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Loss to Costa Rica puts USMNT on more difficult road to Russia

Photo by Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports

Bruce Arena and the U.S. Men’s National Team knew the stakes of Friday’s match. A win would all but put the USMNT on the road to Russia. A loss? Well, that would change the perception and certainly bring in a whole new line of questioning.

“We know that all hell breaks loose when you lose a game,” Arena said on Thursday ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. “All of the critics come out and that’s part of it. That’s why we compete and we know that when we sign up for this stuff.”

Well, Friday’s match wasn’t quite hell breaking loose for the USMNT, but it felt pretty close to it.

The USMNT’s first loss of 2017 came on Friday night at Red Bull Arena as Costa Rica completed a qualifying sweep with a 2-0 win. It was a USMNT performance devoid of energy. It was an effort devoid of focus. Most importantly, it was a result devoid of points, and that’s the worst part of it all.

Is the U.S. done? No. Are they in trouble? Probably not. The USMNT’s fate is still very much in its own hands with three games remaining in the qualifying cycle. Wins cure all, and Friday’s match may just be a late blip in a year where there hadn’t been any prior. However, it certainly did seem like a gut punch, one which adds a bit more doubt to the qualifying picture.

“Qualifying has been in jeopardy for most teams,” Arena said after Friday’s loss. “Right now, Mexico and Costa Rica are, I would think, I don’t know the math, probably qualified. It’s going to be a battle among the remaining four teams.

“You hate to look at one game and not look at the whole,” he added. “Tonight was not our night. We didn’t play well. We still have three games left in the competition… We’re still in position to qualify for the World Cup.”

As things stand, that statement is true, yes. Mexico’s win over Panama keeps Los Canaleros on the outside looking in and one point adrift of the USMNT. Honduras took care of business against Trinidad & Tobago, but the USMNT still edges Los Catrachos by a whopping eight goals when it comes to goal differential. The USMNT maintained a hold on third place, albeit a very loose hold.

However, things get a little more nervy from this point forward. The upcoming trip to Honduras takes on a whole new significance given the stakes that are now very, very real. Matches against Honduras and Panama remain on the horizon, and they’re suddenly much more important.

Getting points is paramount. The USMNT has already had two home slip-ups in World Cup qualifying, and they can’t afford any more whether on the road or in the U.S.

Before, a road point in Honduras would have been just fine, but with two teams lurking, the USMNT needs every point available if they are to assemble any sort of breathing room.

“I think so,” Arena said when asked if the approach changes for Tuesday’s trip to Honduras, “but we’ll take a day to reflect on this and come up with a plan certainly by Sunday or Monday. Clearly, walking away without any points tonight is very disappointing.”

“We didn’t have an approach until right now because you worry about one game at a time,” added Michael Bradley. “The approach is that we go down there with the mentality to win the game. We’re going to be aggressive and make sure we have 11 guys on the field that are willing to give everything, and we will.”

A win against Honduras would certainly ease any doubts and make the path to Russia a bit cleaner, and Los Caratchos have a difficult road to Russia with the USMNT, Costa Rica and Mexico left on the schedule. Panama’s is a bit easier with the next match coming against T&T, but looming clashes against the U.S. and Costa Rica won’t be easy.

The qualifying push will come down to what happens in the final two games of the cycle regardless, but the USMNT will need to help themselves if they want to keep the scenarios and percentages in their favor.

Third place would send the USMNT straight to Russia. Fourth? Well, that opens up a playoff scenario against an Asian team, one which will always be tricky regardless of who stands on the other side.

“We’re not worried,” Bradley said. “This is our reality at the moment. The likelihood is that it’s going to go down to the wire. That can’t phase anybody. That can’t scare us. Costa Rica and Mexico are gone. Us and Panama and Honduras play a few games and, at the end, one will go to the World Cup, one will go the playoff and one will be out.

“We’ll respond in a big way, like we always try to do,” he added. “There are three games to go. Nine points still on the table. Everything still to play for…It’s all still in our own hands and we’re ready to go down to the wire to get ourselves into the World Cup.”


