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Who Should the USMNT start vs. Costa Rica?

Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Just days after a Gold Cup quarterfinal that had a tournament’s worth of nonsense, the U.S. Men’s National Team is faced with a major step up in competition with a spot in the tournament final on the line.

After toppling a hungry El Salvador team, 2-0, the USMNT moves on to face Costa Rica on Saturday in the Gold Cup semifinal. Los Ticos are a bit beat up, sure, but Saturday’s match will be a significant test unlike any this USMNT group has faced thus far.

With so many games in so few days, Bruce Arena has some decisions to make. Does he sacrifice some of the team’s better players in favor of fresh legs or does he stick with several veterans who featured against El Salvador?

Here’s a closer look at one possible lineup:

Here are some thoughts on the projected lineup:

Rotation is inevitable. With the potential for four games in 11 days, Bruce Arena will absolutely need to make some moves within the starting XI. He’ll need to pick his spots, though, because taking Costa Rica lightly could certainly end in an early exit.

Knowing that, expect to see some of the team’s bigger stars. Michael Bradley is as fit as anyone in the pool and would be a good bet to start on Saturday. Jozy Altidore is too important at the forward position, making him another likely starter. Omar Gonzalez has been a rock in defense and, if Bruce Arena isn’t comfortable with throwing Matt Miazga into the deep end, pairing him with a familiar face in Matt Besler would make sense.

That said, there will be changes, and you can probably circle the fullback position as the most likely spot. Eric Lichaj got his goal on Wednesday, but it’s hard to look past the myriad of errors committed by the Nottingham Forest fullback. The same can be said for Justin Morrow, who had good moments but also a whiffed header that could have, and maybe should have, ended up in the back of the net.

Graham Zusi and Jorge Villafana remain the team’s first choice fullbacks, and both will be on full rest heading into the match. The two have had theirs ups and downs in recent weeks, no doubt, but, given what we saw on Wednesday, it couldn’t be much worse on the defensive end at least.

The midfield could also feature some shifting in the form of Kellyn Acosta, who made a late substitute appearance against El Salvador and should be more than fresh. Dax McCarty is also an option if the USMNT is looking to play things a bit safer, but Acosta makes the most sense.

Wing positions remain up for grabs. All fitness ideas being equal, Arena faces tough decisions. Paul Arriola looked good against El Salvador, and his skillset might be best against the Costa Rican’s five-at-the-back system. He’s gotten better defensively and remains a pacey and technical option out wide. On the other side, Arena could go with Gyasi Zardes or Darlington Nagbe if the latter isn’t used centrally.

Forward, meanwhile, may be the most interesting. Clint Dempsey is build for big games like this, but given his age, would it be wiser to give him some rest following a difficult quarterfinal and ahead of a potential final? If so, there are options in Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris. The former brings technique and play-making ability. The latter brings speed and good form following a two-goal performance against Martinique.

Overall, expect plenty of changes, but Arena can’t afford to change too much. Chemistry will be key against a tough Costa Rica team and managing the current roster will go a long way towards the USMNT’s potential run to a final.


  1. Both in the recent qualifiers and in this tournament, Bruce has seemed to go with a rotation valuing freshness over a first team lineup. With the short rest between games in both situations this is reasonable when the “backups” are not too far behind the “starters” which appears to be fairly true for the current group (Zardes vs. Arriola, Zusi vs. Lichaj etc.). It’s nice if this works for many reasons including team unity with everyone knowing they have a good chance to play and not just sit on the bench and be a practice player. I suspect it also makes for better practices. Unfortunately, most of the players have been relatively mediocre.

    Everyone sees the games differently. For me, I thought Arriola while exhibiting potential, was running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. I thought Zardes was more purposeful even if his touch drives you crazy periodically. Also, I have noticed that Zardes is one of the few US players who actually wins headers (Jermaine Jones also used to, Jozy rarely does, Clint does in the box). Obviously, 6’4″ defenders win defensive headers but my observation is that the current iteration is not that good in the air. They don’t appear to have learned the art of the subtle mini push just prior to the ball descending (not enough for a foul call) which players from other countries seem to have perfected. Maybe I’m just seeing with my heart instead of my eyes but just something I’ve noticed at the elite level. Sorry about the heading rant.

