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United States v. Costa Rica, 2022 World Cup Qualifying; What we Learned

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The USMNT overcame an early set back to win 2-1 vs. Costa Rica in the team’s return to Columbus. Here’s what we learned.

Costa Rica v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States men’s national team took on Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, for their third match this week, their 6th overall in World Cup qualifying. And, you know what? It had a bit of a harrowing start. The team had to recover after a cascading series of defensive errors let Costa Rica score in the first few minutes of the game. But the team got back into it, with Sergiño Dest scoring a wonderful goal to tie the game back up. In the second half, the team pounced on a mistake, with Tim Weah forcing through a second goal (alas, the defenders conspired to deny him credit, intent on claiming it for themselves). By no means was it a perfect performance, but it did see the US play some of the best soccer we’ve seen in a long time. Let’s get started.

Happy Days once Again

The United States fell behind versus Costa Rica and then turn the resort around to win in a third come back victory. Winning matches after falling from behind is the mark of an effective team. It’s hard to win a game if you fall behind and so turning around a result requires mental fortitude and high morale. It’s very easy for a game that’s going badly to get worse. In that sense the players and the coach deserve praise for being able to handle that kind of adversity.

When we further look at how the game played out, we see that the United States even though they fell behind at the very start of the game, we’re that the team played quite well. The midfield was able to connect the defense with the white players so that the United States, while they couldn’t necessarily get as many shots as they would like, they were able to frequently break into the final third.Much of that was because of the industry a Weston McKennie. McKennie missed out on the match versus panama due to a minor injury made us return here. It was, in a sense, an uneven performance with McKennie both winning the ball and losing the ball more than any other American player on the field. However he brought a certain level of energy to the game that was otherwise sorely lacking against Panama. In particular, McKennie was willing to run at the Costa Rican defense, breaking through the midfield line. This usually eventually resulted in a turnover. However, those runs also forced the Costa Rican defenders and midfielders to panic. To try and prevent McKennie from getting through, two or three Costa Rican players would get sucked in towards him to try and win the ball back before he could get a shot off. Which meant that they were out of position if the ball squirted out to a different American player. That’s actually one of the things that Christian Pulisic has done really well at times with Chelsea. And, with him missing out on this set of matches due to injury (and, frankly, with him not playing super great when he actually is with the national team), it’s been a missing skillset.

But it’s not just an on-the-ball skill for McKennie. He’s also making those smart, vertical runs off the ball. The USMNT’s first goal is actually a great example.

Yunus Musah lays the ball off to Sergiño Dest. McKennie starts off just a little bit in front and to the left of Dest. He points with his arm where exactly he’s going to go, and then he does exactly that. Now, look at what the defenders do. There’s one standing right in front of Dest. That guy is a bit hesitant to jump in with a tackle because he’s worried that Dest will just slip the ball past with space for McKennie. There’s also a defender on McKennie, tailing him. What do the defenders do when McKennie makes his run? The one closest to Dest holds his ground, trying to block the pass, while the other one starts to follow McKennie, not realizing that a big pocket of space has opened up for Dest. Dest slides into that space, and puts in a beautiful shot to tie the game.

Since we are on that goal, let’s talk about the build up for a second. That whole sequence, from winning the ball in the American half, to goal, took 13 passes. On paper, it sounds like it was an excellent moment of moving the ball well in the opponents half. But when you actually look at the sequence of passes, there’s a little bit of a wrinkle: 10 of those passes started in the US’s own half, and mostly in the US’s own defense third, at that. This isn’t an example of probing a defense until you can find an opening. This is an example of breaking a press, and then attacking quickly.

What are Costa Rica doing during passes 1-9? They are trying to force a mistake and win the ball back all the way in the United States final third.

The Other Side

For the third time this year, the USMNT had to come from behind in order to win the match. (Actually, this is the 4th time the MNT overturned a deficit: the team fell behind twice v. Mexico in the Nations League.) And that speaks to a different problem. Two of the goals came in the early minutes of their respective matches. Yeah, the US clawed their way back from these set backs, playing some of their best soccer in the process, but that leaves us with a rather obvious question: why has the team fallen behind in such important games? It’s great that the team managed to muster some urgency in their play after experiencing a set back. But is that urgency there is Costa Rica don't score in the first minute. It’s impossible to tell for certain, but we haven’t necessarily seen that kind of urgency when the team isn’t trying to play out of a hole. Those mistakes are on Gregg Berhalter. And if the team really is only kicking it into high-gear when they’ve put themselves into do-or-die situations, well that’s also on Gregg Berhalter.

