U.S. Men's National Team

USMNT 2, Costa Rica 0: The SBI Breakdown

Photo by Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports

Saturday might have been the best performance of Bruce Arena’s most recent tenure. Facing the toughest test of this ongoing Gold Cup run, the U.S. Men’s National Team shined from top to bottom continuing a recent hot streak with what seemed like the team’s first truly good performance.

The USMNT is bound for the Gold Cup final thanks to Saturday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica. Were there moments of doubt? Sure. Jordan Morris’ early shot off the post seemed like it could come back to haunt a USMNT group that dominated possession but had little to show for it. However, at no point did the USMNT seem in any danger as only the threat of penalty kicks seemed to lead to anything but a USMNT victory.

Eventually, the breakthrough came from Jozy Altidore, removing any doubt as the USMNT cruised towards a Gold Cup final. It was a game and a performance that showed just how good even this current weakened group could be, a positive sign headed towards a chance at claiming a trophy.

Here’s a closer look at the big takeaways from Saturday’s match:


For the past year or so, there’s been plenty of debate over where Clint Dempsey fits in with this current USMNT but, if Saturday showed us anything, it showed that Dempsey has a major role to play in 2018 and perhaps several years after.

Dempsey finally equaled Landon Donovan’s goalscoring mark with his second half free kick but, in many ways, it wasn’t his goal that stood out. From the second he stepped on the field as Bruce Arena’s first substitute, the game changed. The U.S. was suddenly more dangerous and more crisp simply because Dempsey was on the field. Jozy Altidore’s goal soon followed on a majestic Dempsey through ball and, from that moment on, it was hard to see a way where the U.S. wouldn’t win Saturday’s game.

It’s a role that fits Dempsey well. Even at his age, Dempsey remains one of the team’s fiercest competitors. Few players play harder and commit more, and that’s what has made Dempsey so special for all of these years. Can he do that for 90 minutes each and every night? Probably not. But off the bench, that’s a weapon and a luxury that few teams have.

Dempsey will get his chances, sure, but keeping him off as a bazooka off the bench seems to be an ideal fit for both the player and the group. His minutes may dwindle, but Saturday showed that Dempsey can still make as big an impact as anyone in a USMNT jersey.


Would anyone complain if the USMNT midfield looked a lot like that on a more consistent basis? Yes, Christian Pulisic was gone, taking away the spearhead in the attacking third, but the three players that ran the show on Saturday might have offered a glimpse into how the USMNT can start in Russia 2018.

At this point, you can pencil Michael Bradley in and, regardless of what you think of his overall game, his performances this season have been worthy of it all. Under Arena, Bradley has been an absolute star in the defensive midfield, building on his successes with Toronto by helping guide the USMNT through this unbeaten run.

Next to him, Kellyn Acosta simply looks better when he isn’t tasked with being the midfield leader. When played next to Bradley, Acosta steps his game up each and every time, becoming a force that has the legs to jump from the attacking to defensive ends with ease. At some point, he will be asked to become “the man” in the midfield, but he doesn’t have to be yet. Acosta can simply play his game, pick his spots and help the USMNT win midfield battles like they did on Saturday.

The same can be said of Darlington Nagbe, whose technical ability continues to shine through. Nagbe has his faults, sure, and his inability to use his superior skillset to simply take over remains frustrating, but there are few players out there as good in tight spaces.

When Pulisic returns, would anyone complain of a diamond featuring him and the three players above? It may or may not be the look for Russia but, right now, it might be the best midfield setup for the USMNT.


Matt Besler was in need of a big effort. The centerback depth chart gets deeper and tighter by the week and, as one of the group’s veterans, Besler was at risk of falling down the depth chart with the World Cup a year away.

He provided one of his best USMNT performances in recent memory. He had one bad touch in the first half, but Besler immediately settled down and became the rock of the USMNT defense. He made several vital clearances and never got truly beat by a group of weakened but still dangerous Costa Rica attackers.

It was extra good for the U.S. as Omar Gonzalez had his first down game of the tournament. It happens, and Gonzalez’s standing as the third centerback is all but locked down at this point. One decent but not great performance is going to do little to harm that.

With players like Matt Miazga, Matt Hedges and even Walker Zimmerman chasing, Besler and Gonzalez have shown well this tournament, demonstrating why they may possibly be back for a second World Cup.


If there was any doubt remaining over who should start in goal for the USMNT, it should be well gone after Saturday. Tim Howard is and has been the best goalkeeper in the USMNT picture, and he’s going to be until someone takes that throne from him.

After making a game-changing one-on-one save against El Salvador, Howard made a pair of wonderful stops on Saturday. Even on obvious goalscoring opportunities, Howard just seems to be there, sliding off his line to make a spectacular save.

With Howard in goal, and this isn’t a knock on Brad Guzan, the defense just seems to play better. There are less errors, fewer mistakes. There’s more confidence, and that just shows the impact Howard has and how it resonates through each player in front of him. He has a presence, and it’s felt.

