Physically and psychologically, USA wasn't up for fight

During its unbeaten run under head coach Bruce Arena, the U.S. national team had ridden through some rough passages and overcome adversity to last through 14 games without defeat.

The streak slammed to a halt Friday night at Red Bull Arena against a Costa Rican team that proved to be tougher in defense and more ruthless in the attack. Striker Marco Urena, one of five MLS players selected by head coach Oscar Ramirez to start, crisply converted a chance in each half to provide a very deserved margin of victory.

Both goals were products of giveaways in bad spots, but the Costa Ricans also controlled  midfield for the majority of the match and bottled up the Americans when they got within sight of goal. The U.S. attacking on set plays, normally a strong point, produced almost nothing, and playmaker Christian Pulisic went down hard under the force of several fouls.

The Americans travel for a Tuesday match against Honduras, which pulled even in the Hexagonal standings by beating Trinidad & Tobago, 2-1. The teams are tied for third place with eight points, and only the top three Hexagonal teams qualify automatically for Russia 2018.

Here are three takeaways from the first loss in the second stint of Arena.
1. Shades of El Salvador.
In its first two knockout games of the Gold Cup, the USA superseded some bad play to win, but its performance Friday confirmed those blights had not been eradicated.

Giveaways by defenders Eric Lichaj and Matt Hedges should have been punished in the quarterfinal against El Salvador; saves by Tim Howard bailed out his defenders and the USA ground out a 2-0 victory. (For the Costa Rica game, Lichaj was on the bench and Hedges did not make the game-day roster.)

On Friday, alarm bells went off in the opening minutes when centerback Tim Ream lost the ball deep in his own half. The Americans survived that scare but were carved open in the 30th minute when a clearance from Howard was intercepted by Costa Rica in midfield. Bryan Ruiz fed the ball to Urena, who twisted Ream into a knot with a pair of touches and beat Howard low to the far post from a tight angle.

Urena scored again after Ream’s centerback partner, Geoff Cameron, scuffed a pass right to Daniel Guzman, who played Urena in behind Cameron to stroke the ball cleanly past Howard.

A nice long ball hit by Cameron set up a chance for Altidore and outside backs Jorge Villafana and Graham Zusi contributed to some promising attacks. Yet for long stretches the Americans failed to convert recoveries into significant possessions and of their many mistakes, two were punished severely.

2. Dempsey unable to rescue U.S. off the bench.
The Gold Cup semifinal was locked up at 0-0 midway through the second half when Clint Dempsey came off the bench to single-handedly turn the game around. He poked a ball that Jozy Altidore drove into the net to break the deadlock and scored the clincher himself with a clever free kick that skipped under the defensive wall and inside the near post.

At nearly the same point in the match, Arena sent on Dempsey to replace Villafana with an extra attacker. The moment seemed perfectly poised for Dempsey; the USA trailed by only a goal and by scoring Dempsey would break the all-time men’s record of 57 goals he shares with Landon Donovan.

Dempsey breathed a bit of life into the offense without landing either of his two shots on target. He hit a free kick into the wall from roughly the same spot he’d scored in the semifinal and also in a 6-0 rout of Honduras in March. Dempsey was one of several U.S. attackers to end the match utterly frustrated.

A couple of hard, early fouls slowed down Pulisic and he burst alight only rarely before Paul Arriola replaced him in the 87th minute. For violently shrugging off Johnny Acosta in the final minutes, Dempsey -- who had appealed for a penalty when tangled up during a free kick -- was cautioned, as was Altidore, whose yellow card for a similar incident of indiscipline imposes a suspension on him for the Honduras game.

Altidore had been boiling about several punishing hits and an apparent foul by Waston in the 24th minute in the penalty area that was ignored by referee John Pitti.

None of the American attackers carried their weight tonight and it’s telling that Bobby Wood, who was sharp and lively in the first quarter-hour, played the full 90 minutes but ended up with just one shot, which was blocked.