  1. I think that the failure of the defense to push up when the US had possession and the failure of the forwards to come back when possession was lost resulted in the US being stretched throughout the game with relatively little effort by CR to do it. When the backs are 45 to 50 yards from the forwards, the midfield will look hopeless.

    In contrast CR did keep one forward high, but for long stretches of the game CR had 8 or 9 players separated vertically by no more than 25 yards.

    That meant when the US had the ball they were out numbered. There is no way that was going to work for the US. CR used their compactness to thwart the US attack and to make occasional long passes to a forward who while he still had work to do had a lot of room to accomplish it.

    Was the US so afraid of its lack of speed in the back that the back line played too deep? Were the forwards so confident they would receive good service that they failed to move back to be available for simple passes?

  2. The game against Hondorus will show whether firing Klinsmann and hiring Arena was a good decision. After the Mexico loss, US went to CR and probably had the worst showing since the 1998 World Cup. IMO, it wasn’t the loss to Mexico or the loss to CR that did Klinsmann in, it was how bad the team played in the loss to CR. Also, Dempsey should have been red-carded; US should not have either Dempsey nor Altidore available on Tuesday. Very bad decisions by both of them when US needs a result in Hondorus.

    • There’s no telling whether JK would have had the team doing better or worse than Arena. However, the 14 game US unbeaten streak was very misleading. Of those games, the US really over performed once–the draw in Mexico, thanks to Bradley’s wonder goal. You can argue that they underperformed in Panama with the draw since in the last cycle when Panama desperately needed a win at home, the US won. So, doing what you are expected to do and what you should do is no big deal. The loss at home to CR was a much bigger deal, especially since it wasn’t that close. It was much worse than the loss at home to Mexico since we outplayed Mexico in the 2nd half and lost due to one blown assignment.

  3. With Jozy being suspended next game I expect to see a 4-5-1 with Wood up top and Dempsey probably as a 10 with CP and Nagbe on the wings with Bradley and Acosta in the middle and DMB at LB and any traveling supporters at CB and Zusi back at RB.

  4. I’m just stunned at how badly the US played. From the opening whistle there were 5 CR players in our 1/3 to 1/2 pressuring. I thought they might run out of steam for how much running they were doing early but the game played into their hands beautifully because with a lead, they were able to slow it down in the second half, quite painfully actually. Every time there was a pause, I noted when play stopped and they managed to waste 30 seconds to a minute many times. You have to give them their due. It was a masterful game plan and the game unfolded perfectly for them. The soccer gods were with them. The referee was with them for the most part (we got a rare couple of calls). The ball loved them and kept going back to them and didn’t want to leave their feet.

    We were just terrible. I thought Fabian Johnson was just plain bad. I didn’t see him in training so I don’t know but was he really going to be in form after playing 10 minutes a week ago for the first time in weeks. There’s not much anyone can do when your best (Pulisic) and one of your best (Cameron) have a stinker. Ream made some bad mistakes early, played better later but it was too late. I thought Bradley and Nagbe were OK. Bobby Woods was active but made a number of bad passes. Jozy did a few things but was his usual inactive self. Villafana looked so-so to me and I think trying to talk up Zusi in the article above is damning by faint praise.

    Honduras at home is no joke. Mexico did the business last night but I would dearly have loved T+T to get a tie (I know, you can’t count on other teams but you can certainly hope for the best outcome).

    • I put in paragraphs here but perhaps the new format removed them. If so, I guess that will make the comments shorter or else there will be a lot of TLDR.

    • CR did a beautiful job of cutting off the passing lanes. Numerous times the US would bring the ball to midfield and have trouble with CR’s high pressing and not have any good choices. On offense we were far too static and players weren’t finding open spaces to receive passes from those being pressured. The US had no ideas about how to break down the CR defense and spent a lot of time making back passes or square passes. When the US did attack, far too often it resulted in a turnover when the defense swarmed the dribbler. Contrast that to CR who almost always were able to find a good outlet pass when pressed.

