Arriola and Long stake starting claims: Five takeaways from the USMNT win against Costa Rica

Paul Arriola USMNT 02022019 ISIJT
John Todd
With a full-strength squad reunion looming in March, a winger and defender boosted their stock in the victory for Gregg Berhalter's team

Gregg Berhalter didn't have much time to bask in the glow of securing his second straight victory as U.S. national team coach, what with the questions about his potential squad for March already emerging shortly after Saturday's 2-0 win against Costa Rica.

That's to be expected because it was never a secret that the January camp was a combination audition and honeymoon period for some fringe national team options, and the real measure of where the U.S. national team stands ahead of this summer's Gold Cup wouldn't be known until March, when the full-strength USMNT comes together under Berhalter for the first time.

The January camp did its job though, and things couldn't have gone much better. Two victories, two shutouts, some strong individual performances, and a good advertisement for the promise that Berhalter's system provided to U.S. fans hungry for signs of overall improvement.

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"Every player in camp impressed me with their work ethic, with their openness, with their ability to take in information, to keep pushing, to train hard, to be a good teammate," Berhalter said after Saturday's win. "So, when I look back at this January camp, I told the guys this in the locker room, it was successful in the fact that we met our benchmarks. There were three items that we’re looking to address: team ability, style of play and competing, and I think each and every one of them met those marks."

While everyone may have impressed Berhalter to some degree, there were clearly some big winners to emerge from the January camp. Whether you talk about young Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic or San Jose defender Nick Lima, who both made strong statements in earning their first national team appearances, to veterans like Michael Bradley and Paul Arriola, who showed why they should be part of the full squad when it convenes in March.

Here are five takeaways from the USMNT win against Costa Rica:

Arriola shines in winger role

Paul Arriola USA David Guzman Costa Rica

Gregg Berhalter's system relies heavily on effective service and attacking runs from the wings, and in a camp with few natural wing options, Arriola came away looking like the best bet to push for a wide midfield role when the full USMNT squad gathers in March.

Arriola has the speed, dribbling ability and instinct to time his runs well to thrive in Berhalter's system, and he has an advantage on the rest of the pool's wing options in that he gained valuable experience in some big games in the last qualifying cycle. He's still relatively young — he turns 24 this week — and his versatility should ensure him a real chance for some minutes in the March friendlies.

"What we ask of our wingers is to be dynamic," Berhalter said. "To be aggressive, to take players on 1-v-1, to try to get behind the backline and I think from roles and responsibilities (Arriola) certainly met all of that."

Berhalter gave Jeremy Ebobisse and Corey Baird opportunities to show what they could do in the wide forward slots and, while Baird did make some things happen in his two starts, he didn't show enough to be a convincing option when wide threats like Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah and Jonathan Amon are available for selection. Ebobisse looked out of place playing wide, and will find it tough to break in with the strikers who should be in camp in March.

Long stakes claim to starting job

Aaron Long USA Ronaldo Araya Costa Rica

The U.S. defense faced few serious threats in its recent friendlies and, while part of that was down to Panama and Costa Rica fielding inexperienced attacks, at least some of the credit for the team's two shutouts goes to the defenders, and Aaron Long chief among them.

The New York Red Bulls center back was the clear leader of the group, making key interventions when called upon, and keeping the back line organized even as it adapted to some unique tactical wrinkles the team had to adapt to. Of the four defenders, Long comes away looking like the best bet to grab a starting role once the full-strength squad comes together in March.

"I have personal goals coming into camps, and I wanted to play well," Long told Goal. "I wanted to play in the games, win these games, and show that I can play this style of play, and on those notes I think I did well."

Long's emergence as a leader in the January camp was an added bonus to his credentials heading into March. John Brooks is a safe bet to be one of the USMNT's starting central defenders, but the spot next to Brooks is up for grabs and Long comes away from the recent friendlies looking like the favorite to start in March.

 Roldan quietly boosts his stock

Cristian Roldan USMNT 02022019

Mihailovic drew plenty of deserved plaudits for emerging as one of the surprises of the January camp, but Roldan came away from the recent friendlies looking the best equipped to remain a starter in an attacking midfield role when the full squad comes together in March.

Where Mihailovic clearly has some enticing attacking characteristics that make him an attractive prospect, Roldan's two-way work, and ability to quickly transition from defensive duties to driving the counterattack, make him someone who could thrive once placed alongside better attackers, like Christian Pulisic.

Roldan missed a clear look at goal on Saturday, and also sent a shot off the post, but his ability to consistently float into dangerous positions, while also handling the defensive responsibilities Berhalter's system demands, made it easy to see why he had been seen as one of the players who enjoyed the smoothest transition into Berhalter's style of play. Does that mean he will start in March? That won't be easy with the likes of Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams being added to the mix, but Roldan certainly did enough to be a part of the squad that is called in March.

Zardes remains an enigma

Gyasi Zardes USMNT 02022019

After missing a handful of clear looks in last week's win against Panama, Gyasi Zardes went into Saturday's friendly needing to get on the scoreboard to bolster his case for a striker role when the full team comes together. That goal didn't come, but his work in other areas of the game, from his hold-up play to his defensive work, left Berhalter impressed and satisfied with his starting striker.

"I think if you ask Gyasi, he’ll be frustrated that he didn’t score, but if you ask the coaching staff they’ll be pleased with his performance and his work rate," Berhalter said. "Part of our strikers scoring is going to be a team collective effort. I think he could've done a better job in the first half if he had better service. Overall, we’re happy with Gyasi’s play, he proved that he could be a valuable player as well."

Zardes clearly understands the role the striker plays in Berhalter's system, having spent the 2018 season playing in that role with the Columbus Crew. It requires some serious defensive commitment and an ability to hold the ball up and lay off passes to teammates making runs on the flanks. Zardes looked much more comfortable in that role on Saturday, but the chances that came a week ago didn't find Zardes on Saturday.

Berhalter is a safe bet to bring Zardes into the squad in March, but with more established international goal scorers in Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood being possibilities for the March squad, Zardes could find playing time tough to come by.

Lima looks like a long-term option

Nick Lima USA Francisco Calvo Costa Rica

Nick Lima was always going to struggle to deliver an encore that would top his outstanding debut in last week's win against Panama, but the San Jose Earthquakes defender came close, rattling a shot off the post and showing off his two-way ability in the right back spot for the second straight match.

Lima's intelligence in attack, and steady defensive work, came through once again, and facing a tougher opponent in Costa Rica didn't rattle the 24-year-old, who beat out fellow MLS standouts Keegan Rosenberry and Reggie Cannon in the January camp to earn starts in both recent victories.

Next up for Lima will be rejoining the San Jose Earthquakes for preseason, and beginning work with new manager Matias Almeyda. If he can adapt to Almeyda's system as quickly as he adapted to Berhalter's approach, Lima should be with the full USMNT squad in March, and is positioned to be the number two right back in the player pool behind DeAndre Yedlin.