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USMNT vs. Costa Rica: What we learned

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Back to school after a rough night

Costa Rica v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The U.S. Men’s National Team may not have gone into the match last night expecting to win, but they should have at least felt confident. The team was at home, playing a Costa Rica side they had beaten 2-0 in July, and were riding a 14 game unbeaten streak under the second tenure of coach Bruce Arena. However, only four of those matches have been in World Cup Qualifying with the others being friendlies or coming from spurious results in an off year Gold Cup. The team hasn’t looked great in all of those matches, but it took until last night for the USMNT to get their first loss since last November.

Here’s what we learned:

Tim Ream is not suited to pair with Geoff Cameron

With an injury to John Brooks, Bruce Arena was forced to reach down the depth chart and came up with an unexpected center back pairing. Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream seemed like an odd duo and played like it with neither having a particularly good night. Ream failed to shut down San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Urena on the first goal of the game and he and Cameron seemed out of sync the entire match.

For his part, Geoff Cameron, who is expected to be a starter if the US qualifies for the World Cup in 2018, kept sending hospital balls through the midfield that cost the U.S. possession and gave Costa Rica the ball in dangerous areas. The spacing between the two defenders is awful on the first goal, but Cameron was so far on the right he might as well have been on the moon as this graphic illustrates:

The game really turned into a disaster for Cameron though when he forced a pass that was intercepted by David Guzman who played Urena through to score the second goal of the match. All together, it was a dreadful performance for the central defense, one that should send Arena back to find a new partner for Cameron or perhaps try something totally different with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler starting against Honduras.

We need to see more out of Fabian Johnson

Being versatile is great. Playing in the Bundesliga is great. But, if Fabian Johnson is going to make the World Cup roster he has to do better when he pulls on a USA kit. The debate about Johnson used to be if he should be at left midfield or if he should be at left back, but now it should be if he should be left off of the roster completely. He was largely ineffective in the game at midfield and didn’t have to do much at left back when he was pushed into defense when Clint Dempsey came on for Jorge Villafana.

Johnson will have between the next match at Honduras and the qualifiers in October, assuming he makes the roster, to show that he belongs on the national team.

The U.S. had no answer to Pulisic being contained

Give Costa Rica credit, they came out with a game plan, executed it and got three huge points on the road. A major part of that plan was containing Christian Pulisic who was greeted by two or more players clad in red every time he touched the ball. Costa Rica otherwise clogged up the midfield, keeping the U.S. from establishing a rhythm and preventing decent scoring chances from the possession that the team held. With the focal point of the attack from midfield contained, the U.S. had few ideas when it came to breaking down Costa Rica.

Bruce Arena is still Bruce Arena

This brings up another point, one that puts the focus on Bruce Arena. Playing two strikers with similar skill sets was another odd choice and one that meant sacrificing a body in midfield. One reason Costa Rica was able to outplay the U.S. was that they out manned the Stars and Stripes in the center of the pitch by playing a 4-5-1 formation. The deficiencies of Ream and Cameron starting in the backline were magnified by playing a four man midfield and two strikers with Michael Bradley having the sole responsibility of shielding the center backs and facilitating the buildup by acting as an outlet for the defenders. Despite having an overall fine performance, Bradley needed more help and was one man doing a two man job.

Bruce Arena seemed to recognize this when he talked about not being able to move the ball quickly enough through midfield in his halftime comments. He did approximately nothing to address that at least from a personnel standpoint as the second half opened. Rather than make a tactical switch, Arena doubled down on a substitution strategy he used in the Gold Cup: put a lot of attacking players on the field and hope something good happens.

First, he brought Clint Dempsey on in the 65th minute which effectively changed the U.S. shape to a 4-3-3 with a similarly useless effect on ball movement for the remainder of the game. He then brought in Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola after the second goal, both failed to have an impact on the game.

Surprisingly, Arena took the same gameplan that saw the U.S. struggle to breakdown the Ticos in July and used it again last night. In that game a few months ago, the U.S. failed to turn possession into meaningful chances until after the 70th minute against a Costa Rica ‘B’ team. The result last night was the same but saw the scoreline reversed for Costa Rica.

Sometimes things just won’t go right

While being shut out at home for the first time at home in World Cup Qualifying since 1985 is a dubious mark to set, the U.S. wasn’t completely terrible in the game. Though it was a tough result, it is a far cry from the team’s 4-0 loss in San Jose they suffered in Jurgen Klinsmann’s last match. Had one or two things broken differently for the U.S. the team may very well have come away with a point or three last night.

In the 24th minute, the referee missed an obvious penalty when Kendall Waston dragged Jozy Altidore down from behind. Keylor Navas had two incredible saves on shots that looked sure to be on their way into the net. Had the referee seen things differently or had Navas’ reflexes been a split second slower, the match may have been completely different. Obviously it wasn’t, but at this point the loss isn’t the end of the world for the U.S. The team still controls its destiny heading into the last three matches of the qualifying campaign and will look to get three points against Honduras on Tuesday.