A number of factors led to the loss against Costa Rica on Friday night and the takes have been hot and heavy in the game’s aftermath. Everyone from pundits, to bloggers, to newspaper writers, to fans have taken to the airwaves, websites, sports pages, social media, and comments sections to make sure that no angle was left uncovered, no theory un-espoused, and it has kept the hot take hearth burning well above 451 degrees. Bruce Arena’s name has certainly helped stoke the coals and he faced reporters, including Steven Goff of the Washington Post, on Monday to discuss some of the criticism about his game plan against Costa Rica, what to expect against Honduras, and a variety of high temperature topics.
After a tough game in which he committed costly errors and had difficulty distributing the ball, Tim Howard was a topic of conversation with reporters on Monday. Bruce Arena said that the veteran keeper was still recovering from his groin surgery last off season. He expressed confidence that Howard would benefit from resting once the MLS season ends, but had a surprising choice for who he would play in goal against Honduras. Asked if Brad would start against Los Catrachos in a high-stakes match, Arena quipped that "Brad Friedel is starting tomorrow."
He also discussed why he brought Nick Rimando onto the squad over a younger keeper like Bill Hamid or Ethan Horvath, telling reporters his focus is on the Hex and the 2018 World Cup:
“Yes. If I was thinking of coaching past the 2018 World Cup, I would be maybe considering the third goalkeeper. That's not my focus. If it was my focus, I would probably have a younger goalkeeper and say we're getting him ready for down the road. But I'm not concerned with down the road.”
If Arena is worried about qualifying, he didn’t seem to show it and said that he expects a win this evening. With several of the players from European clubs struggling last match, Arena addressed his decision to play them against Costa Rica and perhaps indicated how he will choose his team today, saying:
“There is a big difference at this time of the year for the European players; they're not that fit yet and they are not used to these [extremely hot] conditions. So you'd have to think, if they are going to play in one of these two games, it's going to be in the first game [Friday vs. Costa Rica in New Jersey]. Common sense would tell you that, and there are exceptions to the rule.”
He also noted that the players who are challenging themselves at the highest level in Europe may not be the best choices for qualifiers scheduled just after the start of their seasons. Though the U.S. struggled in the Gold Cup, relying on late goals in matches that featured questionable defense and ultimately needed to be bailed out by calling in players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Darlington Nagbe for the knockout stages, Arena believes that players who featured in the tournament might be better choices this time of year, telling reporters:
"We had players who played in June and we didn't see them again until September. That's a big gap, and maybe in retrospect, you don't even use them. Maybe you stick with the guys you had in the Gold Cup. To get a real feel for where [the European-based players] are physically is challenging."
Though it wouldn’t have been a result that the team deserved, there were a few missed calls against Costa Rica that could have changed the fate of the match. There have been some rumblings that the official for the match, Panamanian John Pitti, was perhaps trying to give his country an edge in the Hex with some of the calls he made.
Arena dismissed any notion that there was nefarious intent by the referee in creating a CONCACAF Ladrones situation in New Jersey on Friday. He told reporters, “I think you have to trust that the officials have integrity.” Though the missed calls on Friday were costly, Arena joked that the mental aptitude of the officials is the most likely explanation for how the game was officiated, saying “Some might be incompetent, but you'd like to believe they have integrity.” Arena added that calls from officials make managing Hex matches more difficult because adjusting to how a referee calls games is an added variable not usually present in typical matches.
One player who did not adjust well to how calls were being made Friday was Christian Pulisic. The creative midfielder looked more like a teenager who isn’t quite ready to take on the heavy responsibility of putting the entirety of the hopes of American soccer fans on his shoulders than a player ready for that burden. To be fair, when Pulisic has been fouled in the Hex he has not gotten calls. Still, Arena says that he needs to be wiser in responding to those kinds of situations and “find the next play in the right spots of the field to draw fouls and maybe we get a penalty or a free kick that is dangerous. … We've talked to him. We'll find out tomorrow if it's gotten any better.”
Arena also joined in the criticism of playing the match in Red Bull Arena, telling reporters “I don't think we should play in a venue that's comfortable for the visiting team.” Despite his objection to the venue, he didn’t think that the result would have changed if the U.S. played in some other stadium saying, “I don't think it made a difference in the game.”
Arena continued to unpack his complicated and somewhat contradictory view on the stadium selection, saying that he thinks “it probably makes a difference for Costa Rica. We don't get any luxuries on the road, and everything is nice and comfortable [for teams visiting the United States].” Arena further detailed his stance about where the USMNT plays home matches saying, “Our country is unique: We're a melting pot, and all of the countries in CONCACAF, many of their countrymen make it to the United States in one capacity or another and they'll come out and support their team.” Despite saying that the venue had no bearing on the outcome of the game, Arena still thinks that USSF should look at where matches are played, saying “We have to be shrewd in the venues we select.”
At this point the USMNT still controls its own destiny in finishing in the top three in the Hex. However, Honduras will be looking to win their second straight match in the final round of qualifying. Needless to say, a lot is on the line in the game. A win for either team would put them alone in third place with 11 points. The loss or draw would mean falling as far as fifth behind Panama if Los Canaleros can take all three points against Trinidad & Tobago in Panama City tonight.