Do you remember when I said it was a roller coaster ride to watch the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team? Well, this is the part of the ride where you PANIC because we just plummeted hard. After a very positive three game warm up, the team ended up losing 2-0 to Colombia on Friday in the opening game of the Copa America. Now, the U.S. will face off against Costa Rica tonight at 8:00 PM with everything on the line. This game is now a must win to get out of the group stage of the tournament.
Losing to Colombia was an interesting result (not that it was surprising) because Jurgen Klinsmann went with probably one of his strongest lineups, and elected to push the team away from a defense-minded orientation to an attacking one. Colombia decided to let the USMNT have a lot of possession and simply waited for opportunities to strike forward. It worked for Colombia, in both the immediate build-up to the corner that resulted in the first goal and in the passes that led to DeAndre Yedlin’s clear handball in the box. Klinsmann will have some player choices to think about going into Tuesday night, considering the poor performances.
For one, Michael Bradley had a bad game playing as a defensive midfielder and that could spell trouble going into the Costa Rica match. Bradley ended up attempting a few poorly conceived passes, failing to complete some easy ones, and seemed reckless in his defensive challenges. Even accepting that, it’s interesting how much criticism both Bradley and Klinsmann received for Bradley’s positioning, after many have spent several years calling for him to be deployed there with the national team. One bad game (after stellar play in the same role in the warm-up games and with his club) seems like a bit of an overreaction. Bradley certainly failed to be the talisman he needed to be for the U.S. to have a shot at a win, as I said in my prediction, but failing to get the better of James Rodriguez is at least understandable. Look for a better game against Costa Rica.
Of greater concern was the lack of true attacking menace from the USMNT. Clint Dempsey did his best, creating a couple chances, but in truth was probably too selfish on a few attempts and there were very few clear opportunities to get in the game. It has been said here before, but Dempsey may not be the best option for the team anymore and allowing Bobby Wood to be the focal point up the middle is almost certainly the future. Moving that direction against Costa Rica would give Christian Pulisic a chance to start on the left and keep workhorse Gyasi Zardes on the right. This would be a speedy, dangerous attack but unfortunately, one we are unlikely to see since Dempsey still has a firm hold on his starting spot.
Another, albeit less appealing, option would be to put in Pulisic for either Wood or Zardes, as some have alternately found fault with Wood for his lack of production against Colombia and with Zardes for his lack of technical ability. I would argue that of the two, Wood is the better player, but in either case Klinsmann will likely keep the same starting three. That means the remedy to the lack of forward progress might mean bringing on the creative brilliance of Darlington Nagbe, in place of either Jermaine Jones or Alejandro Bedoya. While both are Klinsmann favorites, neither had a world-class game against Colombia and the creativity Nagbe provides, not to mention his ability to keep the ball, is worth a start. So, if there are changes to the starting 11, look for Nagbe to come on in the midfield.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, went and did the USMNT a favor by drawing 0-0 with Paraguay on Saturday. That means each gained only a point from the match, leaving the group standing as: Colombia in first with 3, Costa Rica and Paraguay tied with 1, and the U.S. in last with 0. A win Tuesday night would mean the U.S. jumps Costa Rica and, barring a Colombian collapse, Paraguay as well, into second place.
Costa Rica, as a familiar CONCACAF opponent (CONCACAF is the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football, which is just how FIFA regionally divides up the globe into what can basically be looked at as conferences), is a different kind of problem for the U.S. team. Although many remember the victory in the Snow Game, with a 13-14-6 record, the U.S. has always had difficulties with the rainforest nation, including losing 1-0 last time around in October 2015. Helpfully, Costa Rica’s keeper, Keylor Navas of Real Madrid, is out for the tournament leaving Danny Carvajal as his replacement. Starting defender Kendall Watson is also out, after getting sent off in the Paraguay match with a red card.
With Costa Rica somewhat handicapped, the U.S. need to take advantage and press high up the field from the start. If either Pulisic and Nagbe bring their energy to the starting 11, I think the U.S. can score an early goal and open the game up. Look for goal two in the second half to seal the deal and get the USMNT back on track in the group.
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