do?
The strength of Costa Rica is often its versatility in the attack. The Ticos have never lacked in goal scorers, from Paulo Wanchope to Hernan Medford to Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, and at home they often play a more aggressive style.
Costa Rica started in a 5-4-1 against Trinidad and Tobago last week, but that morphs quickly into a 3-4-3 with the likes of Ronald Matarrita overlapping as wingback on the outside. MLS fans are familiar with the attacking prowess of Matarrita, who had one goal and five assists this season for NYCFC, and scored against Trinidad and Tobago on Friday night.
Costa Rica would likely be licking its chops at the prospect of facing the 3-5-2 the U.S. played on Friday night. Just as Mexico did in the opening half hour, Costa Rica could push its wingers high up the field and try to pin back the U.S. wingbacks. Ruiz and Cristian Bolaños are talented, experienced players on the outside, while Campbell, Marcos Ureña and Johan Venegas are all threats on this Ticos team as well, with Campbell and Venegas coming off the bench in Trinidad.
If the U.S. starts in a 4-4-2, it will likely be able to exploit the outside channels in transition as Costa Rica pushes its wingbacks forward. That was the case against the Ticos in a 4-0 win during the Copa America this summer, where the U.S. pressed in midfield and hit quickly in transition, and it could again prove to be the strategy on Tuesday night.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.