Pressure on U.S. to rise to the occasion after latest World Cup setback
HARRISON, New Jersey -- To a man, the players on the U.S. men's national team said they're not worried about their World Cup qualifying prospects in the wake of Friday's 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica.
"This is our reality at the moment," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "The likelihood is that it's going to go down to the wire, and that can't faze anybody, that can't scare us. Costa Rica and Mexico are gone. Us, Panama and Honduras play a few games, and one will go to the World Cup, one will go to the playoff and one will be out."
Perhaps the U.S. should be worried, because there was plenty to be concerned about with regard to this performance. One could argue that it was a game of moments -- Marco Urena's goals; Keylor Navas' saves; the non-penalty call when Jozy Altidore appeared to be fouled by Kendall Waston -- as opposed to tactics.
The reality is that it was a bit of both, along with some poor individual performances from a few U.S. players.
Sure the home side carried much of the play, but for Costa Rica that was by design, and midfielders Celso Borges, David Guzman, Christian Bolanos, along with forward Bryan Ruiz, were still more effective than their U.S. counterparts.
From a U.S. perspective, there was an overall lack of sharpness at both ends of the field. Christian Pulisic missed the target on three of his four attempts at goal, and the one time he did get his attempt where he wanted it, Navas came up with a ridiculous save where he employed both hand and foot to keep it out. Centre-backs Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream were too often disconnected from each other, and gave the ball away in bad spots.
There were times when the approach work clicked, only for the attack to come unstuck in the final phase. Goalkeeper Tim Howard didn't help his team out by being beaten by a tight-angled shot from Urena that you would expect him to save, though when asked about the sequence, he insisted on giving Urena credit.
"[Urena] kept shifting the ball, and then obviously he was getting ready to hit it," he said. "The more that he went down that side, I was worried about him slotting the ball near post because Timmy [Ream] was on his back shoulder. But credit to him he took it well."
In the process the U.S. set some more dubious marks. It has lost multiple home qualifiers in one qualifying campaign for the first time since the 1958 cycle. It was the first U.S. loss to Costa Rica in a home qualifier for the first time since 1985. But beyond mere numbers is the fact that the Americans' margin for error is rapidly approaching the vanishing point.
"There's no time to feel sorry for ourselves, and we're not. We've got three games to play like our lives depend on it, and we will," Bradley said.
Without question the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying format is beyond forgiving -- the top three go through automatically while the fourth-place team goes to a playoff against a team from Asia.
There are just three games left for the U.S., two of which are on the road. In addition to Tuesday's match against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, there is a home match against Panama, and then the Hex finale away to Trinidad & Tobago.
Honduras has two home games left, but in addition to the U.S. it faces a Mexico side that has already qualified. In between is an away clash against Costa Rica, where the Ticos might also have nothing to play for. Panama plays T&T at home on Tuesday, and after facing the U.S. will host Costa Rica on the last day of qualifying.
Yes, it has come to this. The U.S. has been reduced to scoreboard watching.
Of course, if the U.S. takes care of its own business it won't need to worry about what happens elsewhere. But that will require some aspects of the Americans' game to change. To hear Costa Rica defender Kendall Waston describe it, the U.S. was nothing if not predictable.
"Their game flows through Bradley and we knew if we focused on [him and Pulisic] they wouldn't have many clear-cut opportunities," he told MLSsoccer.com. "We tried to force them down the wings, tried to limit crosses, and keep them away from our goal. Obviously they have players with lots of quality and were eventually going to have chances to take shots, but we also have our great goalkeeper [in Navas]."
That was a characterization that Bradley didn't seem to dispute.
"I thought at times we put together some good plays, couldn't get the final part of the play right, in other moments it was a little bit too slow, a little bit too predictable," he said.
The biggest problem is that the U.S. needs more production from players other than Pulisic.
Teams around the region are now wise to the ways of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who Costa Rica double-teamed at every opportunity and then fouled on those occasions when he escaped. It didn't help that Fabian Johnson was ineffective for the second consecutive appearance, the first one coming back in June against T&T. That said, it was probably asking too much of him to start when he had only played 10 minutes at club level this season due to a back injury.
The solution might be to bring in Kellyn Acosta for Johnson and play him alongside Bradley, a move that would shore the spine defensively, and move Darlington Nagbe to left midfield to get more wing-to-wing balance.
Change will have to occur up top now that Altidore is suspended for yellow card accumulation, leaving Bruce Arena to pick between Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.
Along with more consistency in the centre of defense, that might be enough for the U.S. to get a result. A draw might see it get just one point, but it would also deprive Honduras from getting another two.
Regardless, the final match days will be tension-filled. It's now up to the U.S. to rise to the occasion, otherwise it'll be watching the 2018 World Cup from home.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.