U.S. team more unlucky than poor in surprising Costa Rica defeat
Sometimes the scoreline tells the story of a game. Sometimes, however, it doesn't.
The United States men's national team fell to Costa Rica 2-0 at Red Bull Arena on Friday night. It was the worst (read: only) defeat of the Bruce Arena 2.0 era and a significant, though hardly emphatic, blow to the American's World Cup qualifying chances.
The dos a cero defeat was not a pretty affair for the red, white and blue. But it also was not as poor as the scoreboard might indicate. Costa Rica got its goals from individual mistakes rather than structural breakdowns. The first came after Tim Ream was beaten by Marco Urena, who tucked a perfectly placed shot into the far post that goalkeeper Tim Howard probably should have saved anyway. Urena's second came following a horrendous pass from Geoff Cameron, who had an uncharacteristically brutal night, the worst from an American center-back since John Brooks' disaster against the Ticos in San Jose last November. Mistakes are bad, but they are fixable.
Furthermore, the U.S. should have earned a penalty early in the first half and should have scored an equalizer in the second, only to be thwarted by Keylor Navas' Spiderman heroics. (On the night, the gulf between Howard and the Real Madrid netminder was surprisingly large.) Four individual moments favored the visitors, and those were the difference in the match.
In truth, the Americans didn't play badly. They played out from the back, working the ball around the field and the formation, getting everyone involved. They created smart buildups on multiple occasions, looking like a team that had ideas and a bit of spark. They countered quickly and effectively, breaking out with pace and purpose. They were undone by their lack of execution close to goal. On the night, the final pass or the pass before the final pass wasn't there -- Bobby Wood, especially, missed on a handful of these -- but that shouldn't distract from the strong work done to get to that point. The U.S. outshot the opposition 14-9 and produced 1.26 expected goals to Costa Rica's 0.6. They lost because a couple players made a couple of big mistakes, because Costa Rica finished well, and because they got unlucky, not because they got outplayed. It's soccer; sometimes that happens.
The Stars and Stripes were due for an unlucky 90 minutes. In the four previous qualifiers under Arena, they overachieved when compared to their expected goals in every match. The U.S. was expected to score 4.76 goals across the two home wins and two road draws. They scored 10, which is to say they finished better than they should have until Friday night, when they didn't.
Now, of course, the focus shifts 3,000 miles south to San Pedro Sula. Because teams in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying have more lives than a cat, the U.S. remains a heavy favorite to reach Russia despite its worst-ever start to the Hexagonal round. The Americans sit on 8 points -- their previous low after seven games was 10 -- tied with Tuesday night's opponent and one ahead of fourth-place Panama. The stakes are clear. "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," Michael Bradley said in a truly excellent quote following the loss to Costa Rica.
The match against the Catrachos represents the biggest test of Arena's short tenure. The coach, who got nearly everything right during his first eight months, started off September with a series of misfires. Ream and Cameron didn't look comfortable playing together in the backline, and Arena admonished Ream more than once from the sideline for failing to move the ball upfield more quickly. The Bradley-Darlington Nagbe midfield wasn't a complete disaster, but the pair weren't as effective as the coach hoped. Fabian Johnson, with under 20 minutes of club football in his cleats this season, was anonymous for long periods of play. The substitutes the coach introduced were ineffective and, one might argue, too late. Clint Dempsey, didn't enter until the 65th minute (although I'd argue that Arena didn't want to alter the flow of the game, which favored the Americans).
The manager has plenty of questions to answer in Central America. Does Brad Guzan get the start? (Yes.) Who pairs with Bradley? (Kellyn Acosta.) What about with Cameron? (Omar Gonzalez.) Who replaces Jozy Altidore, who is suspended after picking up a silly yellow card in the 80th minute? (No one. Put Wood alone up top and go with a five-man midfield led by Christian Pulisic.) Should Johnson play again? (No. Replace him with Alejandro Bedoya.)
Arena is always prepared and likely had many, if not all, of these changes in mind before the two-game series started. Friday night's loss shouldn't change what he was going to do, and it won't. The Americans still don't need a victory over Honduras. A draw, followed by a win at home against Panama, and another road draw with Trinidad and Tobago in October should get the U.S. to Russia. Even finishing fourth in the Hexagonal isn't a death sentence as the red, white and blue would be favored in the interconfederation playoff with the Asian Football Confederation's fifth-place finisher. (U.S. versus Syria in a home-and-home, winner goes to the Word Cup, anyone?)
When Arena took over the American team, his only goal was to get the squad to Russia. He has brought them closer and closer to achieving that goal. The positive results during his first four matches in charge gave the team enough breathing room to survive Friday night's slip. The U.S. played well enough to win, but they didn't. They'll get another shot four days later. Qualifying for the World Cup is not a divine right for the U.S. There's pressure on them now, a three-team, three-game tournament for one spot. The only thing that matters is execution.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.