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Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead: Pre-gaming USA vs. Costa Rica

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After a week that saw accusations of favoritism and tactical ineptitude against head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the Stars & Stripes kick off the home leg of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying with a snowy tilt in the Centennial State against the Ticos.  An injury-depleted American side with a jury-rigged back line will have to face a must-win situation one mile up, where the air will be thin but the tension thick enough to slice, grill, and serve at the tailgate.  Snow, wind, rain, and maybe the orange ball high up in the Rocky Mountains.  Round Two of the Hex is here.  The Yanks are coming.

United States vs Costa Rica

Hexagonal Round, CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colorado

Friday, March 22nd

10pm EST

TV/Online:  ESPN, UniMas (Spanish) /  ESPN3

Pre/Half/Post Game Coverage: The Best Soccer Show via KickTV

It’s hard to remember a worse situation for the USMNT one game into the final round of qualifying.  After opening the Hex with a 2-1 loss in San Pedro Sula, the Americans were already facing an uphill battle at the foot of the front range.  The release of Brian Straus’ article, detailing deep divisions in the US locker room, and serious doubts among the players regarding Klinsmann’s communication methods & tactical acumen, as well as the basic competence of lead assistant Martin Vasquez, was followed hard upon by scathing comments by former (and future?) National Team Head Coach Bruce Arena.  All this has only added to the pressure of a game that is, according to Klinsmann, a “must-win.”

It’s easy to see why he feels that way.  A draw or loss to the Ticos would put the Americans in an almost impossible situation, heading to Mexico City and suddenly looming Colossus of St Ursula Tuesday dead last in the group of six nations contesting for a ticket to Brazil.  A win on the other had would hold serve, denying key road points to a deceptively strong Costa Rican side that fell only a Jonathan Bornstein header short of making the trip to South Africa.

The roster called in to contest the next two qualifiers will hardly add to the ease of the task or the pressure on Klinsmann, who will have to perform managerial magic to turn this group into a world class squad.  With mainstays Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams & Fabian Johnson, as well as Edgar Castillo, Timmy Chandler & Brek Shea all out with injury, and Clint Dempsey far from match fit, Klinsmann has had to call in one of the least experienced rosters in recent memory, including potentially the youngest back line to dress for a US team in a qualifier since 1989.

The Americans will face a Costa Rican team that has been rebuilding since Bornstein’s header in the fall of 2009 which shook RFK to its foundations and forced the Central American side into a home and home playoff with Uruguay for the final seat on the flight to Johannesburg, a plane the Ticos missed.

The current squad is in many ways a mirror of the United States.  Changing coaches after a poor showing in the 2011 Gold Cup (The Tournament That Changed Everything) (Not Really) (But Yes, Really), they have strikers in good club form who god begging for decent service from the midfield, which lacks the creativity to break down a well organized defense.  They can prove effective counter-attackers, however, something the Americans have proven vulnerable to under Klinsmann.  They are dynamic and fluid on the outside, and boast two world-class attackers in Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio, whose last minute header salvaged a point for the Ticos against Panama in their first hex outing.  Saborio may be out due to injury, if so he will likely be replaced by Columbus Crew target man Jairo Arrieta.

Ruiz is the key to the entire Costa Rican attack.  His ability to control the space between the last midfielder and the centerbacks allows him to dictate the pace and angle of play on offense.  The danger he presents as a direct attacker forces the defense to commit a man to challenge him, leaving a striker open to receive the ball and move on goal.  The answer to this is obviously two fold; first the defensive midfielder, most likely Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman, must prevent Ruiz from receiving the ball even with or behind him. Secondly, the defensive line must be well managed, with the centerbacks not creating gaps for the strikers to exploit by being pulled off the line to engage Ruiz, instead trusting the CDM to handle him.  This line cohesion will also allow the offside trap to function against the Tico strikers.

The lack of experience in the US back line could kill the Americans in this situation.  With both Carlos Bocanegra & Steve Cherundolo, perhaps the two most tactically aware players in the US pool, absent, there will be great pressure on whoever suits up at left centerback, the position that calls the line on the offside trap.  Neither Omar Gonzales or Geoff Cameron seemed particularly adept at the task against Honduras, even with the  assistance of Tim Howard behind them, while Clarence Goodson, the most experienced defender on the roster, is mired in the poorest stretch of form in his club career, and lacks the physical ability to contain the Costa Rican forwards.  Matt Besler could sneak in here; the reigning MLS defender of the year was paired with Gonzalez in the January match against Canada, and was praised by Klinsmann for his ability to read an attack and direct the defense.  He would allow Cameron to swing out to right back, where he has played for Stoke, shoring up another position of need with an experienced player.

