Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of USMNT's trip to Costa Rica


Is it a must-win?

No, absolutely not. Whatever happens in Costa Rica on Tuesday night (9 pm ET; beIN Sports | NBC Universo), once the final whistle blows there are eight more games left in the Hexagonal to qualify for Russia 2018, and the USMNT will be able to claim the more talented roster in seven of them. The world will not end if Jurgen Klinsmann's team comes away from the first two qualifiers of this round without a single point. Mathematically and practically speaking, the US were much closer to elimination this past March after the 2-0 loss to Guatemala.

But games don't happen in a vacuum. The US aren't just playing for points, but for primacy and momentum and integration and identity. Every time they lose to Mexico or in San Jose, they cede a good chunk of that.

Winning begets confidence, and confidence begets more winning. It is a virtuous cycle that the US have largely missed out upon over the last five years.


Costa Rica (5-4-1): Keylor Navas; Ronald Matarrita, Michael Umaña, Jhonny Acosta, Kendall Waston, Jose Salvatierra; Christian Bolaños, Randall Azofeifa, Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz; Joel Campbell

USMNT (4-4-2): Brad Guzan; Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez, Timothy Chandler; Christian Pulisic, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya; Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood

If there was ever a time for the US to break their curse in Costa Rica -- the Yanks are 0-8-2 all-time down there, including 0-8-1 in World Cup qualifying (the only draw was in 1985) -- it's now. For as frustrating as the 2-1 loss to Mexico was, the US were clearly the better team from minutes 30-through-85, and that's not entirely down to the games state, but rather is a carry-over from how they played this summer in the 4-4-2.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, are hamstrung. Francisco Calvo, who starts in the middle of that five-man backline, was substituted before halftime and is officially out for this one with an injury. Regular right back/wingback Cristian Gamboa is suspended. Captain Bryan Ruiz might or might not play after coming off with an injury of his own 15 minutes from time in the Ticos' 2-0 win at Trinidad & Tobago.

Regardless, the hosts should be favored here. Oscar Ramirez won't make the same mistakes that killed his team this summer in the US's Copa America 4-0 win, and even though the Estadio National isn't as intimidating as Estadio Saprissa, it's still a massive home field advantage.

US fans should prepare themselves accordingly.

• Will the US choose the right formation and approach?

Part of me feels like this is the only question worth pondering. If the US play that lineup above, or one with a few tweaks (let's say Sacha Kljestan for Jones, who must be exhausted, or DeAndre Yedlin for Chandler), I really like our chances. If we do something completely off the grid, then this could be a rout in the other direction.

So what exactly was the shape for the US after Jones and Bradley confronted Klinsmann in the 28th minute? Nominally it was that 4-4-2 I mentioned above, but functionally it was almost a 4-2-4 because the wingers on both sides pushed so high.

This is what I saw for the last hour:

It’s definitely a bend-don’t-break system, which lends itself to sort of a low-lying defensive stance without bunkering. The success of the whole thing was/is reliant upon the wingers recognizing transitional moments in both directions — so that the central midfield never got overrun defensively, and so that the forwards were never quite isolated alone.

And it worked! There were always numbers moving together after the switch away from the 3-5-2 (or the 3-4-3 as Klinsmann called it which, just, whatever).

• The Wood/Altidore partnership worked

They’re both hold-up players, true center forwards who are good at receiving the ball with back to goal. But they do it in different ways:

  • Wood operates on the offside line, stretching
  • Jozy operates in the pockets underneath, as a hub

So Wood received a lot of balls at the point with his back to goal that he then laid back to Jozy. Jozy was then able to moonlight as a No. 10, and either bring Pulisic into the play or send Wood though.

To think of it another way: Altidore's holdup play was used to draw the defense up and then create transition opportunities, while Wood's was used to relieve pressure on an otherwise swamped midfield and buy time for the rest of the team to move forward.

Having 2 players whose major responsibilities were holding the ball up seems tactically redundant but it kinda works because they do it so differently.

And if you're an old head thinking that sounds a lot like the Altidore/Davies partnership of yore... Yup.

• Can Costa Rica punish the US left back?

Whether it's Matt Besler out there in a reprise of his role from Friday or Johnson playing at LB in a reprise of his role from almost every other US game over the past 12 months, this is where the Ticos will have to do work. If they can bury the ball there, two things happen:

  1. Pulisic has to track back and help, robbing the US of their most inventive 1v1 attacker
  2. Brooks has to step out and help, opening the middle for the runs of Campbell

Both of those are decidedly bad for the US. Go ahead and click THIS link to see what I mean.

• Give Borges protection so he can more forward

Borges has an argument that he's the best midfielder in the region, and the fact that he works hard on both sides of the ball, and is a pretty big dude to boot, means coaches and fans often make the mistake of thinking he's a d-mid.

He's not. He's a box-to-box No. 8 who does a little bit of everything, and Costa Rica's at its best when he's doing a little bit of everything. That means, however, that they need to play a real d-mid in front of the central defense -- they need to free Borges up so that he can run everywhere and do whatever he wants, because It Is Usually Very Good.

Here's a reminder of what Borges did the last time the US went to San Jose:

That's literally the first GIF I ever made. Good times.

The point though, is that even three years ago it wasn't exactly a mystery what Costa Rica wanted to do. They overload one side then hit you on the other in transition, and here we have the US left back asked to win a header while defending 1-v-3. And that happened because Borges recognized the opportunity 50 yards earlier than anyone else, then made it reality with a hard run to the back post.

If the same pattern is repeated on Tuesday, it won't matter whether it's Besler or Johnson or Chandler or anyone else manning that side of the field for the US.

What's it all mean?

The US are 1-3-1 in World Cup qualifiers in Central America under Klinsmann, a mark that includes two of the most befuddling and dispiriting losses of his tenure (at Honduras to open the 2014 Hexagonal, and at Guatemala this past spring). His version of the US has generally gone down into these games and played a tentative, disjointed and frankly kind of scared brand of soccer, save for second-half stoppage time against a Panama team that was tragically and prematurely celebrating.

Yes, that San Zusi moment was the only US win in Central America under Klinsmann. 

Expecting that to change on Tuesday against a Costa Rica team that doesn't make many mistakes, and one that has owned the US at home throughout their history, seems like a bad bet.

Of course as Friday night in Columbus showed, streaks can and will end. I'm just not particularly expecting that to happen.