By IVES GALARCEP
EAST HARTFORD, Conn.– As a general rule, national team soccer coaches tend to speak in confident tones, and even when the odds seem stacked against them, a defiant tone and insistence their their team can win is usually the stance teams coaching underdogs will take.
Costa Rica head coach Jorge Luis Pinto is following that playbook, but when you hear him speak and you look into his stoic face, you see a coach who really believes his team will win. When you hear him state confidently that he has the plan to shut down the U.S. Men’s National Team when the CONCACAF powers square off in Gold Cup action on Tuesday night, you believe him. Well, you believe that he believes that.
Pinto has a little bit more to stand on in believing his Ticos can beat the United States. Costa Rica hasn’t given up a goal since the one that cost them the 1-0 decision to the U.S. in the snow in Colorado last March. A span of seven shutouts later, the Ticos, at least defensively, like their chances of neutralizing a U.S. attack that has scored 16 goals in their past three matches.
Of course, that will be easier said than done against a U.S. attack that will roll into Rentschler Field riding a wave of confidence courtesy of a seven-match winning streak, and recent offensive surge. The U.S. has blossomed on the strength of a midfield that has been able to dominate lesser opposition, sharpening their passing skills and creating chances in droves.
Chances will be tougher to come by tonight against a Costa Rican defense that is not only well organized and very athletic, but also expected to trot out extra defensive numbers to deal with the U.S. attack.
What should we expect to see tonight? Here is a closer look at the match-up and what to look for:
Costa Rica has watched the videos of U.S. matches, and while they have seen the Americans generate goals, they have also seen weaknesses. They have seen a U.S. defense that has looked vulnerable on the counter, and centerbacks who look beatable in space. When I asked Costa Rican midfielder Michael Barrantes about the U.S. defense, and whether he sees an area the Ticos can exploit, he drew a wry smile and tried his best to cliche his way out of showing his hand.
“We are confident that we can find chances,” Barrantes said. “We will need to improve our level from our first two games, but we can do that.”
It is easy to forget that, amid all the snow in Colorado in March, Costa Rica had a very clear game plan. They trotted out a five-man midfield to try and stifle the U.S. attack, while deploying speed on the flanks to burn the Americans on the counter. The only problem was the snow made being effective on the counter difficult, and long passes became next to impossible. Costa Rica had little choice but to stick to long aerial balls to navigate the snow, which played right into the strength of the U.S. defense, which featured almost 13 feet of centerback in Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson.
Snow won’t be an issue tonight, and Costa Rica will look to show off the attacking qualities they were unable to in the snow in March. Alvaro Saborio, Jairo Arrieta, Barrantes, Celso Borges and Rodney Wallace should lead the attack, with Saborio providing the target that Costa Rica’s speedsters run off of.
“They are well known for how they play going towards Saborio,” Klinsmann said. “Saborio is their key up front, then you have players like Barrantes and Arrieta, they’re right there, they’re sniffing around, they want to finish things off. We are very well aware.”
Klinsmann will be banking on his defense stepping up against the toughest opponent they have faced since coming together before the Gold Cup. Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson have had their shaky moments in the past three matches, but the U.S. defense has only allowed two goals in those three matches.
That rate is a good one, but the Americans haven’t faced an attack as strong as Costa Rica’s this month.
As much as Costa Rica want to attack tonight, their defense will be the key to whether the Ticos can really earn a result. Pinto has made it clear the team’s focus will be trying to pressure the U.S. midfield and not give passers like Beckerman, Holden and Diskerud time and space to operate.
“They pass very well so it is important that you pressure them and don’t give them time,” said Pinto.
Costa Rica’s recent shutout streak is impressive, but the Ticos have not faced a team playing as well offensively as the Americans are playing now.
“Costa Rica stays very compact, their back four is very organized, but I believe that we have a lot of talent going forward,” Klinsmann said. “Especially when we connect our passes and the movement off the ball, it’s something very crucial for us.
“When we are able to connect those passes and really play together as a team, I think we are able to create opportunities, and the more opportunities that we get, we tend to finish them.”
If Costa does look to flood the middle of the field with quick athletes intent on pressing the likes of Beckerman and Holden into giving up the ball, the pressure will likely fall to the U.S. wingers to drive the attack and be sharper with their service. If Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona are deployed on the wings, they will likely be given even more responsibility as the Ticos looks to push the U.S. attack wide.
If the Americans can be effective with their service from the wings, withstand the pressure expected to come from the Costa Rican central midfield, stay organized defensive on the counter-attack, and finish the chances when they come, a U.S. victory will be pretty easy. Accomplishing all of that will be a tall order, but one the Americans are capable of completing.
And if Costa Rica succeeds in disrupting the U.S. attack with central pressure, and the U.S. wingers struggle, and the U.S. centerbacks get exposed on the counterattack? A Costa Rica victory can definitely happen.
One thing is clear. Tonight’s match will be a good chess match, and far from the mismatches we have seen the U.S. plow through in recent weeks. It will be a great showcase for the two most in-form teams in CONCACAF, and could be the first of three meetings between the nations over the next seven weeks (the teams could meet again in the Gold Cup semifinals).