It’s about as close to must-have that a non-must-have is.
The US coach, Jurgen Klinsmann believes it is, in fact, a must-have.
And the US goes forward with, at best, a second choice squad this week.
The United States opens the home leg of its CONCACAF final round World Cup qualifying round this Friday at Dick Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado still licking its wounds from February when it stumbled badly in a single game qualifier against Honduras.
The US looked lethargic and unassertive against the Catrachos, sparking more questions about Klinsmann’s ability to steward the States through a qualifying campaign that sees the strongest front-to-back CONCACAF field perhaps ever.
And now the US skipper will have to attempt to answer those questions without even close to his best arsenal.
Tim Howard, Tim Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Edgar Castillo, Danny Williams, Jose Torres all out for this pair of matches.
Veteran Carlos Bocanegra not recalled from Racing Santander (though deemed Monday not out of the national team picture by Klinsmann) where he cannot get on the pitch for the second division Spanish side.
Clint Dempsey has just returned to game action for Tottenham Hotspur and looked rusty against Fulham on Sunday.
Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Maurice Edu all carry yellow cards which will rule them out of the Mexico clash if they pick up one during the Costa Rica game.
That’s more than a stacked deck against Klinsmann; it’s the whole casino.
Yet, the States need this result badly against the Ticos more so than even a draw against El Tri at the Azteca next Tuesday.
In CONCACAF, defending home turf is imperative in order to escape with a World Cup berth. With the US coming of a defeat on the road and staring at a probable loss in their next match, a result–a win that is–moves the US forward with serious but doable work to do coming out of this home-and-away camp. A loss puts the US in a precarious position and squarely an underdog in finding its way to Brazil 2014.
The States will need to manage a talented Costa Rican front three while relying on their midfield to provide defensive cover and generate service up the pitch in parallel, something that midfield group has struggled mightify with over the the past two years.
That said, the complexion of the Costa Rica team and where the US has experience on the field bodes well for a good result for the States in the Rockies.
Without further Freddy Adu, let’s get to our customary preview:
As usual, it goes:
About The Opponent: Costa Rica
TSG, What We’re Looking For
11 At The Whistle
NEW: Fan Feedback
About The Opponent: Costa Rica
Once the continual “bronze medalist” from CONCACAF, the Costa Rican team has stumbled to the middle of the pack ever since Jonathan Bornstein drilled home a US corner kick at the death in the final CONCACAF qualifying game in 2009.
That Borstein header forced the Ticos into an ill-fated home-and-away series with CONMEBOL’s Uruguay for the right to go World Cup 2010. The Ticos met their demise as Uruguay started to steam its way to the label of 2010 World Cup darling.
Though not as sensational as the phrase may sound, you could say the Ticos have never been the same since.
Gone after the 2010 cup run is midfield general Walter Centeno, long the heart and soul of the Costa Rican team and, at 137 games played, the team’s all-time cap leader. Likewise for Rolando Fonsecu, the Ticos all-time leading scorer with 47 deposits in 113 caps; the forward called it quits from international play in 2011.
Like the US, the Ticos have struggled since change occurred at the top after the 2011 Gold Cup. Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto is back for his second try at leading the team. Players have been juggled in and out of the line-up and many have been moved into roles where they don’t see time on their club teams. The line-up deployed deployed Friday will likely contain at least two changes from Costa Rica’s February qualifier.
The lack of homogeneity has–like it has the USMNT–resulted in its attackers often being starved for service and the team forced to have a moment or two of brilliance to pull out a result.
That’s exactly what happened in February when the Ticos needed a header from Alvaro Saborio and moment of wizardy from the soon-to-be-much-discussed Bryan Ruiz to escape Panama with a 2-2 draw.
While it’s simple to see just how Costa Rica can punish the opposition when the ball and team get forward with frequency, a clear cut definition of roles in the Ticos’s 4-3-3 is not wholly possible.
