Bradley's partner in midfield is a most intriguing dilemma for U.S. vs. Costa Rica
HARRISON, N.J. -- The U.S. men's national team has spent the past eight months recovering from a dreadful start to the final round of World Cup qualifying. It has followed a simple formula in doing so: win at home, tie on the road. Now comes the final push, starting with Friday's qualifier against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena (6:30 p.m. ET; ESPN/WatchESPN).
It was the Ticos who put the U.S. into a tailspin back in November, delivering a 4-0 hammering that cost then-manager Jurgen Klinsmann his job and put the U.S. team in last place in the final round Hexagonal. The U.S. revival under current manager Bruce Arena has seen the Americans climb up to third, three points behind Costa Rica, but just a single point ahead of fourth-place Panama. The same urgency that has pushed the U.S. into its current position has remained evident in the run-up to Friday's match.
"It's been hard work to put ourselves in this position, to turn things around, and the foot can't come off the gas now," said U.S. captain Michael Bradley. "We have to have this ruthless mentality that says in these last four games, when everything is on the line, use our good position and finish things off."
Given the injuries to defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, there has been plenty of focus on the state of the U.S. back line. Graham Zusi, who eight months ago still considered himself a midfielder, looks poised to start at right-back. Matt Besler or Tim Ream will likely start alongside Geoff Cameron in the center of defense.
But perhaps the bigger question is how the U.S. midfield will be deployed. If previous home World Cup qualifiers under Arena are anything to go by, the U.S. will put Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley in the center, with Fabian Johnson and Darlington Nagbe occupying the two wide positions. It's an alignment heavy on attacking intent, but it also has its defensive vulnerabilities.
It asks plenty of Bradley on the defensive side of the ball, and during June's home qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago, the Soca Warriors had their moments where they exploited some massive gaps. Defensive help from the wide midfielders was nowhere to be found. The U.S. ultimately prevailed 2-0, but there were plenty of anxious moments.
On the road, Arena has taken a different approach. Against both Panama and Mexico, he utilized a more defensive-minded midfielder alongside Bradley in a bid to more evenly distribute the defensive responsibilities. Against Panama, it was Jermaine Jones, who isn't available for Friday's match. At the Azteca, Arena turned to Kellyn Acosta. That had the knock-on effect of pushing Pulisic out wide. In this instance, it would also result in one of Nagbe or Johnson being forced to the bench.
The results of such an alignment have been predictable, as well, with the U.S. ceding the initiative to road opponents Panama and Mexico, though against El Tri the Americans did muster seven attempts at goal.
How Arena will manage this midfield balancing act remains unclear. Does he go aggressive in attack, trusting Bradley to hold down the fort, or does he take a more conservative tack? Bradley articulated that it's a goal with a lot of moving parts.
"[You need] good positioning, making sure we have the right numbers behind the ball, but also that we're also not just happy with the numbers, that we're seeing different outlets and aggressive in the right moments," he said. "There's a lot that goes into it."
It would appear that Arena has three options to line up in tandem with Bradley: Acosta, Pulisic or Nagbe. While Acosta performed admirably against Mexico, he labored through a Gold Cup that by his own admission saw him deliver some uneven performances. Arena had enough faith in Acosta to pair him alongside Bradley in the Gold Cup semifinal against Costa Rica, one in which the Americans prevailed 2-0. That said, Acosta knows he needs to raise his game.
"Every game is a little bit different," said Acosta prior to Thursday's practice. "You just have to have the mentality that things don't always go the way you want to. Gold Cup is a big thing for me, and maybe I didn't have the best tournament that I wanted to. I still had some positives, and I'm here right now even after not having the best of Gold Cups, but I keep pushing, keep working."
Pulisic could very well be the option, but one factor to keep in mind is that Costa Rica's midfield will look very different than the one the U.S. overcame during the Gold Cup. Midfield metronome Celso Borges sat out the entire tournament, but he will return for this match. Christian Bolanos was injured for that Gold Cup semi, but he is healthy now.
Combine that with the skill of Bryan Ruiz and you have a Costa Rica midfield that is more than capable of creating some difficult moments for its U.S. counterparts. Pulisic is a conscientious defender, but clearly you don't want him overly preoccupied with defensive responsibilities.
The middle ground in all this could be Nagbe. He can attack and defend, and positioning him centrally would also free up Pulisic to cheat a bit further forward out on the wing. There's also the possibility that Arena will switch things up depending on how the game goes.
Whatever Arena decides, if the U.S. can achieve this balancing act, it will get one step closer towards clinching World Cup qualification.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.