  2. Does anyone remember when Klinsmann was criticized for not sticking with a consistent lineup and always “tinkering?” It seems that Bruce has taken things to a whole new level.

    • Gold Cup-wise, that was always gonna be the case though.

      People really need to look at this GC in a more appropriate light. Everybody wants to use it as a referendum on something.

    • It’s pretty obvious to those who have paid attention that Arena has done a lot of things Klinsmann did, but has escaped the same criticism. In addition to what you mention, for a couple of years Klinsmann was heavily criticized for playing Bradley so much and for playing him in the wrong position. Arena is playing Bradley about the same way and relies on him in big games as much as Klinsmann did. Now there is a grudging admittance, at least on this board, that Bradley is the best option we have in the middle. The fact is that any coach for the US has certain limitations because of the player pool. Also, coaching a national team is a lot different from a club team. Some people criticized Klinsmann mostly because they didn’t like him as a person and their comments made that apparent.

      • perhaps, but jurgen and bruce were hired for different jobs. Jurgen was hired to change things, to say things that nobody else would say. To do things that wouldn’t pay off now or even this decade. I think in a lot of ways he succeeded in that.

        And to roughly quote something that jurgen would say, “if you arent performing at a high level you will not be called in.” He wasnt coaching very well when he got fired. Bruce was hired to get the team to the world cup. Nothing else. Not style not substance. Not to develop young players or to push players to a higher league. There are both very smart reasons for his hiring and plenty of valid criticisms as to why that might be shooting too low.

        Bruce was hired to fix shit. Whether its attitude or some semblance of a game plan or merely just getting to the 3rd spot in the Hex.

      • Also bradley has 2 goal 2 assists and the team hasn’t given up a goal from the run of play with him on the field since bruce has been hired.

    • come on now your better than this comment.

      There is a difference between tinkering in a meaningless gold cup against teams with 50% semi-pro talent and playing a formation against mexico in a world cup qualifier you never actually practiced because you watched chelsea play that way.

  3. 18 year old American Jonathan Gonzalez got the start for Monterrey today, not sure where he lined up but normally a CM

  4. I agree that zusi seems to be arena’s first choice for right back, but I’m hoping that doesn’t come back to bite us, as he hasn’t shown anything to indicate that he’s better than lichaj. As much as whammmm might hope that one (abysmal) half of a game is the end of lichaj, the fact is that those minutes were uncharacteristic for him. (also, did anyone see those comments on the other post criticizing him for being “out of position” on the goal he scored? holy sh!t)

    On the other hand, zusi hasn’t played a single game at right back that would indicate that he’s a dependable option at the international level. I guess it’s possible that he develops into a competent defender–i’m sure arena’s hoping so–but that’s just wishful thinking at this point.

  5. Just a couple of points in response to some of the comments. Dempsey’s pass to Lichaj that sety up his goal was a thing of beauty. Dempsey is still, by far, the most technically skillful player we have. Also, Dempsey had a shot that was saved by the GK’s fingertips. 2 more inches to the rfight and he has a goal. You keep Dempsey on the bench at your peril. You start him and b ring on Morris about 70 or 75th minute. This US lineup doesn’t have a lot of speed. Zardes provides that, especially if Morris isn’t on the pitch. Zardes stretches defenses, providing space between the backline and the opponent’s midfield, giving US strikers more room to work in. That’s one of t I’d like to see Nagbe instead of Acosta, except that Nagbe sometimes holds the ball too long and kills attacks. That being said, maybe you start Acosta and bring in Nagbe with Morris.he reasons his coaches value him. Lichaj was so horrible defensively, I don’t see how you can go with him over Zusi. Zusi used to be a midfielder with a lot of assists and his perfect dead ball delivery to Miazga won the game over Martinique. He can provide good crosses when he goes up field. I don’t know if Lichaj has that facility.