One can almost consider Costa Rica’s attack similar to that of the Premiership’s Manchester City where the width is provided by galavanting fullbacks and the front five are given license to roam and make runs, many focused on checking to or overloading the ball-side.
Given the point of attack, Costa Rica push their fullbacks extremely high up the pitch. They do this especially well on the left where
Christopher Meneses gets and stays forward often, almost functioning as a wingback at times. (Update: According to feedback, Everton man Brian Oviedo is the first choice option at the wingback position).
Ahead of the back four is a double pivot midfield set up in top-heavy triangle who serve as ball carriers, forward pivots and “switch-field” artists to generate the Tico attack.
That pairing could be Ariel Rodríguez and Celso Borges. Rodriguez sits as the link to the front while Borges–who was horrible and thus substituted early for Michael Barrantes against Panama–serves as a deeper fulcrum and will have more defensive duties. Disclaimer again as that the play is very fluid and the midfield pawns frequently interchange.
(Note: Borges is another one of the Costa Rican players moved out of position. He’s excelled for Swedish club AIK more as an attacking mid, so much so that Celtic among others are rumored to be interested in his services. Given Costa Rica is playing away this match and Borges struggled in that role, the Pinto may select more of a ball winner and true deep-lying midfielder in Michael Barrantes for Borges position.)
The real talent for the Ticos, of course, lies in its quadrumvirate up top.
Saborio, Joel Campbell, Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz might very well be the most talented front three in partnership in the region. According to this site, they are.
Bryan Ruiz, the captain who will be discussed in length below, typically starts out right center, allowing him to incut on his deadly left boot. Now, he may start on that right hash, but he is given the green light to freelance wherever he sees opportunity. He’s the #10 and he’s got three weapons ahead of him.
Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal with Real Betis is a #9 who has been forced to move wide and become a facilitator this year at both club and country.
His game has grown appreciably as a result. Campbell enters for Randall Brenes who was first on the wide forward depth chart, but was tabbed an alternate for this series. (At the time of publishing why that was remained a mystery). Here’s a good column on Campbell courtesy of @swannyArsenalFC on Twitter.
On the right flank is Cristian Bolaños, a speedy attacker.
Up top is Alvaro Saborio–who may be the most in-form player currently for both club and country in the region.
Saborio’s tallied seven goals in seven qualifying appearances and three goals in three appearances for Real Salt Lake. Thus he sits close to the top of goal table in both CONCACAF and MLS.
Name your preference and Saborio can threaten and a score that way. For RSL, he torched San Jose’s high backline on the break two weeks ago. Against the Colorado Rapids this past weekend he equalized on an acute angle corner pocket smash in the box. Against Panama in Februrary, he scored on a powerful header off a left flank cross from Christopher Meneses.
Columbus Crew tip’o'the’spear Jairo Arrieta, as MLS clubs can attest, is a more than worthy sub off the bench.
Costa Rica is swashbuckling in attack as oppose to metronomic, looking to quickly get the ball up the flank or go over the top to a dominant Saborio or Campbell for a knockdown opportunity at the feet of Ruiz.
When the Ticos find themselves in possession in the attacking third they typically try to work the 18-yard box extended (vertically or horizontally) for some small movement inside by Saborio, Bolaños or Campbell. If they’ve driven deep towards the endline on the flank, they’ll quickly kick the ball out to the supporting wide player for a crossing opportunity.
If the Panama game plan is an indication, the Ticos will look to push the ball wide, primarily to on the left flank, and then take advantage when the US team collapses on that flank defensively with a quick switchfield. That will opens much morespace for whichever attacker is wide on that side (Campbell or Ruiz) to go 1v1 or combine for 2v2.
Costa Rica, again, is fairly fluid–think basketball’s motion offense–and any point a midfielder can find himself making a run in the box or receiving a ball on an overlap.
While this type of offense presents marking challenges for the opposition, it also creates defensive problems for the Ticos themselves.
Often, the Ticos will be out of shape and they can be hurt with smart and quick counter movement from that opposition, especially against a rather average backline.
