The United States Men’s National Team continues to look for the right road to the 2022 World Cup. Mixed results were notched against Jamaica and Panama, by 2-0 and 0-1 margins, respectively. Gregg Berhalter has the chance to close out the window on a positive note, taking on Costa Rica at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio.
This is the 41st all-time meeting between the two traditional continental powers, with the USMNT holding a narrow 18-16-6 historical advantage. Los Ticos opened the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification with a scoreless draw against Panama, a 1-0 loss to Mexico, and a 1-1 draw against Jamaica. In the current international window, the results have improved. A scoreless draw against Honduras and a 2-1 comeback win against El Salvador pushed the team into fifth place, ending a truly underwhelming run of form.
Costa Rica is managed by Luis Fernando Suárez, an experienced journeyman with stops in charge of Deportivo Cali, Honduras, and Ecuador. The 61-year-old Colombian was appointed to the role this past June and has compiled a 4-2-4 record. He is the country’s third manager since 2018 and drew some domestic criticism during the slow start, particularly after claiming the team has a lack of depth.
“The only thing that reflects the positioning in this area of the CONCACAF world is how even everything is,” the manager said after the recent match. “If we are two points from second place, it is because in reality the possibilities that all the teams have are very equal and that will not general qualification fast... [We will focus on] obtaining three points [against the United States]. Today we had a very strong game, with the very physical conditions. We have to recover tomorrow, and we will travel after noon. A very long flight awaits us, and we will only have Tuesday to do the strategic part.”
Suárez ultimately named a 25-player roster for this international window, following the addition and departure of several call-ups. The dominant Liga FPD trio of Saprissa, Alajuelense, and Herediano contributed 13 representatives to the squad. Defender Giancarlo González requested to be removed in order to “give more opportunities to the young footballers.” Talented striker Manfred Ugalde is also out, supposedly not to return until the current manager leaves. The decision drew public criticism from teammates.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Aarón Cruz (Saprissa), Leonel Moreira (Alajuelense), Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain)
DEFENDERS (9): Ricardo Blanco (Saprissa), Francisco Calvo (Chicago Fire), Óscar Duarte (Levante), Fernán Faerrón (Alajuelense), Keysher Fuller (Herediano), Rónald Matarrita (FC Cincinnati), Bryan Oviedo (Copenhagen), Juan Pablo Vargas (Millonarios), Kendall Waston (Saprissa)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Celso Borges (Alajuelense), Luis Díaz (Columbus Crew), Orlando Galo (Herediano), Randall Leal (Nashville SC), Jimmy Marín (Saprissa), Bryan Ruiz (Alajuelense), Youstin Salas (Municipal Grecia), Yeltsin Tejeda (Herediano), Johan Venegas (Alajuelense)
FORWARDS (4): Joel Campbell (Monterrey), Jonathan Moya (Anyang), José Guillermo Ortiz (Herediano), Kenneth Vargas (Municipal Grecia)
Suárez prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation but pulled out the 5-4-1 against Honduras. The latter setup was a foundation of past Costa Rican success. The squad is aging, with this cycle likely serving as the last for most of the players. Against El Salvador, every member of the starting lineup was aged 29 or older. Expect a similar defense-heavy, veteran set-up against a potentially youthful USMNT.
Unless truly controlling the match, Los Ticos tends to surrender possession, which in turn leads to not taking a lot of shots. Long-term attacking issues appear to be an institutional problem, causing some to opine that “in Costa Rica there are many forwards but few scorers.” The focus is maintaining a strong defensive shape, which has mixed success due to persistent fouling and errors in possession.
At the age of 34, Keylor Navas remains the best goalkeeper in CONCACAF, as is expected from a player at one of the world’s most expensive clubs. He has even managed to hold off Gianluigi Donnarumma, with the two splitting time at Paris Saint-Germain. His shot-stopping is second to none, frequently denying opponents from close range and blocking balls destined for the upper 90. A late save against El Salvador would make the highlight reel for most players, but that’s mere routine for him.
91' minute, back against the wall, Keylor Navas comes up big pic.twitter.com/VtcyznINxL— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 11, 2021
Despite being undersized for the center back position, Levante’s Óscar Duarte is a fairly intimidating aerial presence on both sides of the ball. He times his tackles well and wins headers with fantastic leaping ability. His partner continues to be Francisco Calvo of the Chicago Fire, who has a pretty demanding job at one of Major League Soccer’s most consistently underperforming clubs. Only 5’10”, the 29-year-old finds the back of the net regularly, a constant target on set pieces. Their lack of height is compensated by the towering Kendall Waston, who continues to be a clearance machine and dominate set pieces.
FC Cincinnati’s Rónald Matarrita could start at left back, providing attacking bite. He sprints up and down the flank, looking to launch into a tackle or combine in the build-up. At 32 years old, Ricardo Blanco of Saprissa has rarely been called into the national team but started four matches in qualifying. His attacking runs tend to cut inward toward the goal, resulting in him receiving through balls rather than playing them. Herediano fullback Keysher Fuller might also factor into the lineup, although his performance against El Salvador drew criticism.
When available, Yeltsin Tejeda continues to be the most consistent player for Costa Rica, a disciplined defensive midfielder that judiciously selects passes. His tackling could be stronger for the position, but the presence of three center backs eases the need for a bulldog-like six in the engine room. Celso Borges recently departed Deportivo La Coruña, swapping the La Liga side for the domestic Alajuelense. He plays as more of a box-to-box, alternating between leading the attack and late-arriving runs.
OH. MY.— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 17, 2019
What a strike by Celso Borges
Los Ticos captain puts Costa Rica up by 2 in the first half. pic.twitter.com/sd2OsQcKG0
Versatile veteran Johan Venegas has played a few times against the USMNT, usually at forward. On a team desperate to increase scoring, his creativity and occasional productivity make him a logical lineup inclusion. Almost a decade later, Joel Campbell is still a key player for Los Ticos despite never having quite achieved stardom at Arsenal. He rides a high line and covers his entire half of the field, alternating between a winger and second striker on a minute-to-minute basis. If the qualifying campaign is going to turn around, then the 29-year-old needs to find some of the old magic. Attacker Bryan Ruiz will be a handful in the final third until the day he retires, but starting twice in four days is perhaps too exhaustive a task for the 36-year-old captain.
Jonathan Moya should get the nod at striker. The 29-year-old currently plays with Anyang in the second division of South Korea, scoring 14 goals in 27 appearances, but quite a few are penalty conversions. At 6’1”, he is a typical target man, winning headers and steering well-placed passes into the goal. If necessary, José Guillermo Ortiz can also slot into the top of the formation, providing a more agile and dynamic look.
The USMNT has to take advantage of playing at home, but the veteran opponents have far more experience in World Cup qualifying. Costa Rica has talent but may struggle to keep pace with Berhalter’s younger, energetic side. Expect a low-scoring result, despite both nations – generally trending in opposite directions – having the potential for more.
The match is scheduled for Wednesday, October 13th at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include ESPN2, TUDN USA UniMás, and FUBO TV (free trial).