Let’s make no bones about it. Tuesday’s US national team game against Costa Rica now ranks up there as perhaps the most pivotal game of 2016 for the national side (8 pm ET; FS1, UniMás, UDN).
Anything less than a win will see the Yanks’ Copa America hopes cut down to a thread, if not quashed outright should Costa Rica defeat the USMNT and Colombia beat Paraguay.
The USA's performance in a 2-0 tournament-opening loss to Colombia wasn’t completely bereft of positive signs, but the Americans' inability to break down a team that was happy to sit back and defend after going ahead early was worrying. Especially so considering they will likely face two more teams that will likely set up in the same from the outset, in the Ticos and then against Paraguay on June 11.
So what’s the key to breaking down two organized, defensively-minded sides, an essential step in reaching Jurgen Klinsmann’s stated goal of reaching the semifinals?
I’m not sure it’s playing two center forwards in the wing positions, like we saw with Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes against Colombia. Instead, it may just be time to unleash the USA’s two newest attacking talents: Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic.
To start the case for them, take this quote straight from Klinsmann’s mouth, after I asked him in his postgame press conference if he’d be sticking with the three-man central midfield in a 4-3-3 formation rather than shifting to 4-4-2.
“I think it plays essentially no role at all. ... The key is finding ways to play through a very compact, very well-organized Colombian side,” he answered. “So you have to find ways there to find the forwards up front, to find spots to go through. It doesn’t really matter what system you play there, so we have to find those opportunities against Costa Rica.”
Though I’ll take major issue with his claim that formation plays essentially no role at all, the rest of that rings true, even more so considering that it will be no easy task to break down the Ticos.
So, who better to find those spaces than two of the most skilled, speedy attackers on the US roster?
People will say they’re not experienced enough – I say if Pulisic is good enough to play regularly for one of the best teams in Europe, and start in one of the most heated derbies in Germany, then he’s good enough to start for the US for Costa Rica. If Nagbe can slice apart MLS defenses – not to mention Ecuador's – he’s probably good enough to do it against a Costa Rica team that leans heavily on MLS and MLS-level talent.
Furthermore, playing Pulisic on the left wing of a 4-3-3 formation would be one step closer to getting the US players in their best positions. That does bring up an uncomfortable point: if Nagbe and Pulisic are to start for the US, that means two players will have to be dropped from the starting lineup, as Klinsmann is so eager to point out when he gets those types of questions.
The solution for Nagbe seems fairly simple – after impressing vs. Bolivia in a friendly, Alejandro Bedoya regressed somewhat vs. Colombia, and putting Nagbe in as the most attacking-minded of the midfield three would be a like-for-like swap and put him in the position in which he has found so much success for the Timbers.
Fitting Pulisic in would be trickier. If he goes to the left wing, that would push Bobby Wood to either the No. 9 spot – occupied by Clint Dempsey vs. Colombia – to Zardes’ right wing spot, or out of the lineup entirely. Wood is a natural No. 9, and probably the most in-form goalscorer in the US pool, given his 17 goals for Union Berlin this club season and another goal vs. Puerto Rico in the USMNT’s tune-up games.
That would mean moving Dempsey, no easy task, but one that could be made by shifting him out to the right in place of Zardes, where he could get plenty of support from Jermaine Jones and DeAndre Yedlin on the defensive front and drift inside, underneath Wood, where he could do some serious damage as a second striker.
If it wasn’t clear just now, there’s obviously no easy solution to these lineup issues. A coach in any game has to balance tactical concerns, fitness, and egos when putting together is team sheet. But if there was ever a time to roll on the dice on two of the most promising attacking players the US has had in a long time, this is the time and the place.