Gregg Berhalter's first two matches as U.S. national team coach went about as well as he could have hoped, with Saturday's 2-0 victory over Costa Rica showing the USMNT's ability to face a tougher challenge and pass it.
Last week's 3-0 win against Panama was the ideal cushy opener to start the Berhalter era, but Sunday's visit from Costa Rica figured to provide the upgrade in difficulty necessary to better assess how Berhalter's players were adapting to their new coach's system. The Ticos were a much tougher challenge defensively, which led to a scoreless first half with far fewer chances for the Americans than they enjoyed a week earlier.
But the second half saw the Americans step up the pressure and eventually wear down the Costa Ricans on the way to a comfortable victory.
"We talked about the opponents getting increasingly more difficult and you saw that tonight with Costa Rica," Berhalter said after the match. "It looked like a tentative first half, we had to come to terms with that. We haven’t faced that intensity yet in this camp. So, it was a great experience today, we certainly learned that if we can continue to persevere, if we can continue to try to play our game it has a cumulative effect on the opponent, and you saw what happened with Costa Rica, they got very fatigued in the second half and they couldn’t match us, and I like that mentality from the group."
Costa Rica was able to make things difficult for the Americans in the first half with a strong defensive presence in central midfield provided by Portland Timbers midfielder David Guzman and FC Cincinnati midfielder Allan Cruz, who did their best to frustrate the USMNT's playmakers, fouling Djordje Mihailovic and Cristian Roldan repeatedly, stifling a U.S. attack that looked timid compared to last week against Panama.
"The mentality of the first half was too passive," Berhalter said. "We want to be much more aggressive, so we addressed that. Secondly the speed of the ball, particularly along the backline, was much too slow. When we’re able to speed it up, we were able to catch them out of position and create some spaces, so those two things led to a much better second half."
The integration of Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan Lewis in the second half helped energize the U.S. attack, and helped Paul Ariola build on his solid first half. The trio began to find space in the attacking third, and worked together to create a pair of quality goals to close out the victory.
It was an emotional night for Lletget, who came off the bench to earn man of the match honors with his goal and assist, a performance that came in his first match back at Avaya Stadium since suffering a serious foot injury while with the USMNT in a March 2017 World Cup qualifying win against Honduras.
"I’m not even going to lie, I was [crying]," Lletget admitted after the match "People don’t realize what it is for an athlete when you get injured like that. And then just in this particular stadium I got the goosebumps even training yesterday morning with the team.
"I had to overcome an injury that put me out for a long time, and getting back to where I am is definitely overwhelming, very emotional, but moving forward I just can’t wait to keep going."
Arriola also made the most of his chance to start. The D.C. United winger was the most consistent attacking threat for the USMNT, and his well-timed runs helped keep Costa Rica's defense pinned back.
"I thought he had an excellent game. I thought he was sharp tonight," Berhalter said of Arriola. "What we ask of our wingers is to be dynamic, to be aggressive, to take players on 1v1, to try to get behind the backline and I think from roles and responsibilities he certainly met all of that."
Lletget and Arriola come out of the first camp of 2019 having made good cases for return calls when Berhalter convenes a full-strength team in March, but the list of players who impressed is a long one.
From midfielders such as Mihailovic and Roldan, to defenders like Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman and Nick Lima, several members of the January USMNT camp should find themselves earning return calls when the national team reconvenes for March friendlies against Ecuador and Chile.
"There’s guys that are going to have better camps than others, and some guys really came here and proved themselves," Long told Goal. "I think every time you come into one of these camps you have to have that mindset, to try and move yourself up the ranks."