    • GP: while I agree with much of what you said, I gotta call you out on your statement that “Dempsey is still, by far, the most technically skillful player we have.” That certainly isn’t true when Pulisic is on the field, but it’s still not true when Nagbe is there. Is Dempsey clever and he is known for “trying $hit”? Of course. But we got more technically skillful than him. And yes, there’s a risk of not starting him, but he should have been subbed out at the 60th min against ES so that he would be fresh(er) against CR. I don’t think that at his age, he can fully recover this quickly. Blame Bruce for that decision, but I wouldnt start dempsey

      • Yea pulisic is on another level, Gary was always the guy who thought pulisic was too young to play, then it was he’s too young to start, then it was too young for this game and so on….. to be fair though, most commenters had the same view on this site.

      • Whenever Dempsey was on TV with either Fulham or Tottenham, I made a point to watch and probably saw 90% of all the games available. I realized after a couple of years that Dempsey got fouled a whole lot. If he wasn’t one of the most fouled players in the league, he certainly was the most fouled player on his club. Either a lot of referees were on the take and gave him unearned fouls, or he was getting fouled. Why would he get fouled so much? I deduced that he got those fouls because players would go in to tackle him or take the ball away, but the ball wouldn’t be there because of a fake and they got his legs instead. I remember early on when he was able to keep an overhit ball from going out of bounds by cradling it with his foot and bringing the ball done. The commentator said he looked Brazilian. Look as the goal he scored against Ghana in the last World Cup. His first year he kept Fulham up by coming on late and taking a ball about 40 yards out and making a run through about half of Liverpool to score a winning goal in the last game of the season. He’s not flashy like Nagbe, but if you watch him enough you realize there is a lot there which you don’t readily see because the camera rarely shows close-ups, but he continually fools defenders.

      • Dan, I thought that Pulisic was too young when he had little experience with his club team. By the time he started in the Champions League, I changed my mind and for many months have been saying that he could be an all time US great. I think it is rash to say a player is great when he has played very little professionally, which was the case for Pulisic before this last season. Please don’t misrepresent my position. I don’t mind different opinions, but don’t base them on aversions that aren’t accurate.

    • If I were ranking technical ability, at last amongst recent squad guys… I’d say: Pulisic, FabJ, MB90/JJones, Dempsey, Nagbe, Cameron, Wood…

    • I held out Dempsey, based entirely on his energy level in the second half. I am in no way writing off his contribution to the squad. I would rather rest him in the first half Saturday and use him as a starter against Mex or Jamaica. That’s a risk, but one I’d be willing to take if I were Arena.

    • Gary, I’m really not sure where you and JohnnyRazor get this notion Nagbe holds the ball to long, over dribbles, and concludes with an errant pass? Both of you often offer level headed insightful takes and JohnnyR is the google of SBI. However, there is no merit nor stat to support your claims? Consider Nagbe always has one of if not the highest passing percentage, fouls drawn, low turnovers, and duals won. A player that misses on 2 to 3 total passes a game puts them in the upper 80’s to mid 90’s% a match. The criticism is Nagbe does not hold onto the ball long enough and drive it into the 18 yard box more. Also, he does not take enough chances to create his own shots on goal.
      A players performance is based on what they actually do on the field and not what is fictionalized in words

      • It’s really the same problem, rather than make the pass to free a teammate he’ll take another touch. That’s why his passing rate is so big he looks for the sure thing. I think he should be in our first 15, but not as a number 9.

      • I didn’t say he made an errant pass after holding it too long. The problem is that when he holds it too long, it gives the defense a chance to gang up on him and, too often, this leads to Nagbe being double teamed and then losing the ball via a turnover. They say the really good players are seeing ahead a couple of passes. What Nagbe should be doing in those cases, is already have decided where he is going to pass the ball once he attracts the defenders. Now, as someone has pointed out, too often teammates don’t go into space to provide an outlet, but this happens with Nagbe enough such that it seems to me that he is a large part of the problem via poor decision-making.

