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USA vs. Costa Rica, 2018 World Cup Qualifying: What to watch for

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Can the USMNT do enough against the Ticos to affirm their place in next year’s World Cup?

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Costa Rica at USA Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost hard to believe that only five weeks ago, the United States were crowned as 2017 Gold Cup Champions over a spirited Jamaica in Santa Clara, California. Yet, just as we creep into the beginning of the club football season, this week’s international break comes at a crucial point for the Americans in their quest to play in Russia in 2018.

Despite the many successes in recent months with Bruce Arena at the helm, the USMNT face what is probably their most meaningful match since the 2014 World Cup, when Costa Rica visits the New York City area Friday night. These two teams carry some fresh scars from recently facing one another.

The last time we saw the Ticos square off against the USMNT, it was in the Gold Cup semifinal. You know, the match where Clint Dempsey came off the bench and did this.

Ah, good times.

Before that, the Ticos punished the US in a 4-0 beatdown in San Jose, Costa Rica last November. That loss meant the US started off the Hex without a single point after their first two matches for the first time in history, and it resulted in the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann and the hiring of Bruce Arena.

Luckily for the United States, they have since recovered by scoring eight points over their last four World Cup qualifiers. And, as Costa Rica experienced in the Gold Cup, this is a much more toned US National Team than the one they faced last Fall.

Where They Stand

Six games into what’s been a hectic hexagonal qualifying round that has seen a firing of the team’s head coach, two teams remain above the USMNT (8 points): Mexico (14 points) and Costa Rica (11 points). With four games in hand and a one point separation between the U.S. and Panama for the third qualifying position, the two games for the United States over the break leave no room for error in any form. Three points are demanded from Bruce Arena and his squad if they wish to make their qualification process any easier. As for the Ticos, a win or a tie against a solid US team would mean their World Cup hopes are virtually on lock.

Remember: 16 points is typically the magic number for a team in the hex to qualify for the World Cup.

Recent Form

USA

W (2-1) - Jamaica - Gold Cup Final

W (2-0) - Costa Rica - Gold Cup Semifinal

W (2-0) - El Salvador - Gold Cup Quarterfinal

W (3-0) - Nicaragua - Gold Cup Group Stage

W (3-2) - Martinique - Gold Cup Group Stage

Costa Rica

L (0-2) - USA - Gold Cup Semifinal

W (1-0) - Panama - Gold Cup Quarterfinal

W (3-0) - French Guinea - Gold Cup Group Stage

D (1-1) - Canada - Gold Cup Group Stage

W (1-0) - Honduras - Gold Cup Group Stage

What to Watch For

How the Deuce will be used - During the final stages of the Gold Cup lats month, Bruce Arena utilized Clint Dempsey as a super substitution who came off the bench during critical points in the match and electrify the United States offense. This new role for the long-time star of the national team worked perfectly throughout the Gold Cup. But a real question remains whether Bruce Arena will use Clint Dempsey off the bench against Costa Rica, or whether he wants Clint’s experience on the pitch for most of the match. Keep your eyes peeled on the lineup sheet that’ll be posted on Friday.

In the Middle - When the U.S. squared off against Costa Rica in July, the midfield was dominated by the liked of Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta. Michael Bradley acted as a one man shield just in front of the back line, while Acosta ran the terrain and linked the attackers with the back line. The youthful exuberance and the veteran mentality of the two middies might serve well against the Ticos once more. After his outstanding Gold Cup performances, Darlington Nagbe should be getting some more serious looks during World Cup qualifiers in the next two months. His impact with the ball at his feet in addition to Pulisic’s will surely open up space for the attackers and wingers going forward.

ISO Cameras - This is one little fun thing to keep your eye out for. If you happen to have ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN3, you will be able to solely watch players like Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey for 90 minutes (or however long they play). This is definitely a new idea that the network is floating around to maybe increase some traffic towards their streaming service, but I for one am all aboard this idea. It should be fun to follow around the brightest talent in the U.S. and focus on his quick and dynamic movement off the ball. For students of the game, this is a great chance to bring out your notebook and study the timing of his runs and quick directional and speed changes up close.

Predicted Lineup

Due to the set of circumstances, I don’t see Bruce Arena experimenting with his lineup too much during this international break. Expect the heavy hitters to come out in full force against a solid Costa Rican side. The USMNT want revenge from last fall, and the confines of Red Bull Arena should be the perfect venue to do so. With Bobby Wood back in the mix, it should be expected that him and Jozy Altidore work together in a 10, 9 role as the two forwards. The wing backs of Fabian Johnson (who might be pushed up to the midfield) and Graham Zusi will press Pulisic and Nagbe up and in while utilizing their foot skills. Acosta will interchange with the wingers when necessary and serve as the box-to-box midfielder, while Bradley snuffs counters by sitting in front of the back line and filling in defensively when necessary. Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, and Omar Gonzalez will hold down the fort in the back.

Prediction

USA 2-1 Costa Rica

Who do you think will start on Friday? Who wins? Let us know in the comments below. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook!