By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. — Another forgettable performance. Another forgettable game. Another forgettable result.
The U.S. Men’s National Team suffered its latest setback on Tuesday by being on the wrong end of a 1-0 decision to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted to go with a host of different faces to see what others could offer, but the reserve-filled American side still could not muster up enough quality to avoid picking up a third straight defeat.
As if the loss was not bad enough given that it extended a poor run of form that dates back months, the performance on the field was once again discouraging. The U.S. had very little attacking punch, and was fortunate not to lose by more than one to an organized Costa Rica team that was pushed on by the scarce few thousand fans that attended the international friendly.
There was one major positive with the strong return of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, but little else to instill confidence in U.S. fans ahead of a World Cup qualifying campaign that begins next month. In fact, most might be concerned with the direction the Americans are headed in given that they have now lost four straight home games vs. CONCACAF teams for just the second time in their history.
Here are some takeaways from the Americans’ 1-0 loss to Costa Rica:
HOWARD DESERVES NO. 1 SHIRT OUTRIGHT
Jurgen Klinsmann may be planning to rotate Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the coming months, but right now it is Howard that deserves the starting goalkeeper spot outright.
Howard stepped back in between the pipes on Tuesday for the first time since his epic and historic showing vs. Belgium at last summer’s World Cup, and he looked just as good as he has for most of his U.S. career. Howard was quick off his line to intercept Costa Rican through balls, aggressive and confident, communicative, and, of course, delivered several solid saves – including one on a breakaway in the 91st minute – to keep the Americans in the game.
It might seem to some like an overreaction to say Howard should be the No. 1 again after just one performance, but Howard’s good run of form extends to the Premiership season. The 36-year-old netminder has gotten off to a strong start with Everton, even winning the club’s Player of the Month award in August, and there are no signs that he will slow down any time soon.
While Guzan has not been bad in his time as U.S. starter, he also has not been great. There have not been many games where he has flat out saved the Americans, and the fact that Klinsmann is not deciding on Guzan or Howard is proof that Guzan has not done enough to lock up the starting job. Good move by Klinsmann here, however, as this approach will keep Guzan somewhat happy and ready should the aging Howard not make it to Russia 2018.
RESERVES FAIL TO CAPITALIZE ON CHANCE TO IMPRESS
This game provided a golden chance for reserve players to step up and make their cases, but very few did.
Klinsmann fielded a lineup vs. the Ticos that included only three of the starters – Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, and Geoff Cameron – from Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico. The other eight players who got the nod and the substitutes that followed all had a chance to really leave a lasting impression, but not many of them stood out.
Danny Williams was among the most disappointing. He has been on a good run of form at the club level with Reading, but failed to really make a positive impact vs. Costa Rica. DeAndre Yedlin and Brek Shea also seemed like players who could strengthen their cases for more minutes, but neither of the speedy wingers showed they have the technical qualities to be deserving of more starts right now.
There were a few players who helped their stock. Bobby Wood was physical, aggressive, and forward-thinking despite not having a ton of service, and Tim Ream again was solid at left back. Howard, as was mentioned before, also impressed in goal.
Still, it is discouraging that so few players seized the opportunity. Yes, Klinsmann may have been looking primarily to provide experience to some of these reserves, but they needed to do more with this chance.
FRUSTRATION EVIDENT FOR ALL TO SEE
Body language in soccer – as former U.S. centerback Jimmy Conrad has pointed out in the past – can be very telling and you needed only to see how some of the players barked at each other on the field to realize how frustrated the Americans are right now.
There were several moments of demonstrative bickering on the field, including a first-half exchange between Jermaine Jones and Brad Evans after the former was issued a yellow card. There was also a moment immediately after Joel Campbell’s 70th-minute goal in which a visibly upset left back Jonathan Spector shouted at Mix Diskerud, who was disinterested in the comments and walked away.
Arguing and demanding more of one another is normal on any team, but players admitted after the match that there is a higher level of frustration right now in the group because of the lack of results. That is not a good thing for the U.S. given that World Cup qualifying begins next month.
There is the chance that the team could come together in the long run because of this spell of adversity, but there is also the possibility that this frustration causes harm. The U.S. has two games left before it wraps up what has been a dour 2015, and at least four points and improved performances will be needed to help limit how much of this feeling lingers into next year.
IT’S TIME TO START USING ATTACK-MINDED PLAYERS
The U.S. needs to start relying more on attacking players if it wishes to be more proactive. It’s that simple.
The Americans have become far too predictable on the field simply because they lack players with a higher level of vision and dynamism. Yes, the U.S. might have physically-gifted players who possess speed, strength, or both, but that can prove easy to defend as we have seen in the past few matches.
Michael Bradley’s vision has improved tremendously in recent years, but he is still best suited to crash into the box with trailing runs rather than pulling the strings. That is why it is time for Klinsmann to start giving more call-ups and longer looks to Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, and Sacha Kljestan. Those three MLS-based players might not be ones who do as much of the defensive work as Bradley or Jermaine Jones or Alejandro Bedoya, but their vision, technique, ability to hit passes forward, and overall craftiness on the ball are things that the U.S. lacks right now.
Only Nguyen has been used recently and his minutes have been sporadic at best. If Klinsmann wants the U.S. to become more of a threat to opposing defenses in the near future and long-term, then he’s going to have to sacrifice a bit on the defensive side. Nguyen, Feilhaber, and Kljestan may not be world beaters, but they can add a dimension to the U.S. attack that is sorely needed.
Giving them longer looks in World Cup qualifiers may be seen as risky, but two of the three of them have been through those games before and know what it takes. Besides, the U.S., in all honesty, should have no real issues getting out of a third round group that includes St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guatemala.