The CR backline will likely consist of the aforementioned
Meneses Brian Oviedo, Giancarlo González and Míchael Umaña as the centerback pairing and likely newbie Cristian Gamboa at rightback. The jury is still out on that rightback slot as veteran 22-year-old José Salvatierra–who manned the spot most frequently in 2012–was not recalled for this series.
Both centerbacks Umaña and González are prone to losing marks. Gonzalez as well has a penchant to foul in or near the box and carries three yellow cards in his pocket heading into the match.
The back four as a whole is absolutely awful on staying with their mark on crosses into the box having conceded all three goals in last September’s Mexico home-and-away via corners or crosses into the box and having conceded a goal to Panama on a scramble after a long throw-in, naturally from deep on the touchline.
(Eddie Johnson and Steve Zakuani would probably enjoy this goal here that Mexico sent home at the Azteca last September against CR.)
In goal, however, is the solid Keylar Navas who this year has usurped more than 40% of the playing time from Uruguayan Gustavo Munua as La Liga premier side Levante. (Note: Navas was either not available or other as his back-up Pemberton started versus Panama.)
If the Costa Rican midfield can find their way up the pitch and shoot passes upfield to their attackers, the US will be in for a major fight on Friday.
TSG What Are We Looking For
(We could have wrote a book on this section this time.)
» Pressure on the ball; assertive face-up defending. (the midfield triumvirate must protect their inexperienced squeaky backline.)
It’s really that simple.
Usually TSG picks a part a match-up (we still will) or discusses something perhaps more intricate that needs to be accomplished to get the result. This time it’s basic fundamentals.
The US’s defense looked about as organized as a 5-year-old’s bedroom in Honduras in February.
But–zoom out to the mile-above-the-Earth view–wasn’t that to be expected?
Who could really think that Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez–who had all of two practices together ever–before trotting onto the San Pedro Sula sod would be airtight in that back?
The US coaching staff and you, the US fans, know better.
Quite simply the States midfield needs to get face-up pressure on the ball so as to not leave their inexperienced defense exposed against those Costa Rican forwards who are adept at punishing those mistakes.
It’s an essential.
It’s a must-have job in win this must-have affair.
Below are two stills that illuminate how the US’s defense was woefully caught out against a Honduras team that probably should have banged home at least four on the day. Both times the ball handler slotted through a pass–the first time on a caught-out Omar Gonzalez, the second time on late-to-react Fabian Johnson.
That said, if pressure is on the ball handler in both cases, the threading and leading passes are made, at very least, more difficult.
Now, of course, simple pressure on the ball isn’t just a one-line command or directive.
The US–Geoff Cameron specifically as the now veteran of the backline–must communicate effectively and further–and this is a larger discussion for another time–the US must be okay tracking runners better rather than being rigidly attentive to its zone marking scheme. (Like we said, much longer discussion here is necessary.)
Note, the above poor closing-out begs the question of sacrificing offensive fire power in the midfield for defense, doesn’t it?
The midfield should and must be better on the ball on Friday and continually next Tuesday.
» BRYAN RUIZ: Teasing centerbacks and forcing a decision at swing forward
This might give you indigestion….and those RUIZ caps above are necessary.
Take a look at the photo above from February’s US loss.
The US has been pressured by Honduras and coughed up the marble. Roger Espinoza has found Seattle Sounder Mario Martinez on a horizontal run with a step on the trailing Fabian Johnson.
Geoff Cameron is in “MOMMY!” land, caught between pressuring the ball and possibly leaving an easy near post angle for Bengston to make a run and score OR staying at home with Bengston and having Martinez continue unabated into a more central shooting or distributing location.
Luckily–a few milliseconds after this screenshot–Martinez elects to shoot and his effort is not precise enough that Tim Howard makes a difficult, but not spectacular parry up-and-over the crossbar.
Mario Martinez is an excellent player and certainly no slouch when it comes to uncorking one, but BRYAN RUIZ, the Costa Rican national team captain and USMNT CONCACAF grim reaper in 2009, is by any review a step above him.
