Opposition styles are fairly predictable when small nations come visiting the United States for World Cup qualifiers.
Unless we’re talking about Mexico, the smaller nations of Central America and the Caribbean typically fill the field with clogging elements. They attack cautiously, content to sit back absorb more than their fair share.
It the smart way to approach things. They nominally “concede” things on the road against Mexico and the United States, then look to find their points at home or on the road against other light and middleweights. When they visit the big bullies of the block, it’s more about hoping to pick off a draw or maybe even trace the occasional serendipitous path to win. (The United States has not lost a home qualifier since 2001, so it doesn’t happen often.)
But will things look differently Friday at DSG Park outside Denver?
Considering the U.S. injuries and a back line that is likely to be some highly inexperienced patchwork job, will the Costa Ricans take things to the United States.
The Ticos certainly have enough talent to expose a vulnerable back line. Columbus striker Jairo Arrieta has been in MLS less than a full season, but his strike rate in that time (10 goals in 21 games) has been impressive. At roughly a goal every two matches (historically a worthy target for strikers) it’s about the same as U.S. man Eddie Johnson, who has 15 goals in 30 games over the last two MLS seasons.
Then there’s Alvaro Saborio, among Major League Soccer’s top scorers over the last four years. (More on that later at ProSoccerTalk.) With all that, the Ticos’ top attacker is Fulham man Bryan Ruiz (pictured here with Costa Rica). So the Costa Rican front line cupboard is full.
This affects how the United States prepares. Because that back line will need plenty of protection, especially if Costa Rica gets aggressive and looks to exploit a vulnerable host. Does the United States go without a true holding midfielder? (With Danny Williams out due to stomach flu, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman are the options.)
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones could play as two-way men in the center (without a midfield screener, that is, rotating as the holding man). But one moment of inattention could undo the whole qualifying effort, and even Jurgen Klinsmann has conceded that “who goes, who stays” communication between Bradley and Jones has not always been tippy-top when they man the middle together.
And what about Eddie Johnson along the left, where he’s been for the last couple of U.S. qualifiers? Whoever ends up at left back will presumably require more protection than Johnson, a natural striker, can offer.
Best guess is that Klinsmann will use Edu in a holding role, then station Jones and Bradley right and left, tucked inside in a diamond midfield, with Brek Shea or Johnson slightly higher up the field.