One piece of good news for the Yanks, the Tico back line is dreadful, particularly in the air and on set pieces.  If given proper service, attackers with size such as Eddie Johnson and Jozy Altidore could wreck havoc in front of the Costa Rican goal.  This weakness could be the reason Brad Davis, a restart specialist with a cultured left foot, was brought into camp as an injury replacement for Brek Shea.  The Houston captain could be a force late in the game.

Look for the US to deploy something like this:

usa costa rica


Key Points

Camus does the Worm.  In his history of the tactical evolution and cultural significance of the goalkeeper, The Outsider, Jonathan Wilson wrote that “the perception of strength in depth is easy to maintain when there is a true great in the front line, whose brilliance ensures mistakes will be forgiven as he protects the reputation of understudies who are never exposed.”  Brad Guzan is about to step into the cold thin air of Commerce City to try and prove himself the exception to that rule.  With Tim Howard out with back injuries, Guzan will take on his first national team duty in more than two years, and his first under Klinsmann, under the most challenging of circumstances.  On paper he is well suited; a world cup veteran, Howard’s long-time understudy, and in a rich vein of club form.  He beat out Irish national team keeper Shay given for the the starter’s job at Aston Villa, and has single-handedly kept the Villans above the relegation line for much of the season.  He has the same save percentage as Howard while facing more shots than Timmy.  If Guzan can rise to the challenge he is as capable as Howard of throwing the Yanks on his back and carrying them to a win.  If he cannot match the moment, he will never be remembered for anything else.  No pressure, Brad.

I cannot make bricks without straw.  Given the state of the US back line, the Americans may well have to simply outscore the Ticos, and hope the effects of travel and weather take their toll on them.  The one part of the US roster not decimated by injuries, the striker corps is as strong as any American team has had to draw on.  One thing the combined forces of Jozy Altidore, Hercules gomez, Eddie Johnson & Terrence Boyd cannot do, however, is provide themselves with service.  The key element lacking from Klinsmann’s teams since he took over has been the ability to move the ball effectively through the midfield to reach the strikers.  Lacking any decent wide options, expect Klinsmann to lean on creative midfielders Graham Zusi & Sacha Kjlestan, and precision bomber Brad Davis to try and pick apart the Tico defense.

You get a yellow, and you get a yellow, and you get a yellow.  Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi & Geoff Cameron are all one yellow card away from a suspension.  Obviously this is to be avoided, particularly for Bradley, who is both indispensable to the American side and known to have a temper.

 You won’t need a cab to find a priest.  Barring an epic collapse unseen since Quintus Varus took a walk in the Tutenborg Forest, Jurgen Klinsmann will still be head coach of the US Men’s National Team saturday morning, win, lose or draw.  The sky will not have fallen, though cracks in the firmament will likely be visible.  That said, PSL has it on good authority that there are elements in the USSF that favor Klinsmann’s removal, and a loss to Costa Rica, particularly one followed by a poor showing in Mexico would only make those voices louder.  Klinsmann’s long time suitor and now champion, USSF president Sunil Gulati will stand for a seat on the FIFA executive committee next month.  If he were to fail to achieve it, that, combined with a continued lack of success by the team, threatening the federations revenue streams over the next two years, could be enough to see a major shakeup on the shores of Lake Michigan.  It’s something to keep an eye on.

Bold Predictions

USA 2-0 Costa Rica.  There’s a feeling that the adversity of the last week, combined with the doom and gloom predictions from every corner of the media may have bound this group of mostly second choice players toghther.  given a full camp to train, unlike against Honduras last month, and a weather system which should wreck havok on Costa Rica’s passing game, the Yanks should pull out a solid, if unspectacular win.  Look for Hercules Gomez and Graham Zusi to put their marks on the game in the attacking third, while Brad Guzan picks up man of the match honors for his efforts in the defensive end.

The Soccer Desk Staff will be breaking down the game, and prepping for the upcoming battle with Mexico Monday night on our podcast with Josh Deaver of American Soccer Now.  Make sure you check it out, and stick with Philly Sports Live for continuing coverage of the USMNT on their march to Rio.