COLUMBUS, Ohio — The U.S. men’s national team hasn’t had much time to dwell on Sunday’s disappointing World Cup qualifying loss to Panama, and the good news for Gregg Berhalter and his squad is the knowledge that a win on Wednesday against Costa Rica (7 p.m., ESPN2) will give the America six points from three October qualifiers, which would ensure them a top-three position heading toward November’s qualifiers.
The USMNT is facing the pressure of delivering a response following Sunday’s flat performance against Panama, knowing that a loss to Costa Rica would drop the Americans out of the top three spots in the Concacaf stands, the positions that would ensure qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
“A win puts us in a brilliant spot at the end of this [three-game] window,” USMNT left back Antonee Robinson said. “There is definitely pressure on the game. There is pressure on all the games because of what’s at stake at the end of it — qualifying for the World Cup. That sort of pressure we enjoy.”
Robinson is one of several players who should return to the starting lineup on Wednesday after Gregg Berhalter made seven changes to the squad that beat Jamaica last week. The lineup the USMNT deployed on Sunday in Panama delivered one of the worst showings of Berhalter’s time as USMNT coach.
“Regarding the Panama performance, we looked at it with the group, we discussed it with the group, and we were off, make no mistake about it,” said Berhalter. “It was not a good game by us. I think we were a little bit slow getting to our positions to press, were late too many times pressing, which causes problems, and it causes a lot of energy on your group. Offensively, I didn’t think there was enough movement off the ball. Our expected goal value was very low in that game, which is an issue.”
Squad rotation was one of the main talking points from Sunday’s defeat, in which Berhalter made seven changes to the starting lineup. Standout stars from last week’s 2-0 win over Jamaica, including Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson, were dropped to the bench while Weston McKennie and Antonee Robinson did not travel due to separate reasons.
The attacking front of Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, and Tim Weah failed to make much of an impact in the final third while fullbacks Shaq Moore and George Bello rarely got an opportunity to deliver dangerous crosses into the box. It was a lackluster performance from the Americans offensively, and although they came out on the losing end, Berhalter stands by his decision to rotate players.
“In terms of squad rotation, one thing I want to make completely clear is when I took responsibility for the result the other day, it was not aimed at the choice of players, because we believe in every single player in this squad and I don’t regret in any moment playing that lineup,” Berhalter said. “I regret more our performance and some of the attacking adjustments we could have made in that game to be more mobile, to be moving more, but not personnel.
“We say we’re a group, and we say we’re a team, it’s the ‘next man up’ mentality,” Berhalter said. “And unfortunately, we didn’t get it done. But this game we’re hoping to have a much better performance.”
Costa Rica has won its last three World Cup Qualifiers against the USMNT and following a 2-1 comeback win over El Salvador, the Ticos will be brimming with confidence. Luis Fernando Suarez will not have the option to use Joel Campbell or Jose Ortiz following their exit from camp due to separate reasons, but Costa Rica still boasts some top-level veterans to leads Wednesday’s attempt at another win in the United States.
Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges both scored against El Salvador while Kendall Waston and Francisco Calvo are two experienced veterans in the backline. Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas continues to be one of the best at his position in Concacaf, making several important saves through the opening five matches to date.
“The strength of the Costa Rican team is their experience,” said Berhalter. “They have their players that have been through this before, they know exactly what it’s about. And that’s an advantage for them. [Keylor] Navas, I think is one of the best goalies in the region. They’ve got an experienced backline, with Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges they have experienced midfielders.
“To me, it’s a team that knows exactly how to get this job done,” Berhalter said. “There’s no surprise that they found their way back into this thing, because it’s a resilient team and a difficult team to beat.”
A Costa Rica win would move the Ticos ahead of the USMNT in the Octagonal standings, and drop the Americans out of the top three, while a USMNT victory would give the Americans at least a four-point cushion in the top three.