The US looks to put a long-elusive notch on its CONCACAF bedpost this Friday as it heads south to San Jose, Costa Rica for a showdown with the Ticos.
There is no question that this will be the hardest three points for the States to bed in 2013.
Whereas the Mexico qualifier on enemy grounds has long been the most challenging of the Hex gauntlet, this year’s Yanks squad had sufficient injuries and absences against El Tri to make that skirmish a quest to eek out a point. The US’s bend-to-just-about-the-point-of-breaking strategy against Chepo Nation was acceptable and the States, despite being on the wrong side of a lopsided shots on goal tally, were applauded for their valiant effort at the Azteca.
Friday’s game, however, will see a nearly fully fit US squad attempt to wrestle away its first point ever in San Jose. Or maybe just steal a goal from the run of play. The US hasn’t scored in that manner in Costa Rica in over 12 years.
The edict from skipper Jurgen Klinsmann appears clear:
“The Costa Rica game in San Jose is the biggest game in 2013 for all of us because we want to win there,” said Klinsmann. “We want to qualify as soon as possible for the World Cup in Brazil. We want to get the first ever three points in World Cup qualifying in Costa Rica.”
It’s a worthy goal and when the statement is considered within the progressions of the US team in 2013, it’s also the correct milestone to target.
The lineage of 2013 saw the US stay true to its defense-at-all-costs philosophy at the outset. Games in Honduras–a loss–and Mexico were exercises in maintaining shape and defensive continuity at the expense of attacking.
Jamaica away last series saw the US take a few more calculated forays up the field. What then flowed was a string of results by both the “A” team and “B” team where the US successfully managed its attempts at goal and numbers up the field, culminating in an excellent performance against a quality Bosnian side in August.
This Ticos date will be the first time–since a few Eddie Johnson bum-rushes to begin the second half in Honduras in February–that the States
will are expected to take the game to their CONCACAF opponent on the road in qualifying, if you believe the rhetoric.
Of course, the Ticos will enter the game beating their chests with national pride and with more motivation than Katie Holmes on Tom Cruise Independence Day. The Ticos currently sit second in the Hex; their 11 points just two shy of the Yanks’ leading 13. A combination of four points here from the US on Friday in tandem with Jamaica away on Tuesday puts the Ticos just a whisker away from a qualifying berth–a berth they fell short of by the same margin in 2009 when a late header from Jonathan Bornstein at RFK forced the Ticos into an ultimately heartbreaking playoff loss with Uruguay.
But that’s not the most acute prod in this one for the home side.
The US squad arrived late Tuesday in San Jose to chants of “No fair play USA,” a reference to the Blizzard Bowl back in March when the States heisted three points in a controversial home game played with snow pelting the sod.
The rhetoric has been non-stop this week and–with the mystique of Azteca-death-cauldron being seemingly vanquished with a win last year and draw this year–“Costa Rica – Away” elevates to the ultimate CONCACAF trophy win–that elusive “chick at the bar” that both scares and excites you. Moving on….
Do the Yanks got game? How’s that bedpost looking Saturday morning?
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. It goes:
» About the Opponent: Costa Rica
» TSG What We’re Looking For
» Keys To the Game for the Americans
» 11 At the Whistle.
About The Opponent: Costa Rica
This is about as cut-and-dry as a USMNT opponent can get. And the Yanks have faced the Ticos twice this year on home soil; both times the interlopers came out in an exceedingly defensive shell with as much offensive intent as an episode of Sesame Street.
The Ticos bunkered in Denver in The Throwaway/Blizzard/Ice Bowl and then, faced with a talented US junior varsity, was downright negative in the Gold Cup. The Ticos gave the US their best or at least second best Gold Cup test. A little late-game razzle dazzle from Landon Donovan the necessary incision in an otherwise concrete defensive wall effort.
However, when the Ticos are back home, they display a more aggressive and somewhat looser attacking behavior, primarily using their central mid pairing to push the ball up to an attack quadrumvirate that can can match any in the region.
Expect the Ticos to maintain defensive integrity at the back. Like CONCACAF brethren Panama, the Costa Ricans excel at defending centrally in the run of play in their defensive third. The Ticos have given up four goals in qualifying in the past year–two throw 50/50-ball-producing broken plays in the box (Panama, February 2013) an d two via corners (Mexico, September 2012).
Across the back five, the Ticos will probably stay true to their most recent home WCQ, a 2-0 win over Panama in June, with one exception: The squad player Junior Diaz will give way at LB to Everton prospect Brian Oviedo who is expected to see a decent minutes increase at Goodison this year under Roberto Martinez.
Oviedo will play like DaMarcus Beasley will for the States–tasked with possession, pushing forward, and being aggressive in the attack. Centerbacks Michael Umaña and Giancarlo González are strong, disciplined defenders, but both are prone to losing marks on service into the box. Gonzalez as well has a penchant to foul in or near the box–can you say Clinton D.e.m.p.s.e.y.
The front six will be business usual as well. (Note: This is all good news for the Ticos who appear to have finally settled on a reduced rotation of players through the squad, breeding improved chemistry.)