Click on the video below and move the slider to the 2:09 mark.
This is the soccer version of rubbernecking on the highway. This is Bryan Ruiz against the States in October 2009.
Notice any similarities on the Martinez and Ruiz plays? Ruiz, of course, buries his take so far in the mesh that the nylon probably yelped and cursed Tim Howard (as Howard did at his defense.)
Costa Rica–as we’ve discusssed–has four capable strikers on hand for this match, but it is Fulham attacker Ruiz who should have the thickest dossier in Klinsmann’s iPad.
Ruiz is experienced.
He is strong and quick…
…and, perhaps worse for the Yanks, he punishes teams between the lines–precisely where the US’s defense has trouble tracking players.
Editor’s note: (If you want another example, more the slider left on that video up top to the 1:29 mark where a fit Oguchi Onyewu plays matador to Ruiz on the way to the first goal of the night. Also for the younger audience: “Between the lines” means, in this case, in between the US backline and the US midfield defensive positions on defense. When a player (Ruiz) plays between the lines, it forces a decision–or very good communication–by the defense on accounting for the player. Often in cases of a withdrawn striker or attacking midfielder (Ruiz, Juan Mata, David Silva) the centerback doesn’t want to leave a gaping hole in defense by coming out and marking the player while the midfield defender doesn’t want to step to the attacker and concede space centrally to an oncoming midfielder for a shot or open pass.)
Against an inexperienced back four, Ruiz will pose a nightmare and he’s also given the same free role that Dempsey has in the US system. He has license to go anywhere where he might smell a mismatch and he’s got a very good nose for finding opportunities on goal.
Beyond the US’s defense being focused on Ruiz’s movement, the very presence of Ruiz–who usually starts his evening on the right hashmark–may, indeed, force Klinsmann’s tactical hand.
In Klinsmann’s unbalanced formation, the US manager plays a “swing forward” on the left more than a true left midfielder.
That player–Eddie Johnson’s had the role in Honduras and against Guatemala back in October–is tasked with pushing high on that flank, even with the striker. That player is also tasked with covering over the leftback.
It’s a lot of ground to cover and, in an up-down gam, it can lead to open chances on that flank by the opponent.
Eddie Johnson doesn’t have the best work rate and other players–most notably DaMarcus Beasley–have struggled with the discipline and effort this specific assignment demands.
Will Klinsmann’s stay true to the formation that he’s used almost exclusively in his term or will he recognize the danger of pushing high on the left with a dangerous Ruiz waiting to pounce? Will he protect what will be a novice US leftback?
» The width is really more about possession in this one.
The US has struggled mightily with getting width on the field. The scheme to push the fullbacks high failed the States miserably in January and thus the US midfielders–Jermaine Jones in particular–found themselves caught in possession.
Turnovers originating from this can, and usually are, very costly.
Part of the importance to get width is really less about creating attack and more about pushing the ball wide and out of harm’s way when playing the ball on the floor out of the back.
Mulitple times the US were exposed for chances as Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley had no forward options wide and attempted to play the ball vertically on the floor into the attack.
The good news for US fans is that the US tends to take and aggressive disposition at home (Guatemala in Kansas City, Jamaica in Pittsburgh most recently) and, if this transpires, it can keep its fullbacks high and pin their opponent back, creating options for the midfielders. An agressive disposition also reduces the defensive exposure newbie fullbacks will face.
The US need to focus on being aggressive and keeping its fullbacks in a more attacking position.
» Game, Set Piece, Match?
Costa Rica is strong in the air in attack, hellacious on defense.
The US hasn’t put home a header against a quality opponent since…. since… that’s really a good question. Anyone?
The US must be accountable in the box when Costa Rica has the ball wide on the flanks without pressure and conversely the US really needs to see if they can find Gonzalez–who has a clear height advantage on the CR 11–on attacking third restarts.