  6. 3-5-2 with a 5 man midfield, controlling the game and throwing it down their throat!!!!





    Costa Rica is not El Salvador who got good chances but couldn’t finish. We cannot sit back, make them bring the game to us or absorb the attack of CR. We should pin them back in their half with our attack, control the midfield and let them defend (the best defense is a good offense!!!!!) but be smart and be aware of counters

    • Nagbe instead of Dempsey….lol. Deuce comes in the second half






      • Switch Besler for Hedges and I don’t hate it. I worry about Nagbe as the 9 since he often holds the ball too long and misses the pass. Don’t think Bruce would sit both Deuce and Jozy though.

  7. Altidore and Dempsey are unproductive. Get some one, Morris and Agudelo. These two will do better than the old-timers.

  8. I expect Bruce to swap up the entire backline and put in Villafana, Besler, Miazga, and Zusi out back. While JV and Morrow have been equally unimpressive, I think Lichaj has shown better than Zusi. And while Omar played well against El Salvador, I didn’t think he was so great as to warrant another start 3 days later, so I would start Miazga instead. This is the kind of game we want to test him in and let him grow.

    In the midfield, I think Zardes absolutely deserves to keep starting. He has been one of our best performers the last 2 games. The SBI lineup is too conversative, and I definitely disagree with JohnnyRazor’s lineup. Nagbe would be wasted in that outside role, and Bradley hasn’t played a wide midfield role since he was at Roma. I’d go with the same midfield of Zardes, Bradley, Nagbe, and Arriola.

    Up top, I don’t think Deuce will be ready to start (still confused why he didn’t come off early in the last game), so I agree with the Jozy-Morris tandem to stretch out the defense.

    • Sorry bad graphic, both Nagbe and Bradley are inside in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. Zardes and Agudelo are the outside players.

      • Ah ok. with Dax as the 1 in front of the backline, I assume? That makes more sense. I honestly haven’t seen Agudelo much in a wide/wing position. Can he deliver a decent cross? I’ve been surprised with both Zardes and Morris’ improvement in that area.

  9. Which Bruce will show up tonight, will it be the tactical genius that sprang the 3-4-3 in the Azteca or the conservative manager who plays the 4-4-2 with two deep lying midfielders. Another thing to consider is these two teams will play again Sept. 1, so will Bruce not want to give away his strategy in the GC.

    Who should start?

    Costa Rica is going to flood the middle either with a 4-5-1 or 3-5-2 so we need the extra midfield players, both Zardes and Agudelo provide our best two-way players on the wings to help contain Ruiz.

    Who I think will start? Ryan’s lineup with Zardes for Arriola, and maybe McCarty for Acosta.

  10. There’s really no opportunity to rest players here for a potential final. We have not looked good at all and CR has every chance to win this game. Defensively we have been sloppy all tournament and we’ve struggled to create chances. Have to play our best 11. Whatever that is.

    • I’d still take Lichaj over Zusi. Each have had bad moments, but Zusi’s have been awareness, positioning and 1v1 defending where Lichaj’s were technical mistakes. Much easier to correct…
      I would also continue with Dempsey and Zardes. Zardes arguably our bet player vs El Salvador and Dempsey needs the opportunity to bounce back here.

      • Not sure we watched the same game. Zardes is terrible, has no technical ability and it shows every time he steps on the field. I’d use Dempsey as a sub, while he set up one goal he was invisible for most of the game.

      • Zardes has a gangly build that makes him look ugly even when he is showing good technique, the same can be said of Omar. Not saying both don’t make errors, they certainly do its just because of their body type they look worse doing it. His touch on Wednesday looked much better and he was consistently beating his defender and not just with pace. Yes, his crossing was not great, but at least he’s willing to try to make the cross with his weak foot, which tells you how ugly Arriola’s left footed cross must be.

        The margins between the national team players at most positions are very thin. If you like Arriola you see Zardes’s negatives as insurmountable, likewise, with Beasler vs Ream, or Omar vs Miazga. You are even seeing it with Acosta vs Bradley. We see what we want to see and overlook what doesn’t help our cause.

