Armchair Analyst: Winning moments lead to winning night for Ticos over USA

There are things to unpack here, in the aftermath of a 2-0 USMNT home loss to Costa Rica on Friday night at Red Bull Arena. Tactical things, formational things, personnel things. Stuff about winning 50/50 balls in midfield and not giving the damn ball away from central defense, about moving the ball quickly enough and applying structured pressure in good spots. We will get to all of that.

But here is what happened: When the game was in the balance, Keylor Navas made huge saves to bail his team out. Tim Howard did not.

Thirty minutes into a choppy, scoreless affair that had seen no good chances for either team, Costa Rica won yet another second ball at midfield and this time, turned it into a clean breakaway. Howard got both his positioning and his footwork wrong, gave Marco Ureña the far post, and that subsequent 1-0 Costa Rica lead defined the game.

He was not solely or even mostly to blame on the play. But even the best teams need an occasional bailout – which Howard had provided against Ureña in two separate 1v1s back in the Gold Cup semifinals – and in this case, he did not provide it. 

In the second half the US played with better purpose and commitment, created better chances and were mostly the better team. They had good looks inside the box, enough to find an equalizer.

But Navas first made a spectacular save on Christian Pulisic's deflected shot with 15 minutes remaining, and then he stuffed a Jozy Altidore breakaway with eight minutes left. Seconds later, a Geoff Cameron giveaway put another Ureña breakaway on a platter (one that neither Howard nor anyone else could've saved), it was 2-0 and the game was effectively over.

The Ticos were able to construct a game that would be won or lost not over 90 minutes, but in the little, crucial moments. Ureña and Navas executed; Howard, Cameron, Altidore, Pulisic, Tim Ream et al did not.

And now World Cup qualifying, after eight months of good work, is a "hold your breath and hope" affair for the US again.

What Went Wrong In Defense

There was a bunch, but the big and ultimately decisive factor was the amount of space between the US central defenders, Cameron and Ream. They'd played together only once, which came in a back five at Mexico in June, and so this was a new pairing in a new formation. They looked quite a bit like exactly that, failing to stay connected on the game-winning goal in particular:

That was a big, unmissable problem. So to was their distributive carelessness, which eventually led to the second goal. I'm just going to link it rather than embed because there's nothing to say beyond "boy, you should never give the ball away like that." Even if Howard had made that first save, it felt like the type of game in which Cameron or Ream would've hung him out to dry eventually regardless.

And there was something else wrong with the US center backs in this one: Their unwillingness to – for lack of a better descriptor – get stuck in. They allowed Ureña to win nearly every header or 50/50 ball in the first 45 minutes, and as Kasey Keller pointed out on the ESPN halftime show, the US as a whole committed only two fouls.

Fouls aren't necessarily a good thing, but they're not necessarily a bad thing, either. Being physical is part of the sport, and being out-physicaled is often deadly. Costa Rica gave a clinic in that this evening, and the US let them.

There's almost nothing to say about the fullbacks. Neither Graham Zusi nor Jorge Villafaña added much going forward because the US never had meaningful enough possession to give them time and space to overlap, and both were largely good enough defensively. Zusi did get skinned once, and Villafaña got turned, but there's no sane argument that these guys were the problem.

What Went Wrong In Midfield

The US played a flat 4-4-2 with Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe as a dual, central midfield pivot, which was a terrible choice from Bruce Arena. Nagbe was frequently lost on both sides of the ball, and was a non-entity in terms of defensive actions in the most dangerous parts of the field. There is, in other words, a significant difference between playing as a No. 8 in a 4-2-3-1 (which Nagbe's done quite a bit) compared to playing as a No. 8 in a 4-4-2 (which he's almost never had on his plate).

The effect of this for the Ticos wasn't to dominate possession, but rather to dominate transition opportunities. Any time there was a loose ball at midfield somebody in red won it, and off they went.

Nagbe just couldn't figure out how to get around the ball:

I blame Arena more than I blame Nagbe, to be honest. The formation was not the right choice and obviously the personnel wasn't, either. On top of that, Arena also has an old-fashioned habit of demanding his wide midfielders to stay really, really wide, which can and does often leave huge gaps between the lines. The US were loose and inviting, which allowed Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolaños too much time to orchestrate the game.

It's thus not a coincidence that the US looked better on both sides of the ball once Pulisic was freed up to drift inside and function as an ad hoc No. 10, and then better still once the US swapped out of the 4-4-2 entirely at the 65-minute mark.

You can still play a flat 4-4-2 in the modern game – you really can, even though lots of folks like to pretend it's gone out of fashion forever. But it's hard, because you need two central midfielders who have a symbiotic relationship on both sides of the ball, and at least one wide midfielder who's savvy and practiced at dipping inside to add numbers.

Pulisic is a gift from the soccer gods, but he's not that. Fabian Johnson, meanwhile, was largely a no-show at left midfield.

What Went Wrong Up Top

If, in the 4-4-2, you're not getting help in central midfield from your wide players, that means you're probably getting it (or should be getting it) from one of the forwards. This is how the 4-4-2 sort of evolved into the 4-2-3-1 about 20 years ago.

Altidore and Bobby Wood started up top. Altidore is the superior hold-up player and passer, and Wood is the superior line-runner. Remember this?

Yet it was Wood who played deeper, slotting into the hole to try to connect the midfield to the attack. Wood's a gamer and a smart player, but he's not a good or instinctive passer of the ball, so in the moments where the US did actually get some control and have a chance to build, the final ball was frequently lacking.

Slot Pulisic there, centrally, either in a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-2-3-1, and what happens? I'll spend the rest of my days believing the US would have won this game 3-1.

But they didn't. Instead it was the wrong guys filling the wrong roles in the wrong spots for the wrong reasons. It felt like a return to the bad form of 2015 and 2016, and it needs to be better – from the coaches and the players both – on Tuesday at Honduras. If it's not, then there is a better-than-good chance that the US will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

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