USMNT pressure rises against Costa Rica in Columbus WCQ return

COLUMBUS, Ohio – This founding MLS city has been a happy home for the US men’s national team for longer than some of their current stars have been alive, Historic Crew Stadium providing an imposing crucible for a litany of “Dos a Cero” moments and other memorable victories this century.

That said, the atmosphere around the squad isn’t entirely comfortable at the moment.

In the wake of Sunday’s ugly World Cup qualifying loss at Panama, coach Gregg Berhalter and his side arrive in central Ohio in acute need of a victory against Costa Rica at Field on Wednesday evening (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN, ESPN+).

“Regarding the Panama performance, we looked at it with the group, we discussed it with the group, and we were off, make no mistake about it,” said Berhalter in Tuesday’s pregame press availability. “It was not a good game by us. I think we were a little bit slow getting to our positions to press, were late too many times pressing, which causes problems, and it causes a lot of energy on your group. Offensively, I didn't think there was enough movement off the ball. Our expected goal value was very low in that game, which is an issue.

“In terms of squad rotation, one thing I want to make completely clear is when I took responsibility for the result the other day, it was not aimed at the choice of players, because we believe in every single player in this squad and I don't regret in any moment playing that lineup. I regret more our performance and some of the attacking adjustments we could have made in that game to be more mobile, to be moving more, but not personnel,” he added. “We say we're a group, and we say we're a team, it's the ‘next man up’ mentality. And unfortunately, we didn't get it done. But this game we're hoping to have a much better performance.”

The Yanks are hoping to welcome Weston McKennie back to the starting lineup, after he was held out of the Panama trip and sent straight from Austin to Columbus to rehab a quadriceps injury after last week’s win over Jamaica. But Berhalter said that his status – as well as that of left back Antonee Robinson – remains in doubt.

“We’re gathering information as we speak on Weston’s status. He pushed it a little bit yesterday and the signs are he’s making progress, but we’ll have to see today in training,” said the former Crew boss, revealing that both players will have to pass fitness tests in Tuesday evening’s training session at the stadium.

“Right now we don’t have enough information to make that decision [about their status].”

To throw another worry into the mix, Berhalter admitted that McKennie is refusing to speak to media at present. The Juventus midfielder was suspended for two matches in the September window for violating team protocols and doesn't appear to have spoken to US-based reporters since.

“I think we have a track record of being open and honest with the media. And when this whole thing happened, I think we were really upfront with the circumstances, without getting into details,” said Berhalter. “I think we talked about it in general terms, and that’s what a team’s about. And I don’t think it’s our job to have to disclose everything to the media.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s something that we move forward from. In terms of his availability for media, it’s a personal choice and I support Weston in that. It’s a decision that he has to make himself, and it is what it is. His focus right now is on the field.”

Having booked their first victory of the Octagonal with a comeback home win over El Salvador over the weekend, Costa Rica can vault ahead of the USMNT in the standings with a win on Wednesday.

Luis Fernando Suárez’s stingy, veteran-heavy group are well-suited for exploiting any doubt or dip on the part of their hosts and will surely take confidence from their win in this fixture in the 2018 cycle, a 2-0 upset at Red Bull Arena that proved devastating to US qualification hopes.

“The strength of the Costa Rican team is their experience,” said Berhalter. “They have their players that have been through this before, they know exactly what it's about. And that's an advantage for them. [Keylor] Navas, I think is one of the best goalies in the region. They’ve got an experienced backline, with Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges they have experienced midfielders.

“To me, it's a team that knows exactly how to get this job done. There's no surprise that they found their way back into this thing, because it's a resilient team and a difficult team to beat.”