        I’d start Zardes over Arriola, because his defense is better. While Arriola has better technical skill, he is still in preseason mode and has not been very sharp so his advantage in that area isn’t applying at this point.

      • Definitely Lichaj over Zusi (confounds me that he made the roster anyway)..lets not crucify the guy over one bad play. Lichaj bounced back admirably and let him show us why he’s a starter in Europe.
        Disagree with you re Dempsey…he has lost a step and may get exposed vs CR.

      • Lichaj’s mistakes were made in about every category aside from being a RB and finding himself scoring from inside the left 18 after a beautiful turn and pass from Dempsey. The mistakes he made are that of someone who panics under pressure and very little pressure at that. Zusi makes his fair share of mistakes for sure, none as glaringly bad. Not to mention we are comparing a guy who is a legitimate RB to a guy who has played the position for a year. Lichaj is not the answer. If you don’t like either guy, that is fine and absolutely justified but it is baffling how people can 100% back Lichaj and rip Zusi up and down. Zusi is the lesser of two evils with a higher upside and more versatility, give me that every day of the week for gold cup and as a world cup sub(if nobody else steps up).

      • My preference is Zardes over Arriola but for me there is not a major difference in the two players. Dempsey has may be losing a step but is still a better player than Morris and shouldn’t be cast down after a bad game. I’m not sure he starts if we have our full squad in camp, but on this team he is a starter for me.
        One of the main issues on this Gold Cup squad is the lack of depth. No one has stepped up and shown they deserve more minutes, so there isn’t really a “right” answer for many of these questions.We’re all talking about who has been less bad than the next player…

      • @whammmm, we’ll have to agree to disagree with each other over this Zusi vs Lichaj debate. As you said, Zusi is still learning the position, but he has been playing RB since the end of last year with SKC and he isn’t getting better. He is not an international caliber player and i’m still puzzzled how he even went to the WC 4 years ago, when you consider he was a deer stuck in headlights every game in Brazil and was badly exposed. Lichaj is still getting over preseaon rust, and that will come with more minutes but like another poster commented Lichajs’ misgivings are more technical and esily corrected. Zusi just doesnt have the awareness and ability to consistently be productive there. It should say something that Lichaj has an assist and a goal in his first 2 appearances back with the team. It’s laughable that Lichaj has been deemed not suitable enough for the position for having one bad half of soccer hahaha

      • I am also in the Lichaj camp. To be honest, I am somewhat of a homer, but I wouldn’t be if I knew he was garbage. I really think he is a missing link to depth at the fullback position. However, for the this tournament, I certainly consider him to be a starter. Zusi isn’t that bad, but he is just serviceable. You aren’t going to get really good defending or really good offense out of him, but he will, generally speaking, be decent at both. I consider Lichaj to have more than that on both fronts, which is why I would take him over Zusi.

        As for Zardes, I too thought he played really well against El Salvador. Always aggressive, constantly tracking back, and for the most part, was good at running at defenders and making the right pass. Not to mention, he scored what should have been a goal (although, he should have passed it to whoever it was that was cruising down the middle). Arriola looks to be more of a potential future player, more so than a player for this cycle. He has some tools, but still is working on putting them together.

        Hard to say what Bruce will do in terms of lineup, but I know he will want to win. JR (johnnyrazor) mentioned the fact we play CR again in qualifying soon, so that may be taken into consideration, but I doubt it. The player pool will be so much different that even if the shape is the same, the style and skill will be discernibly different.


        You may not like putting Nagbe in the middle, but I think he can create from there. However, if it is too much of a stretch, you can always add him to either wing and take out Morris. That would leave room for Dempsey in the middle.

        Also, I am not a fan of having Altidore alone up top, but I think our style will be more defensive with a dash of counter-attacking. I would expect Zardes and Morris to get up the field quickly in order to be outlets for Altidore. By having both Bradley and Acosts as DM’s, it should allow for less defensive necessity from the wingers, which leads to more counter-attacking starting higher up the field. But, we shall see. Either way, we need to win.

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