After seeing its winning home streak against Mexico painfully dashed, the United States men’s soccer team now must overturn an unwanted streak of its own in order to avoid ending the first two games of the Hexagonal without a point. Four days on from a 2-1 defeat to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad will travel to Costa Rica, where they have never won.
And there is a serious need to swiftly bounce back from a defeat that was more damaging than the scoreline indicated. Although it took an 89th-minute header from Rafa Marquez to decide the game, the U.S. was decidedly second best against a focused Mexico squad. Such an outcome always carries extra significance when it comes against your most bitter rival, let alone one which you had beaten four consecutive times in that venue.
And the pattern of the game brought fresh scrutiny on Klinsmann’s tactical nous and whether he and his players are on the same page.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati has said that he can’t foresee Klinsmann not at least remaining in charge for the duration of World Cup qualifying. Certainly, Klinsmann's five years in charge have shown that it would take spectacular failure for him to get sacked. However, another poor result and performance on Tuesday in San Jose would create an uncomfortable four months before the six-team Hexagonal starts up again with matches against Honduras and Panama in March.
He could certainly do without a similar tactical misstep as his surprise decision to start in a 3-5-2/3-4-3 system that he finally decided to ditch before halftime, by which time Mexico was in front and in command. Afterward, Klinsmann attributed the blame for the system’s failure to the inability of his central midfield duo, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, to “get into the one-on-one battles we expected them to.”
Bradley, though, had a very different perspective, suggesting the tactics themselves had been the issue. Putting the blame on individual players after a surprise tactical switch backfired is nothing new for Klinsmann. It is also far from the first time that there have been murmurings of dissension between coach and players over his tactical instructions and subsequent post-mortem.
The U.S. is unlikely to prosper if those issues continue to be present in Costa Rica. In contrast to the U.S., Los Ticos got their final round of World Cup qualifying off to a winning start with a 2-0 victory at Trinidad and Tobago.
Oscar Ramirez's squad has thrived at home. Costa Rica has won its last nine World Cup qualifiers played on home soil, including a 3-1 win over the U.S. en route to the 2014 World Cup, where it reached the quarterfinals as Concacaf’s best performing team.
Most of the key players from that run in Brazil remain, including influential midfielder Christian Bolaños who scored one and created the other against Trinidad and Tobago, as well as fellow stalwarts Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges.
Prediction: The U.S. brushed Costa Rica aside 4-0 when the sides last met at the Copa America Centenario, but that that was something of an anomaly among recent clashes that have been far from straightforward for the Americans. Even a confident U.S. team would struggle in San Jose, going up against a well-drilled Costa Rica outfit that is proficient with the three-man backline that Klinsmann failed when deploying in Columbus. And events last Friday only strengthen Costa Rica’s prospects of coming out on top.
Predicted Score: Costa Rica 2-1 USA
D: Gamboa, Waston, Acosta, Umana, Matarrita
M: Ruiz, Borges, Azofeifa, Bolaños
D: Chandler, Brooks, Besler, Johnson
M: Bedoya, Bradley, Jones
F: Wood, Altidore, Pulisic