SAN JOSE, Calif. – For decades, the biggest calling card for the US national team was its indefatigability. No matter who was wearing the red, white and blue – and what their relative level of talent might be – the Americans were always game for a full 90-minute fight.
The echoes of that legacy could be heard Saturday rattling around Avaya Stadium.
Stuck in neutral after a choppy, scoreless first half, the US came out with renewed verve after intermission, incrementally turning up the pressure on Costa Rica until the payoff finally came: a pair of goals in the final 10 minutes for Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola that gave the Americans a 2-0 win and put them at 2-0-0 under new coach Gregg Berhalter.
Facing a young and hungry Costa Rican side that featured only two holdovers from the Ticos’ 2018 World Cup roster, the Americans had to dig for something extra in order to keep Berhalter’s record unblemished.
“We hadn’t faced that [level of] intensity yet this camp,” Berhalter said. “It was a great experience today, and I think that we certainly learned that if we can continue to persevere, if we can continue to try to play our game, it has a cumulative effect on the opponent. You saw what happened to Costa Rica – they got very fatigued in the second half. They couldn’t match us. I liked that mentality from the group.”
The insertion of Lletget, who suffered a career-threatening injury in March 2017 during his last appearance at Avaya, also for the USMNT, helped spark things for the US at the hour mark. The San Francisco native, who grew up in the Bay Area before leaving for West Ham as a high-schooler, made a late-arriving run and used a back-post header to cash in Jonathan Lewis’ cross from the left wing, breaking the deadlock in the 80th minute. Eight minutes later, Lletget’s pass sprang the tireless Arriola, who deftly chipped Costa Rica goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado from 15 yards to seal the outcome with a well-deserved goal.
“Initially, we weren’t really matching their intensity,” said US midfielder Wil Trapp, who replaced Michael Bradley in one of only two changes to Berhalter’s XI. “Second half, we were just a little bit braver. We wanted the ball and got the ball into tough spots, and we wanted the balls in those spots. We just stuck to the game plan, which was breaking lines, turning in pockets and playing behind them.”
Combined with a 3-0 win over Panama last weekend, it added up to a successful end to a month-long camp under Berhalter, laying the foundation of a new culture that will see the addition of foreign-based US players in March to face Ecuador and Chile.
“I told the guys this in the locker room: I think [camp] was successful in the fact that we met our benchmarks,” Berhalter said. “There were three items that we were looking to address: Team building, style of play and competing. I think each and every one of them met that criteria.”
As captain Aaron Long put it: “To have 5-0 [cumulative scoreline] over the two games is unbelievable for us. We’re really happy.”