Costa Rica's 3-0 victory over the U.S. in San Jose Saturday should not have been much of a surprise. The match affirmed:
-- the Ticos are going to be this region's perennial World Cup finalist, along with Mexico and the U.S. That leaves the fourth-place lottery position in the future up for grabs to El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago, etc.;
-- the U.S. is still lacking in depth on the international scene, especially in terms of composed, creative midfielders;
-- Taylor Twellman will put the ball in the net, if given a fair chance and time;
-- staging important games on artificial turf should be avoided.
Costa Rica has an impressive amount of talented players, enough to stock a respectable domestic league (one which has produced CD Saprissa, the CONCACAF champion) and also to export a variety of performers. The Ticos have an understanding of what is expected of each other and they are composed and skilled enough to bring their style of play into any competition - and that includes the World Cup finals, where they went down swinging against Brazil in Japan three years ago.
Costa Rican players are comfortable going forward and have just enough of a defensive mentality to support the play of the Centenos and Wanchopes. The typical Tico is probably a Carlos Hernandez, Douglas Sequeira or Mauricio Solis, strong in defense but technical enough to pull off offensive moves and convert spectacular goals.
The U.S. lineup could not have been expected to produce the type of midfield play necessary at the international level. If Bruce Arena was not going to call in Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna, he did not have too much choice in the middle of the field. The country's young players are improving technique-wise, but they still do not see the game well enough to choreograph the action, to set the pace and control possession, and to provide the intangible factors which break down defenses.
The tendency remains for the U.S. to produce physical, strong players who struggle to find solutions in difficult circumstances. This will only change when enough coaches become sophisticated enough to channel the right players into the right positions, then allow them to develop.
The forward pairing of Twellman and Brian Ching is not ideal, and could not have been expected to function at a high level on such short notice. Yet, the U.S. produced chances, Twellman clearly offside on what could have been the tying goal, then unfortunate when his well-taken header was cleared off the line. Twellman appears to be a good choice as a reserve forward behind Brian McBride.
Artificial surfaces have a place in soccer, but not at the professional level and not for World Cup qualifiers or FIFA tournaments. The U-17 World Championship in Peru was virtually unwatchable, the synthetic turf changing the nature of the game. Saprissa's field was equally unappealing. Artificial turf is a positive advancement in difficult climates, and is especially good for high-use fields. Ideally, in these climates, there should be a field of artificial turf near the authentic grass field, to be used only to preserve the good field. This is essentially what the plan is at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, and it should set a standard. But nothing of the sort has been done at The Home Depot Center, where all the practice fields are grass, and all are usually in excellent shape.
Artificial turf requires less maintenance than real grass, but it still requires maintenance, and must be replaced after a few years; so, the cost savings are not always substantial. Marcelo Balboa's television analysis of the atmosphere at Estadio Saprissa was accurate - a soccer player would consider everything nearly perfect, except the playing surface.
The U.S. - Panama match Wednesday should be a better showing for the home team. Soccer is a game which more than any other high-level team sport requires communication between performers. This group of U.S. players will be better for the Costa Rica experience, having bonded from the adversity of having their flight diverted, then being soundly defeated in a hostile atmosphere. Now, the U.S. needs a shot of confidence and some home cooking.
Only a few of the players who were in San Jose will be in Germany next year, but this is all a part of the building process. Normally, it is all about winning and losing. But since the U.S. has already clinched a berth in the finals, this is all about gaining experience.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .