U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann calls the Centenario showdown with Costa Rica in Chicago Tuesday a "must-win." Clint Dempsey says the USA has “to bring it.”
Dempsey is more correct than Klinsmann. The USA needs at least four points from the Costa Rica game and group finale against Paraguay on Saturday to reach the quarterfinals. The order doesn’t really matter, though of course what occurs in the game between group leader Colombia and Paraguay that kicks off about a half-hour after the USA-Costa Rica game concludes will alter the standings.
Winning both games assures the Americans a spot in the quarterfinals and might be enough to win the group; as far-fetched as that scenario is, the players know their most difficult group match is out of the way. Yet they also know Costa Rica has a solid record of success as the away team – it beat the USA, 1-0, in a friendly last October – and in a 0-0 tie on Saturday both upcoming foes displayed defensive ferocity and resilience that will be hard to breach.
Ronald Matarrita and Cristian Gamboa carried what few attacks Costa Rica could muster, but it’s not likely they will balk at going at the U.S. back line. Joel Campbell -- who scored the only goal when the Ticos beat the USA –--seldom plays two listless games in a row, and midfielder Celso Borges has tormented the USA several times in the past.
Campbell wasn’t all that influential against Paraguay though he did deliver a set play that Sporting Lisbon striker Bryan Ruiz headed wide. Borges is a tough, smart customer who can boss the midfield; he has scored 20 goals in 90 appearances.
1. Can USA find sharpness needed to crack Tico defense?
Klinsmann’s contention that the USA played Colombia "even" deservedly drew ridicule, but the Americans did create a reasonable number of chances; most fell to Dempsey, who was thwarted by a goal-line clearance and spectacular save. However, none of the Americans even remotely resembled attackers Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona, not to mention Real Madrid star James Rodriguez, who suffered a shoulder injury after smashing home the penalty kick awarded for DeAndre Yedlin’s transgressions.
Both of Dempsey’s best chances against Colombia came on set plays -- his direct free kick and a corner served to him by Michael Bradley -- and Colombia bagged its goals on a corner kick and penalty whistled for a Yedlin handball. The Americans were second-best during the run of play for most of the game Friday, and to crack the Costa Ricans they must be sharper and shrewder then they were in their opener.
It seems imperative that Klinsmann must change personnel as well as possibly the formation. Critics have called for Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic to start, but both are woefully inexperienced at the international level. Combined they have a dozen caps and neither made a big impact against Colombia as substitutes midway through the second half. Yet they could spring an element of surprise, as neither has ever played against Costa Rica.
2. Does Klinsmann tweak formation to unleash midfield?
Their insertion did lift what had been a frustrating display by Alejandro Bedoya, whose badly shanked volley typified the bad moments that outweighed several good ones. Shifting from a 4-3-3 formation to the 4-2-3-1 alignment that has produced considerable success could allow Klinsmann more leeway in unleashing his attacking talents and still keep his preferred pairing of Bradley and Jermaine Jones intact. Yet without a sharp upgrade in individual and team performances, tactics and systems won't matter.
Rough nights for Bobby Wood and Bedoya and a terrible game by Bradley impaired the Americans on Friday. The Yedlin transgression followed a pair of egregious errors by Bradley, who lost the ball in a double-team and then committed a bad foul trying to retrieve it. Unfortunately for the USA, referee Roberto Garcia played advantage and when a cross by Farid Diaz hit Yedlin’s arm Garcia pointed to the spot.
3. Do Americans rebound with big game against Concacaf rival?
All of the maligned Americans are much better players than they showed against Colombia and should rebound for another big game with a Concacaf rival. But Costa Rica has quite a few holdovers from the 2014 World Cup squad that reached the quarterfinals and lost to the Netherlands on penalty kicks; it will be quite confident of besting the Americans even without centerback Kendall Waston, red-carded in the final minutes of the Paraguay game, and injured keeper Keylor Navas.
More than three years have passed since the USA beat Costa Rica, 1-0, during a heavy snowfall in a Hexagonal match that the Costa Ricans believed should have been suspended.
“They've shown in major competitions that they can perform well, like they did last World Cup,” Dempsey told reporters on Sunday. “We're on home soil. We got to bring it.”