Now, a lot can change now that Guzan will be getting regular playing time. Guzan has been joining USMNT camp relatively cold each and every camp for the past year or so, and that obviously impacts a player. His first performance with Atlanta United was a very good one, but he’ll have a lot of work to do if he wants to unseat Howard after performances like Saturday’s.


There was plenty to criticize from the USMNT’s first four Gold Cup matches. They were largely ugly affairs, devoid of much chemistry and rhythm. There was little to criticize on Saturday, though, as Arena’s long-term roster-balancing seemingly paid off at the right time.

It’s been easy to see the USMNT’s deficiencies over the last few weeks. The group was largely disconnected, and it should be expected given the lack of familiarity. Still, Arena continues to shift and reshape his lineups, starting a whopping 27 players along the way. Now, it seems to be paying off as the USMNT heads into Wednesday’s final relatively fresh.

In the nearly eight months since he took over, Arena has yet to push a wrong button. He remains unbeaten through his second tenure as USMNT boss. Despite all of the defensive issues that have seemingly popped up, the U.S. has allowed just seven goals in 13 games. Veterans look energized and new MLS-based faces have moved in.

Obviously, every coach has a honeymoon period. Arena’s has, thus far, been an extended one, mostly because he has yet to truly slip ups since taking charge of the national team. Now, the USMNT faces a Gold Cup final, a match that could swing the dynamic, but make no mistake: the USMNT seems to be on the right track.

  • i scored three goals in a game once

    Joe Gyau opened up his 3 Bundesliga season going 90 and scoring a goal in a 4-1 victory today


  • HTM

    A disturbing lack of creativity/ability/final ball in the final 3rd until Dempsey came on.


  • Lost in Space

    I have a slightly different read on the CB’s than the writer and many of the talking heads. IMO Besler is the #3 CB while Gonzalez is fighting to hold onto the # 4 spot. To me Besler is more technically proficient, able to select the proper angles and passes, and is more consistent. Gonzalez only advantage over Besler is on crosses.

    In the midfield there are actually 2 players missing, not 1….Pulisic & Fabian. Personally I’d prefer Fabian at the LB spot, but Bruce has said he’ll play him in the Midfield. If Fabian is shifted to LB, than it’ll be interesting to see who steps up to claim that outside mid spot…Arriola, Gooch, Zardes…because I believe once the European season starts there is going to be a LOT of competition. I don’t see Acosta making the field unless we’re playing with a 3 or 5 man midfield…and that means that either Jozy or Wood would need to be on the bench.

    Any way you look at it the team is finally looking like it will be able to compete. We’ll actually have some options/depth at most positions outside the defensive positions. If Bruce makes the right selections he’ll have the ability to select starters/bench players based off who we’re playing without significantly reducing the quality of the team as a hole. This’ll allow him to rotate much of the team keeping them fresh.


    • johnnyrazor

      I think we’ve had this conversation before, but you are wasting your time comparing Besler and Gonzalez. Omar has never played LCB for Arena and Besler has never played RCB, the only CB who has played both spots this Summer and in recent memory at least through the JK era is Hedges. Rank LCB 1. Brooks 2. Ream 3. Besler 4. Hedges and RCB 1. Cameron 2. Gonzo 3.Miazga 4. Hedges (Carter-Vickers does play both spots).

      Agree, that Acosta seems the odd man out with our full compliment of midfielders. I also don’t see Bruce pushing FJ back to a fullback position unless Fabian volunteers.


      • I scored three goals in one game

        I know miazga has only one appearance under Bruce and that was at RCB but in an interview he gave the other day he was talking about how he has trained and played at both spots for club, so with his versatility it wouldn’t surprise to see him jump somebody if he has a good club season coming up


      • Lost in Space

        I’m making a comparison of their overall abilities, not their ability at a given position (LCB/RCB). I keep hearing/reading, people saying that Gonzalez is the # 3 CB option and Besler is facing competition from all these other CBs to make the squad. I really don’t see it that way. IMO Besler is more solidly placed than Gonzalez….he’s a more consistent player and is better at almost ever facet of the game.
        I agree that right now Gonzalez is the # 2 RCB option….but IMO he’s facing more opposition, in general, than Besler, and has shown a greater inconsistency in his play. With a solid season both Miazga and/or CCV could leap-frog OG.
        You seem to rate Ream above Besler at LCB….where I think it’s the opposite. I think they have similar skill sets, but that Besler is actually a quicker version & has more experience, so I give him the edge in a head to head competition.

        CCV & EPB are both capable of playing RCB & LCB which to me is going to make the next cycle very compelling to watch. Brooks will likely be the leader of the back-line paired with CCV/Miazga/EPB. With Either CCV or EPB being Brooks’s back-up. Then a handful of others (Zimmerman, Redding, Glad) getting occasional looks and/or playing with the “B” Team.

        This is Hedges & Birnbaum’s one and only shot at making a WC. I don’t think either of them will make it unless we are hit with a significant number of injuries at CB or we shift to a 3 back formation full time.