» And About That Attack…
The US has been downright shambolic offensively under Jurgen Klinsmann. Much of it can be blamed on Klinsmann’s desire to maintain defensive integrity even if it costs a high rate of goal opportunities.
Given that, it’s difficult to pinpoint a minor adjustment here to create attack.
Macro-wise, the US needs to effectively link from the midfield, inserting a player like Graham Zusi or Mix Diskerud centrally and more firepower on the flank. That, of course, won’t be solved directly in this one.
The US appears fully resolved to let Jermaine Jones be their playmaker….somewhere Felix Magath chuckles.
Additionally, the US appears to lack any plan when it’s in the attacking third as players like Dempsey, Bradley and Johnson who are so used to playing more on the counter sometimes push the tempo too quickly when the defense is sequestered deep and centrally–this was a major problem against Honduras and it led to odd-man rushes the other way.
Probably the best thing the US can do here in short order is push Dempsey higher up the pitch and get Jozy Altidore or Herculez Gomezmoving wider near the hashmarks to draw out the Ticos centerbacks. It’s that space where Dempsey has been most effective this year for his club. (See this article here for more dialogue on Dempsey withdrawn positioning success for Spurs.). It’s also the space most likely to be left open by tardy CR midfielders.
› Herculez Gomez should start in this one. The US will desperately need his work rate to slow the Costa Rican play out of the back on a change of possession. More on Gomez below.
› The US has not started a single game under Klinsmann in a double pivot deployment. In fact, Klinsmann so wanted to push the holder situation that he brought Kyle Beckerman’s national team career out of deep mothballs to start that very first August 2011 friendly against Mexico.
That said, Costa Rica’s attention to the flanks and the aformentioned work of Ruiz combined with a little tidbit of Jurgen Klinsmann in a podcast address in February (suggesting that he may use Jones and Bradley in the same deployment that Bob Bradley used to–without a holder that is) might signal that this is the game for it. Below is Klinsmann’s quote:
“It’s very crucial, the partnership between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. It’s really important that they over time develop a real fine-tuned understanding that when one goes forward and is attacking, the other has to secure him and stay back. Here and there they both end up in the opponent’s penalty area and you leave kind of a hole behind. Those are things we would love to work on in the near future, when we play both next to each other and maybe we play without a number six that secures them. It only works if one stays and the other goes, and this is very important. Hopefully now we have the time and more training sessions before a game to work on that, and I think in time if we develop that fine-tuned understanding between these two guys then we have a big plus.
(Shouldn’t Klinsmann have experimented with this just a little bit previously? You would think. And aren’t Bradley and Jones familiar with one another from playing there for a year under Bob Bradley? You would…think.)
11 At The Whistle
REMEMBER, THIS IS NOT WHO TSG WOULD INSERT, THIS IS WHO KLINSMANN MIGHT GO WITH AT THE OUTSET.
G: Brad Guzan
The skinny: Guzan’s earned the right and he’s been terrific between the sticks for Aston Villa this year. Villa has went with a very inexperienced backline and changed formations–they started out the year with a 3-man backline and have since migrated to a 4-man–yet Guzan has stood tall.
Guzan has excelled with uncertainty and low offense production around him. He’s the right pick.
DEF: Tony Beltran, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, Justin Morrow
The skinny: Must ado about moving Geoff Cameron out to the flank where he plays more frequently for his club and that may be the case.
However a good byproduct of Klinsmann’s defensive system is that it gives a lot of leeway for the fullbacks to get up the pitch–meaning defensively they are protected. Keeping the US’s central defense stable is more integral to defensive success then mixing and matching players in different positions. Enough of that will already happen through injury replacements.
As for the newcomers: Justin Morrow looked up to the task in January’s Canada friendly. He did make two mental mistakes that both led to Canada’s best chances. Morrow will need to be mistake free (duh), but he does possess the ability.
It’s not clear that Tony Beltran has the defensive wherewithal if he comes under duress frequently on Friday. However, Klinsmann likely chooses Beltran to mimic Cherundolo’s presence on the ball. In possession is where Beltran excels and where he’ll need to be sharp Friday.
