HARRISON, N.J. -— Was it overconfidence? Was it just a case of Costa Rica playing an excellent game and the U.S. national team getting unlucky? Is there a curse that keeps the U.S. national team from doing well in New Jersey (the USA is 1-4-3 in its past eight visits to the Garden State)?
Whatever the reason, the Americans simply didn't click like we thought they would, didn't come together like we expected after spending all week hearing about how much chemistry the group had, and how much competition there is for places on the deep squad. Did they read too many positive press clippings, or did they settle into a comfort zone after going through the first eight months of the year undefeated?
Costa Rica deserves credit, and in the midst of the post-loss panic among American fans there wasn't much in the way of credit being given to the Ticos, who you could argue are a blizzard away from having won the past four qualifiers against the U.S. They came in largely healthy, with only the suspended Giancarlo Gonzalez and injured Joel Campbell as key absences, and they played like the team we might have seen at this summer's Gold Cup before injuries hammered their roster.
Somewhere, Jurgen Klinsmann might have taken some satisfaction from the result. Not because he wants to see the U.S. fail, but because Friday provided a stark reminder that CONCACAF is no cakewalk, especially when facing Mexico and Costa Rica.
Trying to compare Friday's loss to last November's loss in Costa Rica, which led to Klinsmann's firing, is a bit of a pointless endeavor, but before any lingering Klinsmann loyalists try emerging from the woodwork they might consider the reality that, for as disappointing as Friday's loss was, the Americans still didn't come close to looking as lost and uninspired as they did last November.
While Friday's loss doesn't suddenly put Arena on shaky ground, it does signal the end of the honeymoon of Arena's second marriage to the USA. He still deserves credit for rebuilding the team's confidence and securing eight points from four qualifiers to pull the Americans back into position to qualify for the World Cup, but Friday's loss should serve as a wake-up call to any U.S. players who might have been getting too comfortable, and who might have forgotten just how tricky CONCACAF can be.
Here are some takeaways from Friday's U.S. loss to Costa Rica:
CAMERON ENDURES A SURPRISING STINKER
Anyone looking at the U.S. starting lineup before Friday's match would have put Geoff Cameron's name last on the list of defenders to worry about playing poorly. After all, the Stoke City man has been the steadiest defender in the pool for several years, having managed to avoid the kind of shocking performance that seemingly every other center back in the U.S. pool had managed at one time or another in the past few years.
Apparently it was Cameron's turn on Friday, as he looked nothing like the sharp and well-positioned stalwart that dominated at Copa America in 2016. He obviously wasn't the only one to blame for the U.S. team's issues on Friday, but he was clearly the most surprising offender.
If there was a sense of deja vu regarding Cameron's performance, it might have been because it was last November when another top American defender had an absolute shocker against Costa Rica. John Brooks played the worst match of his national team career down in San Jose, and perhaps it's not a coincidence that each of those poor performances came when one was forced to play without the other.
PULISIC TAKES HIS LUMPS
It was probably ambitious to think Christian Pulisic was going to slice through the Costa Rican defense like a knife through butter, but after having seen him be so effective in this year's other home qualifiers it was still a bit surprising to see him struggle to break through on Friday.
In fairness to the 18-year-old, he still made some things happen, and did beat defenders on occasion, with Keylor Navas' highlight-reel save denying Pulisic a goal in the second half. That was not only the best chance, but arguably the only truly dangerous chance for the U.S. on a night when the final pass and precise shot were sorely lacking.
Now we will see how Pulisic handles the adversity of falling short in a match where he was actually expected to deliver a big performance. His meteoric rise has seen him wow us with incredible games, often times coming when we wouldn't have expected him to be so dominant, but his reputation has grown, and so have the expectations. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact he's still just 18, and ups and downs will occur, but now that he has earned the spotlight, it is up to him to keep showing he's capable of handling it.
HOWARD CAN'T CONJURE HEROICS
Tim Howard doesn't often find himself facing questions about mistakes he's made, largely because his long career has seen him play the hero many more times than he's been the goat. Things were a bit different on Friday when, of all people, Arena made comments that suggested Howard hadn't had his best performance.
"The back line made some mistakes. We didn't come up with any big saves. Our attack players weren't dangerous on the night," Arena said after the match, before later questioning Howard's handling of Costa Rica's first goal. "It didn't look like he got much on the shot and Tim perhaps lost his angle on the goal and he was able to roll it in."
Replays backed up Arena's assessment of the play. Howard appeared to get caught leaning as Marco Urena awkwardly struck a rolling shot toward the back post. It was an ambitious angle to take the shot on, and was probably more a hit-and-hope effort than inspired finish, which is probably why it surprised the goalkeeper, who was clearly leaning toward protecting the near post.
