No letting up for the U.S.
CONCORD, Mass. -- The thought of not playing to win just doesn't sit well with the U.S. national team. It simply goes against Bruce Arena's modus operandi, which has always been echoed by his players whether at the University of Virginia, D.C. United or in the seven years he's been guiding the American side.
Even though the U.S. could lose by 10 goals to Costa Rica on Tuesday night at Gillette Stadium and still advance to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, there is no talk of resting key players or trying to execute a game plan that calls for the team to "kill" the game and rest up for Saturday's match against a yet-to-be determined opponent.
"We're going to go out and try to win the game," said Arena after putting his side through an hour-long workout on the pristine fields at The Middlesex School. "I think first or second in the group is of no significance except for the simple fact that whenever we step onto the field we want to win."
The Americans are playing against a Ticos side that they know quite well, having triumphed over Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match last month by a 3-0 margin in Salt Lake City, Utah. Neither team has the same roster available for this game. Costa Rica decided to give a break to players such as Paulo Wanchope, who is supposedly about to sign with Portsmouth after spending a year in Spain with Malaga. In the same fashion Arena didn't call in European-based players such as Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Claudio Reyna.
That being said, Costa Rica will still have several players in their lineup on Tuesday night that gave the U.S. trouble in their encounter in June.
"Costa Rica has done quite well in this tournament so far," said Arena, mentioning midfielder Jafet Soto, striker Bryan Ruiz and Chivas USA midfielder Douglas Sequeira by name. "They're the only team besides the U.S. that has two wins after the first two games, so you have to give them a lot of credit. They've done well."
Soto played particularly well against the U.S. in the last match, but did not have a goal to show for his efforts due to the out-of-this-world performance by goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who made three highlight-reel saves to preserve the shutout.
"It was 1-0 when he made those saves," added Donovan, who has scored in four straight matches for the U.S. and would set a new team record should he tally against Costa Rica. "If Kasey doesn't, then it's 1-1 or (we're down) 2-1. It would not only have been a different game, but it would have been different qualifying circumstances for us."
What really made a difference against the Ticos on that day was the fact that the U.S. got out to a 1-0 lead just four minutes into the match when Donovan scored from the top of the box off a poor clearance from a Costa Rican defender. It set the tone of the match, got the home crowd into it, and forced the visitors to come out of their defensive shell a bit.
"That's the name of the game in CONCACAF for us," said Donovan, referring to the team's ability to get on the board early as it did in their last two qualifying victories against both Costa Rica and Panama last month.
He also backed up Arena's statements by saying how it does matter whether they win or lose, despite the fact that a loss wouldn't mean too much as far as the tournament goes.
"It's not the most important game in the world, but we don't want to lose. We don't want to lose at home or to any team in CONCACAF, especially a qualifying team."
"It'll be the same scenario as in the last two games," said New England Revolution striker Pat Noonan, who started for the U.S. in Saturday's 2-0 victory over Canada. "We want to go right at them and get an early lead. We want to win the group."
In order for the U.S. to have its best chance to triumph on Tuesday night, it cannot afford to play its "B" team, which was fielded, for the most part, in last Thursday's 4-1 victory over Cuba. Arena said that he won't field the same lineup that he used in either of the team's first two matches.
"It's going to be a mixture," he said.
Arena said that a few of his decisions will be made due to having six of his players carrying yellow cards into the match. Those players who have been cautioned in the first two matches are: Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Frankie Hejduk, Pablo Mastroeni, Oguchi Onyewu and Tony Sanneh. It's doubtful that both Beasley and Donovan would be held out of the match, yet given the pair's importance it would be surprising to see them both in the starting lineup on Tuesday night.
Of the above group, probably the only other player worth being cautious about is Mastroeni. Since Reyna is not with the team and John O'Brien is just coming back from a long lay-off, Mastroeni offers a different look at defensive midfield.
The one definite will be that Eddie Pope (mild sprain of left ankle) won't be in the back and that Keller will be in the goal. Arena is not going to start the hometown sentimental choice of New England's Matt Reis, or Marcus Hahnemann, who got a start against Cuba. Once again Keller will be looking to stymie the Ticos with his superb play.
Assistant coach and chief scout Curt Onalfo was quick to point out that the Costa Rican side is about as well-coached (Alexandre Guimaraes) as any other team in the region and is very knowledgeable of the U.S. players and Arena's tactics.
"We can't just show up a win a game like this," he said. "For us, it's really all about our mentality going in. When we are all on the same page and are focused, we can beat anyone. When we don't, we can lose to anyone -- even a team like Haiti. What makes this match difficult is that we know they'll play defensively against us, just like the other two teams did.
"And we need to do a better job of breaking down low-pressure teams."
Donovan doesn't think that'll be a problem, as the team's high level of fitness will start to pay off now that they are laying their third match in six days on two different coasts.
"They've got the same circumstances as us," he said. "And we're fitter. It's not the ideal situation, be they have to deal with it, too. And we're playing in Boston, which has always been historically good to us."
Donovan couldn't be more right, considering that his side has won their last five matches at Gillette Stadium by a combined score of 15-0, five of which have been scored by the 23-year-old midfielder.
The U.S. doesn't need to continue that sort of impressive shutout streak or even escape the Big Razor with a victory on Tuesday night, yet no one should expect a snooze fest of a match. Young players like Brad Davis, Santino Quaranta and Clint Dempsey are trying to impress Bruce Arena, and veterans like Chris Armas, Ben Olsen and Tony Sanneh are out to prove that they still belong. Plus, doing well in tournament play is all about establishing momentum, something a loss would disrupt after two straight victories out on the West Coast.
"That's the mentality of this team," said Dempsey, looking for another start in the midfield. "Coming into this, we wanted to win this group. And that's what we do - this team wins games."
Even when they don't necessarily need to.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.