The United States defense was not up to the task on Friday night, as an otherwise solid display was wasted by two serious defensive mistakes that Costa Rica forward Marco Ureña punished with clinical precision as the Ticos ran off to a 2-0 win that leaves the USMNT’s chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in serious jeopardy.
The first half was a frustrating display for the USMNT, who spent most of the half in firm control of attacking play, but a long series of aggressive plays from Costa Rica that went unpunished by the referee kept the United States at bay. Meanwhile, Costa Rica were able to consistently put their own pressure on the U.S. back line through quickfire counters, using Bryan Ruiz’s quality on the ball and Marco Ureña’s movement off the ball to give Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron fits.
That pressure came good for Costa Rica when Ureña was able to catch Ream and Cameron out of position, getting onto a through ball with ease and scoring easily from a tight angle after turning Ream inside out. It was an unfortunate sight to see in a half that saw the USMNT be the clearly better side, but it perhaps wasn’t surprising after how close Costa Rica had come to getting that exact chance several times earlier in the half.
The second half was a lot more of the same, only this time with U.S. fans frustrated that Bruce Arena wasn’t making changes to his team to combat the tactical problems Costa Rica were creating for the USMNT. When Clint Dempsey finally came on in the 65th minute, there was another brief flurry of attacking quality, but Costa Rica doubled down on the physical grind after a pair of brilliant saves from Keylor Navas, and it wasn’t long before the U.S. looked out of ideas.
After the another of Navas’ jaw-dropping saves, this one in the 81st minute, the resulting Costa Rica attack moved jaw-droppingly quickly up the pitch — and once more Marco Ureña was easily free between Ream and Cameron, finishing with even greater ease than his first goal to put the Ticos up 2-0 late in the match in New Jersey.
It was a frustrating night in the end for the USMNT and their fans, seeing an otherwise good performance wasted by a poor defensive showing and a clinical performance by Ureña for Costa Rica. Now the U.S. are running out of time to get the points they need to qualify for the World Cup next summer in Russia, making their trip to Honduras next week an absolute must-win match.
United States: Tim Howard; Graham Zusi (Jordan Morris 84’), Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream, Jorge Villafaña (Clint Dempsey 65’); Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic (Paul Arriola 87’); Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore
Costa Rica: Keylor Navas; Bryan Oviedo (Johan Venegas 78’) Cristian Gamboa (Jose Salvatierra 71’), Kendall Waston, Johnny Johnny Acosta, Calvo; Celso Borges, Cristian Bolaños (Michael Umaña 71’), Bryan Ruiz; Marco Ureña
Goals: Ureña (30’, 82’)
Three things we learned
The USMNT needs some answers on defense
Even before Marco Ureña split Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron to score Costa Rica’s opener, it was clear that there were a lot of problems with the USMNT defense on Friday night. Ream and Cameron weren’t working well together in central defense, and Ureña was working them over time and again with his movement and pressure. If anything, it was a surprise it took so long for him to really make the USMNT defensive pairing pay for a steady stream of errors from both players.
In fact, Ureña’s goal was a microcosm of just how poor they had both been. Let’s start with this, from just before the sequence started.
Ream and Cameron were horribly out of position to cover any kind of through ball, and both were too slow recovering from that position when Bryan Ruiz got on the ball and sent it through to Ureña. From there it was almost child’s play for Ureña to turn Ream inside out, and while Tim Howard used to be a great goalkeeper, he’s not the hero he once was to be able to stop the resulting and virtually unchallenged shot. They made virtually the same mistake on Ureña’s second goal late in the game, only this time they somehow looked even worse doing it.
The fact is that neither Ream nor Cameron are good enough to be reliable, lockdown defenders in the middle for the USMNT. In a back three, their more mobile style makes sense, but as a duo they’re both too mistake-prone to be relied on in big matches, as we saw in this match. Ream has a limited ceiling, and while Cameron can be very good, he rarely has been the last couple of years. With John Brooks out injured it’s harder to get a solid defense assembled to be sure, but Bruce Arena needs to start considering different options in the meantime, because this is a pairing that’s just not an option going forward.
Marco Ureña was fantastic
It’s hard to completely blame Ream and Cameron, though, because they were put in a tough spot by Bruce Arena. He set up the USMNT in a high-risk shape aimed at pushing high and forcing mistakes from Costa Rica’s defense, at the cost of much in the way of midfield cover for his defense. With the Ticos’ flair for lightning-quick counters and transition play, that puts a lot of pressure on the back four to perform, demanding perfect play from the center backs especially.
And as we saw, Ureña was the man to punish every imperfection Ream and Cameron had — and they had a lot of them. Ureña plies his trade at club level with the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS, and he’s been a solid but mostly unspectacular forward there, but on Friday night he turned it up in a big way to put in the perfect kind of performance that he needed to help Costa Rica get three points. The way he moved off the ball and was constantly a nuisance that Ream and Cameron had no answers for. He was clinical in his precision all night long, both with his finishing and with how he attacked the U.S. back line, and after this he’s undoubtedly going to play a bigger role for both club and country going forward.
The Honduras game is now a must-win
The USMNT have just eight points after seven matches in CONCACAF qualifying for the World Cup. With three games to go, they have a one-point lead on Panama and a three-point lead on Honduras. With Honduras probably to beat Trinidad and Tobago later on Friday night, that means they’ll be dead even with the USMNT and little time left to break the deadlock — and they play each other on Tuesday in Honduras.
The situation is simple: the U.S. have to win in Honduras. Full stop. Anything else is courting disaster by not qualifying for the World Cup. There’s no more room for error. There’s no more excuses. It’s win, or else things go from bad to awful in the blink of an eye.