      • Lost in Space

        I see the greatest weakness of the team being the LB position. I’m a firm believer in building a team from the back forwards. Find your best back 4 (or 3 depending on formation) and then find the players to place in front of them. Villafana has been decent at times, but has also been suspect defending 1 Vs. 1. That’s why IMO Fabian should be moved back to the LB position, as it will give us our best defense foundation. With the emergence of other Wide midfield options….Arriola, Saief, Gooch, Green, Rowe, Zardes….It is my opinion that we could spare shifting Fabian to the back-line in order to solidify the defense. I don’t think Bruce will actually do this, but I think it would give us the best chance to compete against WC quality teams.


      • Dennis

        Miazga and CCV are both young and still on the fast upswing in their abilities. I would not be at all surprised if either made the Russian squad.


    • I scored three goals in one game

      Agree with FJ going back to play at lb, he gives them more going forward and is a better defender. It also opens up the midfield to depending on formation. Who would most people want on the left villafana overlapping FJ or FJ overlapping nagbe or CP . I think Bruce’s ego might get the way of that though having said from the beginning that he was going to play in the midfield.


      • Gary Page

        I have been saying this ever since Bruce said FJ was going to midfield. Villafana might be good enough for the remaining qualifiers, but at the World Cup level, we definitely need FJ or equivalent there. And I don’t know of any equivalent we have waiting in the wings.


      • Nate Dollars

        yep. not to mention that, at least up until a year or so ago, the stats showed that fabian produced as much offensively when lining up at left back as he did at left mid.

        obviously it depends on who else we have on the field, but it can often be more effective to have a strong attacker overlapping on defense than in a more permanent attacking position; the scoring opportunities may not be as many, but they can be far more dangerous.


  • Twomilerule

    The sum of the parts are starting to add up! Certain players compliment each other and allow them to fit such as Acosta playing with Bradley. Still various positions need upgrades for improving against superior talent such as the right side midfield and right back. Also, Arena needs to get Altidore to buy into playing as a lone striker once in a while with Pulisic playing underneath him.
    The test with this group is when they play against another team that wants the ball and will attack. The Tico’s were looking for their few windows to attack and had some excellent opportunities.


  • danny kissinger

    It’s hard to say this because he did scroe the game-winning goal, But Altidore looked very average to poor throughout most of the game. Passing when he should shoot. Making half hearted runs where he’d miss the pass just 2 feet away from him. He still definetly has a role on the team, but I don’t think he should be an automatic starter, especially when Wood returns.


    • Lost in Space

      In a single striker formation I’d put Wood ahead of Jozy. In a 2 striker formation I think Jozy & Wood complement each other well. Morris/Dwyer are the bench options in a 2 striker format.
      Dempsey is the guy who’ll be the change-up…playing in more of a 4-4-1-1 formation…or if Jozy is injured/tired playing the guy running off Wood. I see him being the super sub when we need a goal, or need to give the opposition a different look/tempo to the game. His unorthodox style/play will force the opposition to rethink how they defend the rest of the team.


    • Gary Page

      Everyone here seems to be quite enamored of Wood. And while he has shown a lot, I think he does a lot better in an open game where he can run onto balls. When we are playing against a team that bunkers or a team that is equal or better than us, he struggles. My memory of the Centenario is that while he had some good moments, he wasn’t really that effective. My point is that I wouldn’t count him as an automatic starter, nor would I necessarily put him ahead of Altidore who has more of a physical presence and often does a good job of passing within the box to teammates. Wood and Altidore are completely different types of strikers, while I think Wood and Morris are similar in styles. Thus, as between Altidore and Wood, I think who starts should be largely dependent on who we are playing and what formation we will be using.


      • Nate Dollars

        i think you’ve hit on what most people miss: what wood brings to the usmnt is not necessarily a *better* striker than altidore (his “claim to fame” at this point is scoring 5 goals in the bundesliga), but a *different* striker. this actually fills two far greater needs for us: tactical flexibility, and someone to pair with altidore up top.


  • Bill Minarik

    It appears that bringing on the newcomers to the line-up for the knockout round, was just what the
    doctor ordered. However, Mexico will be tougher. With their A line-up in tact at Mexico City, about the only offense the U S could muster was that opening shot with the GK out of position. Considering how far Mexico went in the Confederations Cup, this could be an indicator of how far the U. S. could go in Russia in 2018.


    • Dennis

      Since we will play Jamaica, not Mexico, I think the wild card is “Can Blake keep up his heroic shot-stopping.” Blake has demonstrated tremendous shot stopping ability and it is arguable that he would have stopped both the US goals against Costa Rica. Jamaica is fast and can counter, something the US back line has looked susceptible to, so this up-coming game is anything but a breeze.


      • NC Jeff

        Potentially true about Blake … however, in the final, if it’s tied, it does go ET … not just straight to pk’s. So, that would be an extra 30 mins. he’d have to continue to bail out what you would have to figure would be an exhausted defense.


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