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USA vs. Costa Rica, 2019 friendly: What We Learned

A second half of production overshadowed a dull first half in the USMNT victory.

Soccer: International Friendly Soccer-Costa Rica at USA Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The United States finished up January Camp with a solid win over Costa Rica, 2-0, with Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola grabbing late goals to push past a defensive Ticos side. The game was a bit tight and testy, with the USMNT struggling to create anything in the first half. But after the break, the Americans began to really pressure that Central American defense, hitting the post twice before finally breaking through. Here’s what we learned from all this.

Claustrophobic in All that Space

While the Costa Ricans were able to stymie the American attack for most of the game, the USMNT defense absolutely shut them down. Costa Rica had only a single pass into the box, only one shot on target, and were only ever able to shoot from distance. A lot of that was because the individual defending on the backline was good when it needed to be. But, for the most part, the U.S. held Costa Rica back by utterly denying them the middle of the pitch.

Map of defensive actions from Lima, Trapp, Arriola, Roldan, Mihailovic, Zardes, and Baird. Recoveries are in yellow, tackles in green, interceptions in blue, clearances in purple, and blocked shots in yellow-green.

When you look at where the forward line and midfielders (and Nick Lima, because he’s up the field with them) defended, you see that all of those players pitched in everywhere across the field, and pitched in often. When the USMNT lost possession of the ball, the players pressed to recover it early. And that killed any momentum towards advancement up the field for Costa Rica.

In the past, the USMNT did not press aggressively like this. Under both Bruce Arena and Juergen Klinsmann, the team generally took up more of a low block, pressing opponents deeper down the field, keeping as many players between the ball and goal as possible. In a few situations, Dave Sarachan had his players press the opposition. But, for the most part, the USMNT relied on defending deep and keeping bodies in front of the ball. Instead, Gregg Berhalter has his team playing a much more proactive style, one where the team is always looking to have the ball. These are pretty impressive results and they play into the team’s strengths. If the USMNT are doing this well in regaining possession, just imagine what the press will look like with Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie in the midfield.

Fly Again Another Day

Guys, the USMNT has actual wingers again. Honest-to-goodness wingers! When was the last time we had proper players to play down the flanks (as opposed to midfielders who tuck into the middle)? Landon Donovan, maybe? But that’s finally changed, and this was the match to prove it.

Paul Arriola came into the side for this game, replacing Ebobisse out on the left flank. Arriola has been with the USMNT for a little while now, with 19 caps to his name. And, as such, he’s generally been a known-quantity for a while. He’s generally pretty industrious as a right mid, covering a lot of ground both ways, but lacks end product. Well, when the D.C. United man got his first shot at proving himself under Berhalter in an unfamiliar position on the left, he made the most of it. While Baird was almost entirely ensnared and nullified by Waylon Francis on the right, Arriola served as an important attacking outlet. And he was rewarded for his efforts, running onto a through ball from Lletget to chip past the keeper and put the game away.

However, Arriola wasn’t the only winger who caught some attention. For the second game in a row, Jonathan Lewis came on as a substitute and assisted on a goal. Against Panama, he did so by beating a man and putting in a tap in for Christian Ramirez. This time, he did so by putting in a simply cross to the back post. Since he came on in the 70th minute, Lewis terrorized the Costa Rican backline. He would take subtle and deft touches to create space away from defenders, before a quick burst of pace to get past them. And the result was that, by the 80th minute, the Ticos players were holding back, taking up positions to avoid getting burned. That space allowed for a cross into the box and the game-winning goal. But it only could have happened if Lewis was able to demand respect from the defenders. While Lewis didn’t start either of the matches for this Camp Cupcake, you simply can’t ignore that kind of impact off the bench. Suddenly, the USMNT has options for players who will simply breeze past defenders and create space, something that the team hasn’t had in a long time.

There’s A Plan B

The USMNT had a decently stern test in the form of Costa Rica. While Panama was full of green players from poor teams, Costa Rica was more of an equal match for this January Camp side. A full 5 players on the Central Americans’ lineup ply their trade in MLS. While it wasn't a full strength Ticos side, it was much more representative of the kinds of talent that the USMNT will face in the Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifiers, the likes of Jamaica, Honduras, Panama, and Canada. And Costa Rica came out with that trademark CONCACAF style, fouling early and often in order to break up USMNT movements and frustrate and demoralize the American players. And, for the most part, that plan worked, at least for the first half. The US controlled the ball but they struggled to break into the box and generated very few chances whatsoever.

The good news was that the team improved radically in the second half. The players adjusted their positions, Cristian Roldan tucking deeper alongside Wil Trapp, and the passes were made with more focus and attention. As a result, the USMNT came out well on top when play resume, constantly pressing to expose the goal. A lot of this came through that sort of game plan that Berhalter has said he’s pursuing. The team played from side to side, switching the ball from deep in midfield, up to the wingers (particularly Arriola), and disorganizing the Costa Rican defense.

But the USMNT didn’t just leave it at that. After a few adjustments, they started to mix things up a little. On came Lletget and Lewis for Djordje Mihailovic and Corey Baird, respectively. And, suddenly, the USMNT was a bit more direct towards goal. It turns out, Berhalter is not an ideologue. It is not a matter of playing in one way and imposing your will on the opposition. Rather, the way forward sometimes can be to just lump the ball forward and see what happens. And that got the USMNT a second goal.

Generally, the team wants to play short. Generally, the team wants to play from the back and slowly build up possession, pulling the defense apart and making gaps. But, sometimes, the team will try something different. Sometimes, they’ll go long. There’s a plan B, and there’s no shame in that.

Final Thoughts

I can’t just leave this post without mentioning that Lletget was so good, he got a goal and an assist. It’s good to have him back.

Gyasi Zardes had a much better game versus Costa Rica than last time against Panama. Still, he’s not the kind of player who the USMNT wants assisting build up. He was generally neat and eager when checking back and playing hold-up, but that’s not where his strengths lie. And you could really see that when Ramirez came on. Bringing Jozy Altidore and Josh Sargent in will really be a big step up in quality.

Nick Lima had a second great game as right fullback. If there’s a January Camp winner, it’s probably him. So much so that he might be in the running to start over DeAndre Yedlin when the full senior team gets called for games in March.

What do you think? Were there other lessons to learn from the US victory over Costa Rica? How do you feel about Gregg Berhalter’s first Camp Cupcake? Let me know in the comments below.