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USA v. Costa Rica, 2017 Gold Cup: What We Learned

The USMNT had their best performance of the Gold Cup to date against Costa Rica in a 2-0 victory, and we were left with a few takeaways.

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

The United States entered their semifinal game against Costa Rica needing to step up their game after a number of fairly weak performances in the tournament. Long story short, they did. The USA came out of the match with a 2-0 victory, and they looked much more like the USMNT we were hoping to see during the Gold Cup. What did we take away from last night’s match?

The Defense Looked More Organized

For the semi-final, Bruce Arena decided to go with his most trusted left back and two center backs that are very familiar with playing together in Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. The result was a back line that looked much more organized. Did they all play great? No. They had their defensive struggles, but there was real teamwork going on. Hopefully, they can add good individual play onto the cohesion and be an unstoppable force in the final.

Jordan Morris Can Still Be a Live-Wire

Jozy Altidore tapped the ball back to Michael Bradley. Bradley squared to Kellyn Acosta, who sprayed the ball outside to Graham Zusi. Zusi played it long, up to a wide Paul Arriola, who made a looping header over to Altidore. Altidore played in Jordan Morris, and Morris smashed the ball into the post. That is how the game opened. That was what the first 14 seconds looked like.

Jordan Morris didn't manage to score in this one. But, playing as a second forward paired with Altidore, and then, after Dempsey came on, as a winger, he managed to terrorize the Costa Rican defense. Way back in the match against Panama, we criticized Bruce Arena and the team for not having the pace to pressure an organized backline. Well, Jordan Morris has that pace, and he sure wasn't hesitant to use it last night. As a striker, he was lively, getting on the ball and making runs. As a winger, he was open to switching flanks and playing flexibly. This was a really good performance for the Seattle speedster and bodes well for his future and his stock leading up to Russia 2018.

This Midfield Clicks

The midfield has been a sore spot this whole tournament, but, against Costa Rica, it really, really looked good. I suppose that is to be expected, considering that we now have more first team players properly integrated into the squad, especially Michael Bradley. But the paring of Bradley and Kellyn Acosta really works, with the former having a fantastic night. Bradley successfully shielded the back line, while Acosta helped cover ground and reinforce that defense. The FC Dallas youngster did get into the attack a few times, with a few threatening shots, but overall, he needs to push forward more aggressively. Still, it was a good performance from the two of them.

Yet, the midfield in this game wasn't really a two-man affair. Darlington Nagbe was essentially the third midfielder. It took him a little while to find his bearing, but once he figured it out, Nagbe repeatedly cut inside. His clean touch and ability to dribble out of pressure provided a vital pressure valve for the USMNT. It wasn't always perfect. The Portland Timbers star has a reputation for not making the decisive pass and for holding the ball too long, as was the case at times here. But he stabilized the team in ways that very few players have managed to do for this side in a very long time. As a result, combined with Costa Rica's defensive and restrained game plan, the USMNT dominated possession, managing just shy of 60% in the match.

Clint Dempsey Is Devastating as a Super Sub

I've been calling for Clint Dempsey to start games on the bench. Bruce Arena's started doing just that, with Deuce not starting against Costa Rica. My complaint was two-fold. With his age, the Texan doesn't have the same energy necessary to relentlessly chase and grind through whole games like he used to. And, second, the team around him became too linear and dependent on Dempsey when he was on the field. Either he scored, or nobody did. With him off the field, it seems the team has been able to find itself and refocused as a collective, with a revitalized attack and midfield. Dempsey himself seems to have elevated his game. It seems he's simplified his game and let his teammates have more responsibility. The same hunger is there. But now, it's more honed. And it was absolutely on show after he came on in the 66th minute.

The USMNT had a few good attacking moments in the first hour, largely through Altidore. But there was a glaring hole between the strikers and midfield. That just so happens to be the place where Christian Pulisic goes, so don't be worried about it in the long run. But without our Pennsylvania son, the team struggled to create. Dempsey came on and played essentially as a false nine, plugging up the hole while still offering a potential goal threat. In the moments after he came on, he set up a chance for Acosta. And then he made a glorious pull back and through ball to put Altidore one-on-one with the keeper.

The free kick goal and USMNT record-tying goal was just more awesomeness from Deuce. I'm fairly certain he doesn't like his new role as a super sub. But it's clearly benefitting the team.

Closing Thoughts

Tim Howard still dominates the net like nobody else in the pool.

Matt Besler was stellar. Up through the 2014 World Cup, Besler was the most consistent center back the USMNT had. However, in the three years since then, he's been off. Last night, we saw the sort of dominant play that he was celebrated for in the last cycle. Because Besler was playing so well, the fullbacks, both Zusi and Jorge Villafana, were able to push up more aggressively and provide width and possession. Making your teammates play better and more proactively is absolutely a good thing in a center back.

Paul Arriola has proven he's a solid work horse on the wing, in the mold of Alejandro Bedoya. With Bedoya shifted into the middle (hopefully permanently), Arriola's got a solid chance as a squad player on that right side.

Jozy Altidore is a Beast with a capital B.

Jorge Villafana is probably the starter at left back. He's not perfect, specifically defensively, but he showed well in the toughest test of this tournament yet.

The USMNT has a lot of free kick options. In addition to winning headers and scraps in the box, all four of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Kellyn Acosta, and Michael Bradley have scored directly from a set piece with the national team.

What do you think? Have a different hot take? Talk about it in the comments below.