U.S. frustrated by resilient Costa Rica in 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat
HARRISON, N.J. -- The U.S. men's national team fell 2-0 to Costa Rica on Friday night, once again imperiling its chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Ticos' forward Marco Urena scored goals either side of halftime, and Costa Rica's defense held firm throughout the match.
Here are three thoughts from a humbling defeat for the U.S.:
1. U.S. left frustrated against resilient Ticos
This match was always going to have a different feel than the Gold Cup encounter the two teams contested last month. Ticos manager Oscar Ramirez had much more of his first-choice lineup at his disposal, with goalkeeper Keylor Navas, midfielder Celso Borges and midfielder Christian Bolanos among the returnees. Borges and Navas went on to play huge roles in the match.
Borges' pounced on every second ball, and rather than just sit in, he effectively linked up with Bryan Ruiz in advanced positions. With Borges also teaming up well with David Guzman, Costa Rica effectively bottled up the middle.
There was frustration as well on those occasions when the U.S. managed to get into the attacking third. Ticos defender Kendall Waston appeared to haul down Jozy Altidore in the 25th minute, just when he appeared set to latch onto a centering feed, but referee John Pitti waved play on.
Christian Pulisic also cut a frustrated figure. The Ticos double-teamed the Borussia Dortmund man whenever possible and showed no hesitation in fouling him when he got loose in transition. His early forays in the first half saw him unable to keep his attempts on target, including one tight-angled effort in the 16th minute.
The pattern throughout most of the game saw the U.S. having most of the possession, but Costa Rica was always looking dangerous on the break. It was a quick transition move that saw the Ticos break on top.
An aerial challenge was won by Costa Rica right to the feet of Ruiz, whose incisive through ball found Urena on the run between a massive gap in the center of defense. It initially looked like his momentum carried him too far wide of goal, but with Tim Howard overcommitting to the near post, Urena managed to tuck his shot inside the far post to Howard's right.
Arena brought on Clint Dempsey for Jorge Villafana in a bid to spark the U.S. attack, but when the U.S. needed that slight bit of luck to climb back into the match, there was none to be found. That was especially evident in the 67th minute, when Pulisic's deflected shot was denied by an otherworldly save from Navas, who used both his right hand and his right foot to keep the ball out.
Altidore nearly provided the U.S. the equalizer it was seeking in the 80th minute, but Navas came up big once again, stuffing the forward's attempt from close range. Costa Rica then scored on its very next attack, with Urena once again the hero, slotting past Howard.
All told, it was a brutal night in New Jersey.
2. New combos backfire for Arena, U.S.
The four previous World Cup qualifiers had seen Arena achieve near perfection with his decisions. That run is well over following this result.
Arena was always facing a dilemma when it came to his central midfield partnership. How best does he find midfield balance? Should he go with the more defensive-minded Kellyn Acosta, who has been struggling for club and country of late, opt for the pure attacking choice in Pulisic or go for the in-between option with Nagbe? Arena settled for Nagbe, and it didn't have the desired result.
Although the Portland Timbers man linked up well with teammates, he didn't help Michael Bradley much in the way of ball-winning or tackling. As a consequence, Borges and Guzman effectively bottled up the U.S. attack and were effective going forward, leaving Bradley with plenty of work to do.
It can be argued that Arena's choice of center-backs backfired even more, as the U.S. manager opted for Tim Ream instead of Matt Besler to partner Geoff Cameron. The two looked precariously out of sync, especially in the run-up to Urena's first goal, as Cameron was way too far from Ream, allowing Ruiz to pick out Urena's run with ease.
To be clear, Howard didn't cover himself in glory on the play, and he shouldn't have been beaten from that angle. It was merely the last domino to fall on a play that put the U.S. in a hole from which it couldn't recover. How much is his spot in the lineup under threat?
Cameron was culpable on the second U.S. goal as well, as it was his giveaway that sparked the Ticos' attack in the buildup to Urena's second.
Suffice it to say, Arena has some rethinking to do in terms of his lineup choices in the upcoming match against Honduras.
3. Pressure back on as U.S. heads to Honduras
Ever since Arena began his second stint in charge, the U.S. team has done an effective job of taking care of business at home and earning draws on the road. That balance has been now been upset, and the U.S. finds itself needing victory instead of being content with a draw.
The U.S. has had its share of success in Honduras, winning World Cup qualifiers on three previous occasions, the most recent being 2009. But the U.S. will no doubt be made to suffer in the afternoon heat, something it didn't cope with well at all in a 2-1 defeat four years ago.
To be clear, the loss to the Ticos is by no means fatal. Panama, who appear to be the Americans' most direct competitor for the third and final automatic qualification spot, play later on Friday. The Americans' qualifying fate might come down to a home match against the Canaleros next month. That will be a pressure-packed match, but finding a way to get a result against Honduras would certainly simplify the U.S. team's qualifying task.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.