  5. Can’t believe I’m saying this but maybe old man Beasley would’ve been better suited to start at left back as Villafana looked lost with his positioning, before moving back Johnson. Or Johnson may have to play back there as he didn’t look ready in midfield due to lack of rhythm. They need that destroyer not afraid to get a yellow card guy in the midfield. Someone to break up those attacks: someone to have made Bryan Ruiz nervous and think twice when attacking up the middle. Woods and Altidore are too similar with both playing hold up type play. Woods had an opening to shoot at the edge of the box late in the game and he opted to pass. Just take a dang chance and rocket that ball! All around a stinker game at the wrong time.

  6. I know people have been calling for Michael Bradley to be benched and or he needs the right partner in the middle but time and time again no after who they partner him with, it doesn’t work against quality teams. It’s not who he is partnered with , it’s him that is the problem, he sits to deep and when he gets the ball it’s normally a back pass. When Nagbe came back for the ball he would turn and go up the pitch. Not saying Nagbe is the answer but I would rather have him on the ball more than Bradley. I know it’s not going to happen but Arena needs to take a hard look at the CM position and that was another reason he could have called in younger options just to get a look in camp even if they weren’t going to play. After awhile u need to realize the problem and fix it. Experience only goes so far. I know people will probably disagree but that’s OK its only opinion. Also hopefully this was the end of the Villafana experience and Johnson is going to LB. Ream was bad so was Cameron.

  7. Despite that “super sub” label so recently given to him, Deuce should have started… No brainer.
    He’s in form, he’s performed vs CR, their defense is tight & Deuce was best suited to unlock them, and Navas is the best keeper so you must finish your few chances…
    Why on earth do you keep your deadliest finisher in a super sub role. Bad mistake

    • Absolutely! If Dempsey was going to be a super sub, that should’ve been for the road game. You don’t hold back your top scorer in a home qualifier. Right now, the Honduran team is also salivating at that shaky back line. It’s going to be a battle.

    • This is an issue I’ve been meaning to address for some time and this looks like a good spot. The idea that Dempsey is too old to play 890 minutes is ignorant. He plays 90 every week for Seattle. For those who follow track, you know that marathoners are at their best around Dempsey’s age–early to mid-30’s. Being old doesn’t necessarily affect your stamina. It reduces your speed and lengthens your recovery time. When I was in my 40’s and I’m no pro athlete, I once ran 10k races back to back over a weekend. I didn’t run for about 3 days after that, but I had the stamina and I was just a recreational runner. So, Dempsey can easily play 90 and then 30 minutes or more 4 days later. Then the issue is do you play him 90 in the first game or the second? The win over CR was more vital, so you should start him in the first game. As I said originally, they should have gone to a 4-3-3, with FJ at LB and tried to outscore them. Also, Dempsey is our best striker in the air and CR was clogging the middle and forcing the ball outside for crosses. The best sub late in the game is a speed guy like Morris or Wood. This is like basic Soccer 101.

  8. Nothing to see here, move along. All they say about qualifying is true, but it has an air of unreality about it. It’s kind of ignoring just how badly they played and how they need to completely turn it around. Also, Arena seems to be preemptively dismissing criticism, which I hope is not accurate. He needs to reconsider who he plays and how and where he plays them. When critics warned before about certain things and were born out about their concerns, maybe he should pay attention. While it was hard to foresee that Cameron would have such a stinker, it was easy to expect that Ream wouldn’t be as good as the alternatives. And, as Ian Darke said at the beginning, how can you leave out the best goal scorer in US history when, as I predicted, it would probably require scoring more goals than they did; that you needed to score more than once?

    • What gives you impression that Gonzalez and Beslar would have been better?? All of our CB’s have had bad games, so this idea that Bruce should have known better speaks of post game ignorance and hindsight syndrome. I would argue that Tim Howard should have made both saves on CR’s goals, 2 yrs ago I’m sure those are saves. I would also argue that even though Reams turnover led to the goal he at least got back in good position and made the shot difficult. In the second half he was I thought he performed really well but we can’t say that for Cameron who looked like he had never played a professional game before and was clearly the worst defender on the night. Bradley was ineffective again, Pulisic came back down to earth, Fabian J looked out of form and his role needs to be reassessed going forward. Jozy A never got into the game either and that yellow that keeps him out of the Honduras match continues to show his immaturity in big moments. For me the lineup was correct, the players just didn’t come to play!


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