3. Costa Ricans felt at home and played like it.
When the teams met in the infamous 1985 World Cup qualifier in Southern California, Costa Rican colors predominated in the crowd of 11,800 and the festivities included musicians and folk dancers in traditional dress. They celebrated lustily a 1-0 victory that eliminated the U.S. from contention and sent Costa Rica into the final round, from which it reached Mexico ’86.

The split was more even at Red Bull Arena, which still gave the match a very Costa Rican feel to which their players, seven of them in the match-day squad employed by MLS teams, responded enthusiastically. They carried more of the play and it must be said, physically dominated the Americans most of the time in 50-50 duels. Man for man, they were better, and their big players came through.

Costa Rica drew a good crowd when it beat the USA, 1-0, in a friendly two years ago at Red Bull Arena. Its game at the venue during the Copa America Centenario last year also lured a large contingent of its fans.

Ironically, one of the few criticisms of Urena’s play for the Earthquakes is that he hasn’t scored enough goals (four in 20 games). Two of his four shots hit the net behind Howard, who was a bit too close to the near post and off-balance on the first goal.

At the other end of the field, Keylor Navas did his job by spectacularly swatting away a deflected Pulisic shot and smothering an Altidore attempt more routinely from close range.

Rather than blowing his fuse and being ejected as he’s been four times playing for the Whitecaps, Waston kept his cool and let Dempsey take the caution. His club teammate, Cristian Bolanos, pulled the strings masterfully and along with Bryan Ruiz, knit together sequences that stretched and disrupted the Americans’ shape.

In planning his tactics and melding his players from different sources – MLS, Europe, and domestic clubs – Ramirez gave Arena a harsh lesson.

Physically and psychologically, the Americans weren’t up for the fight, and now are looking more like a playoff team than an automatic entrant for Russia 2018.

6 comments about "Physically and psychologically, USA wasn't up for fight".
  1. R2 Dad, September 2, 2017 at 12:09 a.m.

    Marco Urena had a good match. Good thing MLS has been so instrumental in giving him the platform to improve his game. And from this all we hear from Garber: crickets. Say what you will about Liga MX--those owners do very little to give playing time to lots of direct CONCACAF rival players.

  2. glenn kastrinos, September 2, 2017 at 10:42 a.m.

    I think Costa Rica won the game in the first ten minutes when they tactically went after Zusi. As Cameron felt he had to lean that way to support, it opened up the middle. Central defense was quite weak but I am sure Honduras will do the same thing and go after the right defense early on. Honduras is going to be fast and physical, and I hope Arena chooses speed in this game. I am glad they are possessing though. Nagbe and Pulisec are trying to play some good soccer and now just have to finish. If not, we could be going the way of Holland. It happens. The other thing is why did we not get four teams this world cup after getting three teams into the final sixteen and one in the quarters? FIFA only thinks of Europe, even though most brackets have only one or two strong teams in them. England Malta, wow, what a rivalry.

  3. Ben Myers, September 2, 2017 at 4:15 p.m.

    And why did the US choose a southern venue for the match, a place where Costa Rican fans could show up in droves?

  4. Ric Fonseca, September 2, 2017 at 9:52 p.m.

    Uh, Ben Myers, I thought they played in Jew Jersey, right across from the Big Apple? Oh, you said that tongue-in-cheek, right?

  5. Andrew Kear, September 3, 2017 at 4:42 p.m.

    Yet, another mini crisis for the USMNT team. This is becoming a depressing familiar situation. The leaky US defense has been a concern for over 18 months, gives up goals on a regular basis. I guess talented players no longer want to play defense.

  6. R2 Dad replied, September 5, 2017 at 7:21 p.m.

    AK, it's not that they can't defend per se, it's that our back line combines poor ball-handling with a low soccer IQ. The physical ability to defend must be combined with the intelligence and sense to know where the danger is coming from, when to challenge, when to drop, and overall positioning. The Cameron long pass that lead to the goal was dangerous because he wasn't aware his partner had not closed in to cover in case the pass was intercepted. One cannot turn off, even for a moment, in international play--you get punished as we were against Costa Rica.

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