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Shorthanded USMNT defense doesn’t pass test against Costa Rica

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.”


  1. Arena dropped the ball and the US did not play their best. Cameron and Ream blew it big time and not finishing some chances hurt the US. Despite not playing well, this game could have gone either way. The Panamanian Ref was terrible; a penalty should have been called in favor of the US. If this was called, the game changes completely. Since the teams in Concacaf are so inconstant, this plays a bit in the US’s favor. Forget about the tie on the road, though. You need to beat a Honduras side you destroyed 6-0 not really a long time ago.

  2. Q,
    I don’t know if you saw my followup to your post the other day about Fabian & Nagbe… agree so much with this..
    It seems the Fabian that played left mid @ the beginning of the 2014 cycle doesn’t look to be off to the same start. I believe he had 6 assists for us during that run.. but that was then… he should be our LB.
    -It gives us the best shot at getting our best players on the field at the same time..
    -He’s just as dangerous-probably more so- counterattacking and overlapping from the LB spot..
    -Villafana just doesn’t seem up to the task. CR barely attacked the flanks on his side and he still looked out of sorts.. yet playing vs a 5-4-1 he offered nothing going forward either. What’s gonna happen when he’s gotta mark up an actual winger at the Intl level

  3. All I know is that Gonzalez would have completely shut down CR by himself, and probably scored a goal on a towering header. And Timmy “move get out my way” Chandler would have galloped up and down the wing and put cross after cross right on Altidore’s and Wood’s forehead until they became concussed.

  4. Costa Rica did not look better at every position. The US started very well in possession and out possessed the Ticos the whole game. Yes, possession doesn’t mean anything sometimes, but I rather have it than not. It was the shorthanded defense that cost the US and a non penalty call,

  5. I was rather amazed when Arena started Ream. Also, I’ve been calling for FJ at LB instead of Villafana. I hope Arena learns from his mistakes, but I’m not optimistic. He waited too long to bring on Dempsey and didn’t seem to make any defensive adjustments at half time since it was space between the CB’s that led to the 2nd goal. Poor effort, poor execution, and poor coaching. CR looked better at every position and the US didn’t have any real answer for their defense.

    • Yeah. Atrocious tactics and personnel decisions from Bruce from start to finish. Really bad stuff and I hope he learns.

      Fabian Johnson is not a left mid, not at the International level. However good he may look in Germany it has just never translated to the national level…and playing him at his “preferred” position – which is baffling for a guy who is maybe the #6 or #7 best player on the roster – is baffling. It moved Nagbe off the left wing spot where he dominates. It moves Pulisic away from the 10 spot where he dominates and isolated him on the wing. It pushed Nagbe to the 10 spot where he looked lost and ineffectual and was completely unable to link up with Bradley and the defense.

      Terrible, terrible stuff, and I hope Arena has that stinker out of his system…or we may not be going to Russia. Fabian Johnson needs to drop back and be our utility guy at left or right back if he wants his spot on the plane, period.


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