COLUMBUS, Ohio – When it comes to the high stakes and asphyxiating pressure of a World Cup qualifying match, players and coaches have to walk a tightrope, finding a balance between nerves and adrenaline, fear and anticipation, creativity with responsibility. It’s central to their jobs as professionals, but rarely more difficult than in big games.
That task is further magnified for the US men’s national team in Wednesday night’s Concacaf Octagonal clash with Costa Rica at Lower.com Field (7 pm ET | ESPN2, TUDN, Univision, ESPN+). Still stinging from Sunday’s 1-0 setback at Panama, the young Yanks need a victory and are favored to get it in the city that’s been their fortress for two decades.
Yet they're also carrying a growing habit of slow starts, and recognize that another one could be costly. And an anemic attacking performance in Panama – probably the weakest of coach Gregg Berhalter’s tenure – has raised urgency to get forward with more aggression and energy, especially to inspire home fans eager to see a response to that loss.
Conversely, though, they face an older, battle-hardened Ticos squad expected to sit deep and defend doggedly, with more than enough counterattacking nous to exploit any tactical recklessness on the part of their hosts.
“I don't know whether it's something everyone else thinks, but it's something I noticed myself that we don’t seem to score early,” said left back Antonee Robinson on Tuesday. “I'm not sure there's much we can change for that going ahead. I think it's just a testament to [the fact] that we build in confidence in games and maybe going forward, that just means that we need to be a bit more ruthless.”
Even as he issued a rallying cry of sorts, the Fulham fullback acknowledged that there’s also a measure of danger lurking in a ‘damn the torpedoes’ mentality.
“We respect our opponents, but we need to realize how good a team we are at the same time and maybe not be so conservative when we know we've got the quality to go and attack teams at full strength early on,” he said.
“At the same time, we're going to have to be very focused so that we don't concede because they're going to obviously have threats going forward and in a World Cup qualifier, anything can happen. So as long as we stick to our game, and we're on the front foot, I feel confident we can go and win.”
Asked about the trend of slow starts, Berhalter sought to frame things a bit differently, while emphasizing the taut, conservative tone of these matches.
“When I look at some of these games, I think we created chances in the first half, we didn't always score them. And all of these games are tight. That’s the first thing that we need to understand,” said the coach. “Look at the scorelines across the board of all these [Octagonal] games. They're one-goal games, they're super tight games, save for the Mexico game that Honduras got a red card early in the game.
“These are tight games, man, they're not going to be blowouts. And for us it's about the key moments in the game, about staying focused, it's about bringing that intensity.”
USMNT opponents have found success with a park-the-bus approach before – as did Costa Rica in their last WCQ visit to the United States, a gut-punch 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena in 2017 – and Robinson cautioned that they can expect more of the same in the coming months if they don’t find solutions soon.
“There's going to be a lot of games in this sort of World Cup qualifying schedule where the teams are going to respect us that much as an opponent that they're going to be sitting in a low block and they're going to try and cancel us out offensively, and then hopefully for themselves counter and get a goal,” he said. “So it's going to be something we're going to have to get used to, not just for Costa Rica, but for a lot of games.”