SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- When the U.S. national team's lineup versus Costa Rica was first revealed Wednesday night, it was easy to think the Americans were ready to attack and try to deliver their first-ever victory in a World Cup qualifier played in Costa Rica.
A three-forward formation coupled with a pair of superfast fullbacks gave the impression the U.S. team would attempt to overwhelm Costa Rica with pace and attack down the flanks.
Instead of being overwhelming, the U.S. national team was overpowered by a fast, inspired, skillful and organized Costa Rican team that took full advantage of the worst U.S. national team performance in years. The result was a 3-1 World Cup qualifying victory for Costa Rica, and a defeat that has the U.S. team asking a lot of questions about several positions.
Costa Rica didn't just beat the Americans. Los Ticos dominated, using their pace, precision passing and tireless tenacity to force mistakes and pounce on weaknesses in a U.S. lineup that had its share of question marks coming into the match.
"We got outpassed, we got outplayed, we got outcompeted in every sense," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was also in goal the last time the U.S. was routed at Estadio Saprissa (a 3-0 loss in October 2005).
"We were below average across the board."
As poorly as the Americans played, Costa Rica performed beautifully in front of a sellout crowd at Saprissa Stadium. Los Ticos combined boundless energy, effective passing and steady defending to smother a U.S. team that was clearly not ready to play Wednesday. Costa Rica's victory wasn't just about an early goal, which Alvaro Saborio delivered a scant two minutes into the match, but about a complete performance from a team that has earned the right to call itself the best team in CONCACAF right now.
After watching the U.S. play Wednesday, it's tough to believe that the U.S. team wore that label entering the game. Coach Bob Bradley was forced into tweaking his lineup when starting forward Brian Ching suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the week. Bradley decided to give some young players the nod, including World Cup qualifying novices Jose Francisco Torres (making just his second start in a qualifier) and Marvell Wynne (making his qualifying debut). While Torres overcame a slow start to show good poise and skill on the ball (only to be replaced at halftime), Wynne was overwhelmed much of the night by the Costa Rican tandem of Esteban Sirias and Junior Diaz.
The rookies were hardly the only ones to blame for Wednesday night's loss. In fact, a pair of veterans were arguably worse than Wynne was. Pablo Mastroeni had no answer for the speed and sharp passing of Costa Rica's midfield, while DaMarcus Beasley looked absolutely lost at left back, repeatedly getting caught out of position on Costa Rican counterattacks.
"If you look at every area, we came up short," Bradley said. "Defensively tonight, one-on-one situations and our ability to deal with crosses are examples of areas where we were not as good as you need to be."
Even Bradley himself has to be questioned, from the poor performance his lineup delivered, to his decision to replace Torres with Sacha Kljestan. Bradley was hoping to find a spark with the halftime sub, but he ignored the fact that Torres was the team's most effective attacking player in the final 20 minutes of the first half.
When asked about that move, and about the performance of Torres and Wynne, Bradley refused to discuss individual players, but did admit that his Kljestan-for-Torres swap was done to try to help shake up a struggling U.S. team.
The truth is that no American played that well, but the struggles at some of the more unsettled positions don't bode well for the U.S. team's prospects going forward, particularly on Saturday versus Honduras. The fullback spots suddenly appear to be scarily unstable. Furthermore, the central midfield looks vulnerable now that Michael Bradley is suspended for Saturday and Pablo Mastroeni is coming off one of his worst national team performances. The U.S. team could welcome back Ching and Frankie Hejduk for Saturday, and we could see Jonathan Spector starting at right back, but that won't address the issues in central midfield that could spell doom against a Honduran team that boasts Amado Guevara and Wilson Palacios.
Bradley deserves some credit for taking some chances for his lineup Wednesday night, but he also has to shoulder the blame for so many of his lineup choices' falling flat. However, the harsh reality is too many players failed to make the most of Bradley's faith. Almost overnight, the U.S. team is no longer the unquestioned power in the region. Instead, it's a team with issues that need to be addressed, before a seemingly easy road to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup becomes dangerously difficult.
"We've taken our lumps now," Howard said. "We cruised through the semifinal round, we topped the group and now we're no longer top of the group. We've got our work cut out for us and that's probably a good thing."
Player grades (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard (5) -- Left out to dry on all three goals, did have a good save late to keep the blowout from being even worse.
D, Carlos Bocanegra (5) -- Did his best to cover for Beasley's mistimed runs forward, but had a few mistakes as well.
D, Oguchi Onyewu (5) -- Did his best to cover for Wynne's mistakes, but struggled at times with Costa Rica's speed.
D, DaMarcus Beasley (3) -- Just plain awful. The matchup against Andy Herron was supposed to be a victory for the Americans, but Herron outworked Beasley, who got caught out of position over and over.
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U.S. vs. Honduras
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D, Marvell Wynne (3) -- His speed mattered little on a night when he was repeatedly beaten by combination play and Costa Rica's own impressive speed. Wynne's inexperience was clear, and it may be a while before we see him play for the national team again.
M, Pablo Mastroeni (4) -- Outplayed badly in the first half as he struggled to keep up with the pace of Costa Rica's passing and movement. Settled down in the second half, but by then the match was already decided.
M, Michael Bradley (6) -- U.S. team's most poised and influential player in the first half, Bradley eventually faded late, but still posted a solid effort.
M, Jose Francisco Torres (5.5) -- Struggled early on with the pace of the game and Costa Rica's pressure, but eventually settled in and looked sharp and mobile on the ball. Deserves more playing time.
F, Landon Donovan (5) -- Had some chances, but didn't make the most of a few counterattack opportunities, and absolutely wasted his free kicks.
F, Jozy Altidore (5) -- Worked hard and made himself available, but he never could make the final move or run onto the final pass, so he was left without a real quality chance all game.
F, Clint Dempsey (4.5) -- Largely invisible for too many stretches, Dempsey tried to track back and help, but he didn't do enough to put himself in good positions in the attack.
M, Sacha Kljestan (5) -- Didn't look too bad, particularly early in his second-half appearance. He showed purpose in the attack and confidence on the ball, but never did find a way to crack Costa Rica's back line.
M, Freddy Adu (4.5) -- Showed some glimpses after the score was already 3-0 and Costa Rica had called off the dogs, but didn't exactly show enough to suggest he's ready for more playing time.
F, Charlie Davies (N/A) -- Played just 10 minutes, but flashed some speed and purpose.
|Next Level Tracking
Total touches: 29
In attacking-third: 14
Completed passes: 14
Total passes: 33
Completed passes: 23 (69.7 percent)
Total passes: 30
Completed passes: 21 (70 percent)
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.