The thing is, in a lot of ways, we got a bit lucky on this one.

Costa Rica’s been riding a set of generational talent for quite a while now, and those gears are really starting to shake and creak. Others have said it, but I’m going to say it again: the youngest player on the Costa Rican line up was older than the oldest player on the USMNT’s. Usually that’s a comment about how young the MNT is, and by extension, the positives and negatives that go with it. But it’s also a statement about how old Costa Rica is. And, look, if you are going to play a lineup with 6 players in their 30’s game after game, you are going to struggle to keep that energy up late in the game. That’s what happened here. Costa Rica beat El Salvador at home, and then made only one change against the US. That one change appears to have only happened because Joel Campbell sprained his ankle. Injury ended up also claiming CONCACAF goalkeeping legend Keylor Navas partway through the game. Does a more rested Costa Rica put more pressure on the US? Almost certainly. Does a healthy Navas keep out Tim Weah’s shot? Hard to say, but it’s at least possible.

The US also got lucky with Costa Rica’s tactics. I talked earlier about how the first goal came out of playing out through pressure. Well, part of that story is that Costa Rica were, well, pressing. They were pressing pretty high up the field, particularly in the first half. While they backed off a bit, they never really retreated into the kind of really tight low-block that saw from Canada and Jamaica when they came to the States for those qualifiers. Instead, Costa Rica tried to be aggressive with their defense, putting the US off and trying to force mistakes (as we saw from their goal.) However, putting people forward like that necessarily means that there is space in behind for the team with the ball to attack. And we saw the US identify that space and attack into it. Credit to the US players, they took the space that was created. But Costa Rica didn’t have to give up that space in the first place, especially not after taking the lead. They left that space there, which proved a major tactical mistake. It basically gave the US a chance to get back into the game. Does the US manage a win if Costa Rica decides to just close up shop?

Let’s Talk Scheduling

The US has now played 6 games, three at home and three away. The team sits in second in World Cup Qualifying, which gets us to the World Cup. Remember, the primary objective is to win enough points to qualify for the World Cup. Everything else, playing fun soccer, integrating new players, developing new strategies, everything else comes second to that core objective of getting enough qualifying points.

Remember, we didn’t qualify last time. That makes it important to keep an eye on what really matters, because we’ve all seen what happens if the team doesn’t have it’s priority straight and gets caught out. I bring this up for two reasons.

1) We are just under the halfway point in qualifying (we’ve got 14 matches total and have played 6), and
2) We lost this fixture last time around and that probably was one of the defining matches for that cycle’s CONCACAF qualifying schedule.

This time around, we won. Which is obviously a huge improvement. But that necessarily means looking critically at what comes next. Up next is Mexico, with the US hosting in Cincinnati. It’s the hardest home game in the schedule. It’s also a fixture we lost last time. Winning that game would vault us back to the top of the qualifying table, even with Mexico.

But what happens if we lose? Because, you know, Mexico is the hardest team. It’s possible we might lose, and we should know if we’ve done enough to account for that and what we have to do if it happens. If we lose, the most likely scenario is that we drop to third, the last automatic qualifying spot. That’s not a given. If Canada loses at home to Costa Rica, we stay second. If Panama beats Honduras away (unlikely for me), we can potentially drop to fourth, depending on tie breakers.

By itself, that probably means the US is on a decent pace. But then we need to look at the schedule. After the next game, the US will have already played their home fixtures against Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica. That means we still have our away matches against those teams. And those matches will be tough. Thus far, the US has played away games to Panama, El Salvador, and Honduras. The later two are at the bottom of the table. (Panama has been pretty good, but I suspect that’s probably a result of a similarly kind schedule, because they’ve been kinda bad on the road. But I digress.) If our fixtures get harder, it means keeping pace gets harder.

Rotating

I mentioned in a comment for the article after the Panama game that I was planning to go over Berhalter and rotation here. Well, here it is. Was rotating during the away game v. Panama worth it?

Probably.

Let’s take a second and look at the competition we played. We had both Panama and Costa Rica, and both teams mostly eschewed rotating. How did they do? Well, Costa Rica drew away v. El Salvador, before beating Honduras at home, and then losing to the US. So, 4 points, Panama had a loss to El Salvador and a loss to Canada, both away, with a win at home v. the US. So 3 points. The US won both their home games for 6 points. Total, only Mexico beat the US for points over these three games (7). In that sense, rotating probably worked. We got more points out of our fixtures than teams that didn’t rotate.