Ariel Rodriguez and Celso Borges will form the double-pivot. Borges is on-form and the one to watch. An average defender at the best, the Swedish leaguer has been instrumental in many of the Costa Ricans chances this qualifying series. He likes to ghost in late after the opponent’s flank has been compromised and gather at the top of the box with a shoot-first mentality. He’s not wholly accurate, but he is wholly able.
The front four will be standard. From the point, Alvaro Saborio will get things going. US players and fans know him well from his time at Real Salt Lake. To use a Panama comparison again, Saborio is the Ticos’ Blas Perez. The home midfield will look for him at all times once across the halfline, both on the floor and through the air. Saborio is equally apt to put a header or volley on frame and he’s well skilled–as RSL man Javi Morales can attest–at receiving and dropping to an oncoming attacker.
Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolanos form the midfield three. Bolanos is the Ticos’s Old Faithful, providing pace and a decent amount of shake-and-bake out right.
As US fans can attest, Ruiz has been the lynchpin of the Tico attack for the past half decade. However, it may become a little more Batman-Robin like on Friday.
The Fulham man has been little used by manager Martin Jol for no clearcut reason in the Prem’s early going. Meanwhile, Arsenal asset Joel Campbell is thriving in his second consecutive loan stint. Last campaign saw the speedy attacker fare well at Real Betis.
This year, Campbell finds himself in-form, already starting, and a critical member of Greek superclub Olympiakos. He plays LFW in a 4-3-3. Campbell is adept at gaining the corner and has improved his service game.
Expect the Ticos to attempt to look for Ruiz early incutting off the *right flank and hope that the US’s defense collapses to help. If the Ticos can manufacture this phenomena then they can get Campbell wide on the left and in space for 1v1 situations. If that fails, you’ll see the two switch (the pattern and tactical progression may be reversed, but you get the picture) sometime in the first half. Regardless of the success here, any chance the Costa Ricans get to find Saborio in space on the floor or in the box through the air will likely be taken.
DEF: Gamboa, Umana, Gonzalez, Oviedo
CM: Rodriguez, Borges
RMF/CAM/LMF: Bolanos, Ruiz, Campbell
TSG What Are We Looking For
» Firehosing Costa Rica’s Left Flank
Once again, Graham Zusi is a pivotal midfielder for the Americans and his fitness–or lack thereof–will be a key tactical piece of Friday’s match.
The US again…going up the left side through the feet of Beasley and Dempsey.
Costa Rica? Many signs point to the Ticos storming down the US’s right and more conservative flank whether it’s Campbell or Ruiz.
Accompanying Campbell will be the forward forays of left fullback Brian Oveida forming the one-two punch.
With the US rightback situation, the best way to provide cover will be through a midfielder–like Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya–who aggressively tracks back.
But the States can do better than that.
While Bedoya is a viable option, the ability for Zusi–normally indefatiguable–to not only help defensively but get ahead, stay wide, and be effective wide will bat back the CR attack on that side. Zusi is such a luxury for Klinsmann. He can play at any tempo. He man manage possession. He defends aggressively for 90 minutes when fit and he doesn’t need the ball to remain sharp or involved.
The Ticos have to respect Zusi’s service–whether it’s Jozy Altidore or Eddie Johnson looking to get on the other end.
If the States can be successful in managing possession out to Zusi on that flank and Zusi can be effective with the majority of his crosses, the Ticos first choice attack plan will effectively be negated.
(Note: It’s interesting to see just how conservative the Yanks have become in attack. Countless times again Bosnia, Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones receiving the ball left-central could have played a switch-field pass to Brad Evans in space and they demurred every time, the accuracy risk greater than the benefit of Evans going 1v1 on a defender.)
» Set Piece Repellant & The Picket Fence
This may be the first time that Tim Howard has figured into this section for TSG since…since…Emile Heskey went ground-and-pound on Tim in Rustenburg in 2010.
Costa Rica. Scores off of set pieces.
The US… real difficulty maintaining their marks and gathering up second balls on set pieces. Jamaica, a missed mark concession. Belize in the Gold Cup.
BELIZE! Well Belize is probably why Clarence Goodson didn’t go looking for his passport this weekend.
Back to Tim.
Howard–as written in this publication previously–is a very good goalie under fire. He’s a decent to above average organizer against the run of play.
Where Howard has difficult defensively is on those dastardly in-between balls into the box that beg for the keeper to come out and snatch or punch them away. Howard used to be aggressive on these to the point of over-aggression. He would routinely get beat on a shot on the rebound.
Father Time has now influenced Howard to stay at home, his decisions to come out become less frequent and marked, at times, with indecision.
Of course, that’s only one part. The US defenders merely have to refuse to get beat.
It sounds like one of those “Fox-Soccer Points to the Game (“Have fun!” “Express yourself!”), but it’s not. The US is–for the most part–structurally sound when defend set pieces in the box. The line–as you can see above in the Bosnia game–is stepping in unison and the players know their responsibility, but where they get hurt is on “knowing where they’re going.”