CDM: Maurice Edu
CMF: Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley
The skinny: If you’re surprised by these selections, then you’ve likely been reading Bleacher Report. The question in this one is, does Klinsmann & Co. stop outthinking himself and restore Michael Bradley to his right central role and push him forward as he plays at Roma.
It would only make sense.
Another question with the line-up above is: Just who is manning the right midfield defensive slot if/when the US is pushed back. Against Honduras, Jermaine Jones made sweeping runs out there from a more central location. It’s not ideal and watch for a breakdown on the right if the US finds themselves losing the run-of-play battle.
CAM: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Dempsey’s role discussed above.
SFWD: Eddie Johnson
The skinny: Betting that Klinsmann plays Eddie Johnson here because of his sheer speed. There is a chance that either Brek Shea or DaMarcus Beasley get a runout, but as both were tried versus Mexico in the friendly last year, it’s a good bet that both were called in with that game–not this one–in mind.
STR: Herculez Gomez
The skinny: Count TSG squarely in the camp that Altidore is not a must on the team sheet. The burly forward is excellent when motivated and working off of a teammate drawing attention. For the States, Altidore is the player whose supposed to draw attention. The AZ Alkmaar forward lacks ideas when posting up and is somewhat uncreative when the is not already moving at a quick clip.
If the US is not going to push Dempsey high than US fans will continue to see Altidore spin his wheels in place up top.
Gomez becomes the call for Klinsmann as his work rate to open space, *but also because he can flip-flop with Eddie Johnson and present a different look. The US doesn’t want Altidore defending in the midfield. (Trust me.).
(We asked for questions to be answered in this preview on Twitter. Here are some selected ones.)
TSG feedback: Without question it has to be Alvaro Saborio who is on form and neck-and-neck with Blas Perez for the CONCACAF qualifying Golden Boot. Beckerman likely does not play in this one, but Beltran may in fact start. If the US remains true to its defense, mistakes by Beltran won’t be castastrophic.
TSG Feedback: Taking the Ruiz/Campbell question here. Charles has the right question here. For the US, that role will fall squarely on Maurice Edu’s shoulders. Against Honduras, Danny Williams was beat up by Roger Espinoza’s checking to the ball. Here Edu’s head will need to be on a swivel. It’s a role that Edu played very well at Rangers.
The US also have to stay true to the axiom that, “one passe to beat you are better than none.” Meaning, always check to the dangerous ball handler in a dangerous situation, if you play the pass it’s only a single action that can beat you. The US has often erred and failed to come off it’s mark after the defense breaks down. Can’t do that in this one.
TSG Feedback: Apologies, but anyway you cut it a three-back set is a terrible option. One, the US hasn’t practiced. Two, none of the players inhabit the system with their club teams. Three, Costa Ricas forwards will punish the A gaps to use an American football term–if Omar Gonzalez is the center in that 3-back, he’ll be turned ad nauseum. Four, the US hasn’t shown an ability to possess the ball for more than 15 to 20-minute spurts at a time. I could go on….
TSG Feedback: Because of the confusion that often exists in the box for Costa Rica, I can see Omar Gonzalez’s netting his first for the senior side. Because of Costa Rica’s disorganization in midfielder on a change of possession, an advancing run of Michael Bradley (Russia, Scotland), something he excels at, could see the Roma midfielder burying an effort from beyond the box. I expect Bryan Ruiz to score at least one.
TSG Feedback: As commented above, I think Morrow has the chops. That said, against Canada two instances of dropping his man lead to opportunities.
I think your other options at leftback for the States are probably Brek Shea and DaMarcus Beasley. For Shea, he used to play midfielder so he understands at least defending near the touchline. If you’re looking for a way-out-there, wildcard I might suggest Matt Besler. He’s got the same cerebral game as Parkhurst and he’s got a decent over-the-top ball if he finds himself under duress. But that’s wacky, right?