This off-year Gold Cup creates two natural objectives for Jürgen Klinsmann: find potential contributors in the buildup to the World Cup and win the tournament.
Costa Rica maintained its defensive deportment from the World Cup qualifier between the two sides earlier this year despite the rather minimal stakes in play. Ticos boss Jorge Luis Pinto set out his stall with a 5-4-1 formation and dared the United States to break down a defense – admittedly with different players rotating through – that had not conceded since the 1-0 defeat on that snowy night in Commerce City, Colo. back in March.
“It was pretty obvious starting the game that they had a back-five line – very compact and they didn't allow any space there to go through – and that it will end up in a grind, a battle,” Klinsmann said.
It posed exactly the sort of scenario the U.S. must overcome with some regularity in the region. Recalcitrant opponents sit deeply and wait for the counter. The remaining four Hexagonal matches – including one in San Jose against this same outfit on Sept. 6 – present at least two instances (away to Panama on the final day with a potential World Cup berth on the line and home to Jamaica) where the opponent might decide to adopt a measured approach.
Breaking down this sort of defiant mindset requires composure, precision and width. The first two matches in group play against Belize and Cuba provided a modest taste of the same treatment, but the Ticos boast the necessary tools to actual employ them to a decent standard. And it showed on a night when the Americans – by their own failings and their own setup – sputtered in their attempts to navigate through the clutter.
Klinsmann anticipated Pinto's approach and named an adventurous 4-4-2 setup with four attacking players – Mix Diskerud and Stuart Holden in central midfield, Alejandro Bedoya and José Torres on either side – in his midfield and two clever strikers in Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski. In an ideal world, the creative forces on the field would have found a way through somehow, but the limitations of this group ultimately prompted a slog instead.
Costa Rica's setup – including a pair of holding players in midfield and three central defenders – placed a premium on switching the point of attack efficiently and using the width to create space elsewhere. On both counts, the Americans struggled for much of the night. Diskerud and Holden often lacked the necessary sharpness and tempo to cope with the Ticos' intelligent pressure in their preferred spaces (both players are eights, not sixes) and swing the ball from flank to flank in an effective or timely fashion. Bedoya rarely presented much of a threat, while Torres kept things moving well enough without mustering the necessary incisiveness.
Both central midfielders would have benefited from a more direct option over the top to force the Costa Ricans to drop their high line and unclog the mire a bit. Donovan and Wondolowski pose relatively little threat over the top given their preference to drop into midfield. The two strikers attempted to surge through the line on one or two occasions (and a Holden pass to Wondolowski nearly came off), but Donovan operates more often as a slasher and a supplier these days and Wondolowski slinks into spaces instead of surging through them.
The combination of contemplative work through midfield, narrow play on the whole (DaMarcus Beasley floated through the night after taking a knee to the head inside the first 10 minutes, depriving the team of its quickest option on either flank and forcing to Torres to drift into uncomfortable spaces) and rare forays over the line forced the game into a rather bland stasis. Costa Rica managed any threats by interrupting supply lines and squeezing the field to reduce the available space. And the Americans simply didn't construct the necessary alternative routes to rectify the issue from the run of play.
Klinsmann identified the concerns as the match progressed and interjected Joe Corona, Herculez Gómez and Brek Shea in the waning stages of the affair to rectify them. Corona and Shea increased the options from a horizontal perspective when they took up their positions on either flank. Gómez naturally spreads the field with his ample work rate and his penchant to make diagonal runs through the opposing line.
Even with that modest uptick experienced after those arrivals, the winner came from an escape in the defensive third and a sweeping counter. Costa Rica committed significant numbers into the attacking third for a corner kick, but Sean Johnson's critical near post save from a Carlos Johnson header and the subsequent clearance left them utterly exposed to the break. The home side proceeded to exploit that space ruthlessly. Corona freed Donovan down the right with a wonderfully weighted vertical ball. Donovan squared perfectly for the onrushing Shea to exorcise some of Saturday's demons by converting a chance he simply couldn't miss.
Shea's goal claimed a victory the U.S. felt it deserved and underscored perhaps the primary takeaway point from this game. In this state (stripped of most regulars) and in their future matches, the Americans may flail around a bit when asked to seize control of the match. They can, however, always rely on the counter to bail them out and turn to players capable of executing in those situations (Donovan, in particular, from this group). It is a strength that may not rise to the fore in CONCACAF all the time, but it will prove inherently useful as Klinsmann prepares his players for the more stringent tasks ahead against better opponents in Brazil next year.