Expectations were high for the United States Men’s National Team entering their friendly versus Costa Rica late Friday night. While the Americans dominated large portions of the match, Costa Rica’s knife-sharp counterattack yielded them the only goal in the contest, disappointing a quiet, undersized crowd at the Home Depot Center.
The lineup provided to the press by Jurgen Klinsmann was listed as a 4-3-3. The tactics were more fluid though, as indicated to the left. Landon Donovan, as the #10, had the freedom to drop or pressure as a forward while defending. Typically though, he would drift to the right side of the formation. Robbie Rogers played as an inside wing on the right, dropping into midfield to allow Tim Chandler to get up the wing, and cutting inside to his better foot. Jose Torres played as a box-to-box midfielder. Maurice Edu was not comfortable as a pure defensive midfielder. Left-back Edgar Castillo assumed a more defensive role than Chandler, possibly because Torres was more likely to get forward on the attack. Klinsmann instructed a high-line for the defensive four, which became an issue as the game wore on.
Klinsmann got the tactics right early in the match, but the one thing that stood out throughout the match was the ineffectiveness of the lone striker. The match started with Jozy Altidore up front. Now Jozy wasn’t bad; in fact, when he dropped away from the Costa Rican back-line, his holding of the ball and linking with players like Brek Shea and Donovan created a number of chances on the break. When the American offense was set up, however, Altidore was marked out by the opposing central defenders. It should also be mentioned that the service from the flanks was pretty suspect at times.
An early golden chance escaped the Americans, or else this could have been a much different match. In the 5th minute, Shea broke into space, after executing a perfect wall pass with Altidore down the left. As he dribbled and cut inside, he fed the ball to Donovan, whose 16 yard low shot slid just past the right post. Costa Rican goalkeeper Navas had no chance at saving the shot, and it would have been an early statement had Donovan found the net.
Two other dangerous opportunities fell flat. One came on another semi-break, in the 36th minute. The ball eventually came to Rogers, who had to double-back because he was wrong-footed. His cross was not accurate enough for Altidore, and the chance was wasted. The last came at the end of the 45. Rogers started the break from near Tim Howard’s area. The ball was held up well by Altidore, and he fed Donovan in stride. However once he made it into the final third, his centering pass was denied by the defense and the chance fizzled.
At this point, you’d think that the Americans would be confident entering the locker room at the half. But in stoppage time, momentum was lost. Barrantes took advantage of some space and launched a 25 yard shot right at Howard. A minute later, Barrantes passed a ball with the outside of his left foot in Alvaro Saborio’s direction. He let the ball run, recognizing that Chandler had pinched in too tightly from the flank. Sanchez was able to streak unmarked onto the ball, and his shot from 14 yards was parried over the goal by Howard. The half ended scoreless, but Costa Rica had exposed some potential issues.
The second half was much less remarkable for the United States, with players beginning to look tired and a bit frustrated at a Costa Rica team content to absorb the Americans’ possession. The surprise for me came in the fact that, over 90 minutes, Klinsmann used only two substitutes. In a friendly, a manager technically has all seven bench players to use without limit, and players like Edu, Castillo, and Torres began to look spent. Instead, the only two changes were the appearance of Juan Agudelo replacing Altidore, and Sasha Kljestan spelling Rogers. Kljestan took Donovan’s role in the offense, while the LA Galaxy star moved right.
Right before Kljestan came on though, Costa Rica grabbed the lead on a well-timed run by Saborio that beat the high American line. Sanchez, who was not under pressure, lofted the ball into space. Saborio took the ball to the right of goal and crossed to Barrantes. His 7 yard shot was miraculously stopped by Howard, but the rebound was in the perfect position for Costa Rican sub Rodney Wallace. Wallace’s diving header was just enough to beat Howard’s desperate swipe to earn the only goal.
The last 20 minutes saw the fatigued Americans struggle to challenge Navas with anything of consequence. The match steadily rose in terms of physicality, with many cautions being issues to both sides. The Americans were dejected and spent, and lacked the creativity to equalize.
I’m not that worried, though. This match restated some of the concerns we had in the lineup chosen for Mexico,namely Michael Orozco-Fiscal and Edgar Castillo. Neither player performed well in this match. Edu also struggled in my opinion, especially as the match wore on. I was thoroughly surprised not to see Jeff Larentowicz or Jonathan Spector spell him in the 2nd half, but maybe Klinsmann was making a statement. In reality, Edu is more of a box-to-box midfielder, and he was often caught too far upfield to blow up a Costa Rican counterattack. And Tim Chandler, a guy many of us have been itching to see, also struggled to provide service on his runs up the flank. In addition, he seemed to play too narrow at times. The bottom line: 4 out of 11 were not what I consider first choice considering the formation, so let’s keep that in mind.
If I do have a concern, it’s up top. Altidore and Agudelo both struggled to get involved as the lone striker, when faced with some physical center backs. Generally it seemed to me that the team didn’t play instinctively, but instead thought too much when on the ball. Several chances were wasted because players took an extra touch or made one too many passes. The next match, Belgium on Tuesday, should be a better indication of where the team is at mentally and physically. The Belgians should play more offensively, and not sit back and wait for us to commit.