After a disappointing loss home to Mexico on Friday night, the US now travels to Costa Rica for the second game of Hexagonal round World Cup Qualifying. The US needs to get something out of the game, even if just a draw, to avoid putting itself into a hole to start the Hex, and Friday’s result aside, the US looks capable of doing so.
Aside from the first 25 minutes, when a tactical mistake had the US firmly on the back foot and lucky to be only a goal down, the game was quite even. And, had the US made more of their second-half dominance, could easily have drawn or won against a very good Mexican team. That said, they lost, and deserved to on the night, largely due to the way the team lined up to start the game. It appeared to be a 3-5-2, though coach Jurgen Klinsmann called it a 3-4-3. Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Rather than helping to control the midfield zone, as one might expect from such a formation, the US were blitzed again and again by swift midfield runners, moving the ball quickly from side to side to gain numeric advantages. The US conceded once in a hectic opening 25 minutes, and only the frame of the goal prevented two more goals. The US stabilized immediately after switching to a 4-4-2, but it wasn’t enough, because Rafa Marquez is the absolute worst.
But not all was terrible. Christian Pulisic, though just as out of sorts as most of his teammates during the first 30 minutes, looked exciting in a central playmaking role, his touch letting him down at times, but his running and decision making always looking dangerous. And, after being moved out to the wing, Pulisic settled down and was one of the US’s most potent players throughout, targeted for tactical fouling by Mexico, and showing again that he absolutely belongs.
Additionally, the Jozy Altidore–Bobby Wood partnership continued to bear fruit, with the two combining for the US’s goal, and each of them taking it in turn to make the Mexico defense work hard. Klinsmann has said their pairing is “set in stone” and it’s hard to argue with that.
Looking ahead to Costa Rica
Tim Howard injured his right adductor on Friday, and the prognosis is not good, with reports that he will miss months, likely taking him out of the MLS playoffs and certainly out of Tuesday’s game in Costa Rica. Brad Guzan is a capable deputy but has played relatively little for his club team of late.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, is on a very good run. Since losing the the US, 4–0, in the Copa America, CR has won five straight, beating Colombia, Haiti, Panama, Russia (in Russia!), and Trinidad & Tobago. The good news is they only managed clean sheets versus Haiti and T&T. The bad news is the streak has come with only one home game, versus Panama. The US has a lackluster history in games played in CR. Actually, that’s the kindest way to put it—the US has never actually won there, with only a single draw from nine games, and that came back in 1985.
The US should feel upset by the Mexico loss, frustrated—but not discouraged. The play the US displayed outside of the first half hour was good; it was certainly good enough to feel confident of getting something from the game in Costa Rica, history notwithstanding. With a more sensible lineup, perhaps with Sacha Kljestan reinserted into midfield alongside Michael Bradley and a player like Alejandro Bedoya balancing the wing opposite Pulisic, the US can take the game to CR, even in a hostile environment. Prediction: Costa Rica 1–1 USA.