Does this mean Howard's starting job is in jeopardy? Arena split the goalkeeping starts in June, giving Guzan the nod in Mexico, but that was when there were only two days between the matches. Howard started both March qualifiers when there were four days in between. Might Arena give Guzan the nod now? Knowing Arena, it's probably more likely he sticks with Howard and gives him a chance to atone for what was, by his lofty standards, a subpar performance.
ARENA'S LINEUP MISCUES
How much of Friday's performance was down to Arena's lineup decisions? There were definitely some moves he made that, in retrospect, could be seen as risky and ultimately failed to pan out. Some other moves weren't nearly as easy to pin on his decision.
Starting Tim Ream next to Cameron was the one move Arena has to face the music on. Why? The two defenders had never been partnered together as center backs in a four-man defense before. Thus they didn't have that familiarity and understanding necessary to make a two-man central defense work smoothly. They were each in the lineup when Arena deployed a three center back system against Mexico in June, but that sort of setup doesn't require the same sort of understanding between two defenders like a four-man defense requires of its center backs.
Giving Fabian Johnson the nod despite his recent lack of playing time due to injury looked like a mistake. Johnson was largely invisible against the Ticos, and as much as you can give some credit to Costa Rica, it was clear Johnson faded badly after a somewhat promising start to the match. Who could Arena have deployed on the wing? He could have put Darlington Nagbe there and started Kellyn Acosta in the middle. Sliding Clint Dempsey in for Johnson and pushing Bobby Wood wide could have been another option, though it would have sacrificed Wood's effectiveness closer to goal.
Not all of Arena's moves were bad ones. Graham Zusi was the best U.S. defender on the night, rewarding Arena's commitment to converting Zusi into a full-time right back. Nagbe looked sharp in the playmaker role even though Costa Rica left him with few outlets to truly break free and create. Some might argue that Pulisic should have played there, but aside from the fact Pulisic is better suited to attack a strong defense from the wing, he also spent a good amount of time trying to work the middle of the field and found no success there either.
Was sitting Dempsey a mistake? Not really, because Dempsey wasn't going to duplicate Wood's two-way work and he showed at the Gold Cup that he can be an effective option off the bench. Also, starting Dempsey in both qualifiers was always going to be risky given his age, but now Arena has a relatively rested Dempsey for a tough trip to Honduras, a team he decimated in March.
DID THE VENUE CHOICE MATTER?
The USMNT did not play poorly in Friday's match because of Red Bull Arena, but the choice of venue didn't do much to help the team. The stadium is arguably the best stadium in MLS, and having the USMNT in the New York City area was probably good for marketing and media opportunities, but it was hard to find many positives for the choice of venue on match day itself.
Costa Rican fans came out in force, with the makeup of the crowd somewhere in the 25-30 percent rage of Ticos fans. It sounded like more when Costa Rica scored, but it's also a given that the crowd noise would have gone through the roof had the Americans scored. Ticos players credited their fans with providing inspiration on the night, which only added to the theory that Red Bull Arena somehow cost the U.S.
You can certainly make the case that putting a match anywhere that can give the opponent even a modest amount of fan support is playing with fire, with the embarrassing decision to have the U.S. play Honduras at RFK Stadium in 2001 — which led to a stadium two-thirds full of Honduran fans—serving as the clear precedent. Friday's scene was nowhere close to that infamous 2001 USA-Honduras crowd, but it was still unsettling to hear the loud cheers erupt when Urena sealed the win with his second goal of the night.
Did Red Bull Arena actually fail to motivate the U.S. players because of the environment? That's a tough theory to get behind because the energy in the stadium as the match kicked off was electric, and U.S. fans were vocal throughout the match trying to urge their team on.
That didn't stop U.S. fans across the country from believing their home venues would have been better suited to host Friday's final. What should be remembered though is that there's a difference between lively and packed environments and scary and intimidating ones that could actually unsettle an opponent while energizing the home team. There are plenty of markets that can produce excellent and energized settings for the U.S., but none that are going to unsettle teams like Mexico and Costa Rica.
Red Bull Arena had excellent crowd support for the home team, but as U.S. fans left the stadium after Costa Rica's second goal, it became clear that there was a tangible presence of Tico fans in attendance, a presence that certainly didn't hurt Costa Rica's chances. That image, of Costa Rican flags waving around Red Bull Arena as the final whistle blew, should serve as the new reminder that venue selection for home qualifiers is a task not to be taken lightly.
Yes, the New York City area was long overdue for a World Cup qualifier — with Friday's the first ever played in New Jersey — but scheduling one of the team's absolute toughest home tests in a venue with no track record for big U.S. matches was clearly a gamble. One that didn't pay off.