Armchair Analyst: Costa Rica's crazy gamble pays big – for the US

The USMNT's 4-0 win over Costa Rica on Tuesday night was not perfect. It was not according to a blueprint or by design, and it was not without at least a little bit of controversy (though I think people complaining about the PK call are nuts). I agree with this assessment from Jurgen Klinsmann:

That they did. Not fluid, not perfect, but it was overwhelming, and it was cathartic, and it was necessary. The US beat a team ranked in the FIFA top 70 in an official competition for the first time since the win over Ghana to start the World Cup, two long years ago. They avoided losing to Costa Rica at home in an official game for the first time since 1989. And they kept their hopes alive in a tournament where the stated goal, as per the man himself, is the semifinals.

Thank goodness.

Here's how it happened:


The Big Bet

I'd like to say that this game was about one thing Klinsmann added or subtracted that made things right, but it really wasn't. As he said, the US finished their chances while Costa Rica did not, and the run-of-play numbers suggest it was a game that played out pretty similarly to Friday's 2-0 loss:

Sometimes it's as simple as finishing your chances.

Beyond that, however, there were the twin big gambles that Costa Rica head coach Oscar Ramirez took. First was to come out and press the US as high and hard as possible over the first 20 minutes, during which they dominated possession; and second was to do so without a true defensive midfielder in the lineup.

The first caught everybody by surprise, and may have actually paid off if not for one good attack that ended in a penalty for Clint Dempsey. The second was suicide.

Celso Borges and Vancouver's Cristian Bolanos were tasked with running central midfield, and while they were able to use their skill and movement in possession, they were completely out-classed in transition. Any time the ball turned over, the US attackers and central midfielders had acres to run into, and happily carved out chance after chance because of it.

I do understand the decision to sit the usual starting No. 6, Yeltsin Tejeda, after he struggled against Paraguay on Saturday. I don't understand the decision to leave backup Randall Azofeifa on the bench until halftime and ask Borges to play out of position. It made the Ticos less dangerous by moving one of their best finishers deeper, and made them more exposed on the counter without a backline shield.

Credit to the US -- particularly Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey -- for recognizing this and capitalizing on it. This is Borges getting stripped because he's not used to that spot:

And this is him failing to cover as Jones made it 2-0:

See, US fans? Klinsmann is not the only coach who can make inscrutable, counterproductive personnel choices. This was a crazy gamble that should never, ever have been taken by the Ticos.


Continuity's Sake

I mentioned that Ghana game, and you probably remember how well it started. You also probably remember what it turned into after 20 minutes, when Jozy Altidore had to come out with a hamstring strain.

What's forgotten -- or maybe not even recognized -- is that's the last time Klinsmann has started the same lineup in back-to-back games. He broke that streak this evening, and while said continuity didn't lead to jogo bonito or the type of attacking inventiveness that he long-since promised, the US were by and large able to effectively shackle the best Costa Rican attackers.

Arsenal's Joel Campbell was so well-handled that he was subbed out at the half:

Green lines are complete passes, red are incomplete, and if you squint hard enough it looks like he's spelling out "Please help me."

Klinsmann deserves his dap for this. He kept the same XI from one game to the next (in spite of Wood's shortcomings on the wings) and gave them a chance to improve game-over-game. He then made a smart tactical and formational shift when, at about the 25 minute mark, he switched the 4-3-3 to a 4-1-3-2. Up until that point, Costa Rica's width thanks to their 5-4-1 was constantly pulling the US apart; by going to a variation on the 4-4-2 -- one in which Michael Bradley was still quite clearly expected to shield the backline while Jones could go out hunting -- he blunted the attack of the Ticos' wingbacks.

This was the straw that broke the camel's back, leading to the formation change:

Excellent recovery from Fabian Johnson, who was late to several plays in the first 10 minutes but came up with that big stop and several others. You can see, though, just how dangerous Costa Rica were in the early going, and just how much space their wide players had.

Regardless, watching a lineup grow and improve together over a series of games is one of the true joys of this sport, and it had been so, so long since US fans have been treated to it. Tonight felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard.


A few more things to ponder …

5. Jones was monumental, the Man of the Match. He and Dempsey set the tone, while Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya were able to clean up any messes. The four veterans -- all of whom came in for some friendly fire after the Colombia game -- all stepped into the moment and owned it.

4. DeAndre Yedlin gave me the yips with his confidence, which sometimes borders on over-confidence, on the ball. Paraguay will punish some of those sloppy passes out of the back.

3. Wood is a center forward. This was absolutely lovely:

But nearly everything he did on the flanks was a faceplant, and as you can see on the video of the potential breakaway up above, he's not an instinctive passer. There really is only one spot for him at this level, and the shift to the 4-4-2 helped him more than it did any other US player.

2. I hated the second and third subs -- there was no reason not to play Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic. Up 3-0 in a game where wide players were getting a ton of the ball against a good-but-overmatched regional opponent in a non-friendly at home? You could not write up a better scenario for "let's get our kids some minutes!"

Wildly disappointing, but at the same time...

I sent that tweet in the 65th minute. At least I'm beginning to understand the ways of Jurgen.

1. With that said, I am at least a little bit concerned about the amount of gas Dempsey and Jones, in particular, have left in the tank for Saturday's match against Paraguay. Los Guaranies will not make the same mistake the Ticos did -- playing without a d-mid -- and they won't risk pressing up too high and leaving gaps for the US to counter into.

So take this US win for what it is: A great beat-down of a regional rival, but only half of the job's done. The rest of it has to come to fruition this weekend.

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