Bruce Arena was forced into making some big decisions on Friday night. His starting right back, DeAndre Yedlin, didn’t recover in time to join the U.S. Men’s National Team squad. His starting centerback, John Brooks, will miss the remainder of qualifying with an injury of his own.
Knowing that, two changes were required in the USMNT backline. One worked out just fine. The other did not, and it proved the difference in a 2-0 Costa Rica win at Red Bull Arena on Friday night.
After a solid showing at the Gold Cup, Graham Zusi remained in the USMNT starting lineup at the right back position. Tim Ream, fresh off a solid start to the season with Fulham, joined alongside Geoff Cameron. While Zusi was consistently solid facing wave after wave of Costa Rica attacks down the right, it was the pairing of Ream and Cameron that was caught out for what proved to be the game’s pivotal moment.
As Marco Urena drove down the left side, Ream found himself isolated one-on-one with the Costa Rica attacker. The USMNT defender forced him out wide, but left just enough room for a shot to slip past Tim Howard and give Costa Rica the lead.
Now, a lot went wrong in the sequence. Prior to Urena’s run, both Cameron and Ream were fare too separated, allowing acres of space down the middle to begin the attack. Ream did well enough to force Urena to a tough angle, but the Fulham defender couldn’t block the shot. Howard will feel let down by his own part in the sequence, as the shot was one you’d expect Howard to push out. Cameron, meanwhile, drifted well behind the play and was caught completely ball-watching in the center of the box defending absolutely no one.
“It’s a good question,” Arena said. “We should have been a little bit better, but having said that, and I hadn’t seen the replay, but I thought Tim did a good job, and Michael came in, to push him wide. It didn’t look like he got much on the shot and Tim perhaps lost his angle on the goal and he was able to roll it in.
“If I’m not mistaken, the play began when Ruiz handled the ball in the center of the field and the play went on and split out centerbacks, which shouldn’t happen. That’s the most honest assessment I can give.”
It was one of several nervy moments for the Ream-Cameron pairing. There was the early giveaway from Ream that would have produced a Costa Rica goal if not for a last-ditch tackle from Jorge Villafana. Cameron, meanwhile, was relatively sloppy himself in what was an uncharacteristically lackluster performance.
The second half was fairly straight-forward until the second breakthrough. With the USMNT pushing for another goal, Ream and Cameron were caught out again as Urena slid through the middle yet again for the second goal.
“The second goal was just a mistake,” Zusi said. “We were up the field putting numbers forward and we lose the ball. It was a mistake.”
“We just turned the ball over in a bad part of the field,” Arena added. “It was a bad mistake.”
The Ream-Cameron partnership was a risk from the get-go. The two hadn’t never played together as an individual pairing, and a match against Costa Rica is a tough moment to build chemistry. With veterans Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez on the bench, playing an entirely new-look defense was a risk, and it didn’t pay off.
Meanwhile, Zusi was most certainly the most steady of the USMNT defenders. Costa Rica went at the Sporting KC star time and time again, and Zusi was up to the task pretty much every time. He made several slide tackles and provided several clearances in what was a stock-boosting performance.
By the time Clint Dempsey came on to re-energize the crowd in the second half, the damage had been done. Facing a bunkered-in Costa Rica defense, the USMNT was merely smashing its collective head against a wall.
Friday’s match wasn’t a game won with tactics or formations or surprises. It was a game won with individual players making individual plays in individual moments. In those moments, the USMNT backline failed to step up, and the road to Russia became more complicated because of it.
“We obviously didn’t play well on the night,” Arena said. “We didn’t make any plays that mattered. We were probably outplayed in most positions on the field and didn’t capitalize on several opportunities. We didn’t have a good night. I thought they outplayed us and outcoached us.”
“We need to learn from this game,” Zusi added. “There will be times when teams concede possession, but we need to be better with the ball, sharper in all facets of the game.”