But as I pointed out, we’ve got a relatively gentle schedule, with our best opposition playing at home so far. Once again, it’s going to get harder. And that means we really need to start doing better on the road. And that means getting the balance right between home and away games. That Panama game was not good enough. It was great that we won at home. But we need to start seeing better performances on the road.

I got a lot of flack because, while I was critical of the midfielders, I wasn’t enthusiastically condemning Berhalter for not starting de la Torre v. Panama. And that’s because I’m actually wondering if the right move would have been to start de la Torre vs. Jamaica. I’m wondering if McKennie rests in that game, maybe he would have been available to help us get a draw in Panama City.

Perhaps the right move to make when the team has to rotate is to try and distribute and prioritize the time our best players are on the field so that somebody is always there. In that way, you analyze which matches are relatively easy (the home games v. weak opponents), which matches are difficult but low priority (away matches), and which matches are high priority, but also difficult (home v. strong opponents). Once again, the goal is to have as strong a team for the most important games, while still getting as many points as possible from the others. This window aligned well with this framework. Jamaica was a weak opponent. Panama was a difficult, but relatively low priority. And Costa Rica was a difficult, but high priority match. Going with that, I think it makes sense to identify the team’s best players, and distribute them so that each player is available for the most important games, but also so that at least some of that quality is preserved for both the other games. This is instead of fielding almost entirely a second string during the low priority games.

Honestly, the conditions over the last 2 windows have been pretty weird. Due to injuries and other absences, the US did not get the luxury of rotating many players during the first window. In the second, the question is if the rotation in the middle game was too much. Looking ahead, getting that more balanced should be a priority. Of course, that’s skipping well ahead. The next international window in November has just two games: v. Mexico, and away v. Jamaica. Rotation should not be a big issue until the following international window, at the end of January.

Closing Thoughts

Sebastian Lletget and Shaq Moore (and Sean Johnson) were dropped out of the squad entirely. I don’t know what to make of that, so no further comment.

Shots that hit the goalposts should count as shots on target as far as awarding goals is concerned. I’ve long believed that shots that hit the woodwork should count as on-target and I feel like this just further justifies it. Somebody had to walk through the entire explanation for why Weah’s shot was classified as an own-goal, baby steps and all, before I finally understood it. I get it, it went off the defender’s foot and then hit the post, so it’s technically not a shot on target. But those standards are dumb and don’t make sense and unnecessarily obfuscate legitimate accreditation of scoring occurrences. If a shot hits the post and bounces off the goalkeeper and in, just give it to the striker.

Christ Richards started as the left center back. I don’t have strong opinions on him. He had a few moments where he got caught out — he was perhaps lucky not to give up a penalty — but he seemed mostly proficient. Which means he’s fairly similar to most of the other non-Miles Robinson central defensive options. Him playing doesn’t make me feel worried, but him missing out also doesn’t make me concerned. His youth, however, makes me optimistic for the future.

Same City, New Stadium. Familiar Feeling. This was the first back in Columbus since the USMNT fell v. Mexico back in 2016. Of course, the team has long had a home in the city, but the actual place turned out to be new this time. Crew stadium was, of course, replaced this year with Lower.com Stadium after serving the national teams, the Columbus Crew, and the national soccer scene for twenty years. And there was a small question of whether the new place would create that same sense of atmosphere as the now Historic Crew Stadium. And this win gives this new stadium a bright start to its own international legacy. Speaking of local...

One of the fun quirks was hearing the local support for Gyasi Zardes. Zardes, of course, plays for the local Columbus Crew. Throughout the match, there were very loud calls for him to come onto the field, and huge cheers when he did make it, after the US had taken the lead. But the amusing thing about it was that it wasn’t the whole stadium. While Zardes is a local star, he’s not nearly as popular with fans elsewhere in the country (as I’m sure many of you realize). As a result, you could tell just by listening which side of the stadium was made up of local fans, and which side had loads from across the country.

Finally, we close with a little bit of that central-Ohio charm.

Can you tell I’m from Cincinnati?


That’s it from me. The USMNT will return November 12 for a home qualifier v. Mexico in Cincinnati, Ohio. The USWNT play next, with a pair of friendlies against South Korea on Oct. 21st and 26th, in Kansas City and Minneapolis, respectively. As always, we want to know what you think. In your opinion, how did the window go? Tell us in the comments below.