To say the match-up between the United States and Costa Rica has been volatile over the past few years is quite the understatement. The last two times they’ve played each other in a competitive match, the scoreline read 4-0. On American soil, in the Copa America, the U.S. bounced back from an opening loss to Colombia and began their run to the semifinals of that competition. In Costa Rica a year later, the Ticos exacted their revenge in equal measure. So with that said, I think I can comfortably say that the USMNT are not automatic favorites in this game by any means. Both teams have a propensity to punch above their weight as well as stoop to the level of opponents that should be well beneath them.
It’s been that way this tournament for both teams. Costa Rica eked out a 1-0 win against Honduras and surprisingly drew against Canada, before finally asserting their dominance with a group-cliching 3-0 victory over French Guiana. They also had trouble fending off a pesky Panama side, needing an own goal to beat Los Canaleros in a tightly-contested match. Any of that sound familiar?
W (2-0) - El Salvador - Gold Cup
W (3-0) - Nicaragua - Gold Cup
W (3-2) - Martinique - Gold Cup
D (1-1) - Panama - Gold Cup
W (2-1) - Ghana - Friendly
W (1-0) - Panama - Gold Cup
W (3-0) - French Guiana - Gold Cup
D (1-1) - Canada - Gold Cup
W (1-0) - Honduras - Gold Cup
W (2-1) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ
What to Watch for:
Rotation Game - At this point, we know Bruce Arena will rotate his squad when faced with short rest, even in high-stakes scenarios. We saw him do just that when the team last went to Mexico, handing several players that would not normally be in the starting XI for a full-strength U.S. team starts at Estadio Azteca. The quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals of the Gold Cup take place in the span of eight games, and it’s a relatively sure bet that many people that started against El Salvador will be held in reserve in favor of fresh legs. I expect to see plenty of changes, and I also expect plenty of people to be angry about them.
Again with the Defense - It bears repeating: the defense has not looked good. Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored goals against El Salvador to improve their stock a bit, but all four defenders should be thanking their star-spangled jerseys that they managed to keep a clean sheet. Bruce has more or less run two defensive units, one with Lichaj and Justin Morrow on the outside and one with Graham Zusi and Jorge Villafana on the outside, while making tweaks in the middle. I’m guessing the Nicaraguan group will get the start against Costa Rica. That game looked the best defensively out of all the Gold Cup games so far, but they also had the least to do. Can they stand up to a sterner test?
In the Middle of Things - I also think Arena runs a lone striker with three in central midfield, two holders and one attacking mid. One of those holding mids will be Michael Bradley, because he’s a conditioning freak and game rotation means nothing to him. Who Arena pairs with him will be telling. Does he match Bradley with Kellyn Acosta and try to take the game to Costa Rica? Or does Dax McCarty come in to make sure the midfield is locked down and the back line shielded?
Why change the entire defense from the last game? Because that defense has looked like trash the two games they’ve been together, that’s why. Villafana and Zusi are probably Arena’s first-choice outside backs anyways, and Besler isn’t any significant downgrade from Gonzalez. Matt Miazga looked good against Nicaragua. Costa Rica is going to be a much more difficult test, and if I had to pick someone I’m least sure Arena will throw into a game like this, it’s him. Not doubting his talent, just doubting Arena’s comfort starting him in a semifinal. I think Bradley and Acosta start as opposed to Bradley and McCarty, mostly because in Bruce’s mind Michael Bradley and Dax McCarty inhabit the same role, and I doubt he starts both at the same time. Juan Agudelo starts up top because the work that he puts in at forward ideally suits him there, but I also don’t think Arena can resist getting Morris into the lineup. Joe Corona may or may not be starting; the reason that he wouldn’t would be Bruce going 4-4-2, throwing caution to the wind and hoping Jordan Morris and Agudelo can generate enough of their own offense up top. I start Darlington Nagbe here because nothing within me can start Chris Pontius for the USMNT in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did start in real life. So it goes. Expect to see some late-game Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey antics, as this game looks like it will probably be more war of attrition than fluid game of modern football.