The US challenges in man-marking set pieces is on switches and picks and that’s exactly what Costa Rica feasts on in the box. A simple play that Costa Rica greenlight frequently is running the near post man behind the player stack and looping him to the far post. It’s a fairly simple and effective play because the looping attacker’s mark has to find his way typically through a a sea of 12 players–six attackers, six defenders.
The switching and defense responsibility needs to be up to the task Friday because Costa Rica will get their chances and know those are probably their best ones.
Oh, and the Ticos last two qualifiers at home have seen them rack up 41 fouls suffered. Wow. Good chance the US needs to defend six to ten of these opportunities on Friday. It only takes one.
Keys to the Game for the Americans
1) Defense: Apply on-ball pressure whenever Costa Rica is in the US half. Recover that second ball.
Costa Rica loves to lob the ball in the box hoping for puppy dog tails, dropoffs that lead to shots and just plain goals. Defending balls served into the box always starts with preventing looks … into the box. The Ticos also thrive off of broken plays. Make it simple. Get out on your man; stop the easy service.
2) Defense: Track Ruiz and Campbell between the lines. Immediately support any 1v1 defender who is out in space
This is something that the States did very well in Bosnia against Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic.
The Tico opportunities that don’t come via service into the box will have to come from Ruiz playmaking between the lines. If the Campbell gets the ball out near the touchline on the US rightback, immediately slide to provide support. Again, done well in Bosnia.
Have fun Offense: Get Zusi opportunities on the deep right flank. Don’t be wasteful with corner kicks and deep flank service chances.
If the past two years have proven anything about Costa Rica defensively it’s that their only Achilles heal is–like the States–keeping marks and cleaning up the second ball in and around the box. All four goals against Costa Rica over the past year in WCQ have come on broken plays with a ball served into the box laterally. Cue Zusi, EJ, Cameron, Gonzo. Hell get Gooch or better Crouch late game.
4) Offense: Work the channels with Zusi, Landon Donovan and Fabian Johnson.
If you’re looking for a close comp to how the States will have to break down Costa Rica, the closest bet is the way the States attacked Honduras in June. In that game Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson worked the 18′ yard box extended (vertically) to provide high possession hubs where they had essentially soccer’s equivalent of the read-option. Receive, read the defense, take it to the hole, shoot it, or dish it. Zusi’s clever dummy against Honduras led to the lone US tally in that crucial home qualifier.
A fresh second half Donovan may be just the tonic here.
11 At The Whistle:
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Marshall the defense. Be decisive on set pieces. Don’t add to the hysteria of the crowd by shouting at defenders who make mistakes and cu
DEF: Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley
The skinny: If you have to miss Brad Evans for a match, this may be the best bet. Sure the Ticos attacking forwards will present challenges to Cameron in space, especially with Gonzo backing him up. Adding Cameron to the starting mix gives the US another big body to contest set pieces with. A wash?
CM: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones
The skinny: Bradley has been downright wizardry in his positioning of late. His move back to a more traditional box-to-box player in a standard system for Roma has certainly improved his positioning. Go back and look at the States 3-1 qualifer loss in Costa Rica in June of 2009. Bradley defines “overtracking.” And further, what a far cry from the player who never met a tackle–late or not–that he didn’t want to get stuck-in on. And would you ever have uttered the following a few years ago:
US fan 1: “Wow, look how many Yanks … count ‘em .. are on yellow card going into Friday’s game? SEVEN. Jozy MB, Cameron, Dempsey, Howard, Fabian and Jermaine Jones
US fan 2: “Out of all those guys, I trust Bradley not to pick up a second one. You?”
US fan 1: [Drops dead]
LM/RM: Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi
The skinny: First, it’s a night game, so Fab J’s chances of playing increase. Second, Johnson’s spot is the likely Donovan spot going forward, but I think Johnson gets the start here for two reasons. First, he’s on a yellow card–so if you play Donovan–who picked up a knock over the weekend–and Johnson comes in as a late sub and gets another card ruling him out for Mexico, you’ve essentially need to hope that Donovan is fully healthy by Tuesday.
Second, Johnson can issue a lefty cross–many think Johnson is a natural lefty, but in fact he’s a natural righty. If you believe the words above that the US wants to continually push high and left, then you’d rather have Johnson starting and see if can pull the attacking amoeba as high and wide left as possible. And finally, a fresh Landon Donovan works best when there is an uptempo more vertical game–works best, not works only.
A very strong sub for this match.
WtF: Clint Dempsey
STR: Eddie Johnson
The skinny: It’d be great to have Jozy Altidore fully fit and in-form in this one, but the prudent move is to start Altidore on the pine. Wet field, hammy injury, on a yellow card, low-but-real risk of a longer term injury if not already healed. It’s tough because Altidore’s size, speed and ability to help out defensively in the air would all be, of course, extremely welcome here on the road.
Clint Dempsey will need to tone down his “try-shit” game that’s been creeping back into his repertoire back up in Seattle, but Dempsey is the type of guy who pounces on the few chances in these games and delivers.
Big moment here for Eddie Johnson, CONCAConquerer (sounded a lot better with an inside voice). Johnson will be unshackled from the defensive responsibilities that always seem to retard the ability of his game.