The game in 100 words (or less): Here’s the only foolproof advice for any MLS team desperate for points in their pursuit of a playoff spot — don’t play Atlanta United, just don’t do it. Tata Martino’s side, now in the middle of a lengthy home-stand at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has one four of their last five games (all at home) and climbed into third place in the Eastern Conference, finally surpassing the Chicago Fire, in the process. What’s more, Atlanta (49 points) also have a game in hand (or two) on every team above them in the standings. Hector Villalba and Jeff Laretnowicz bagged the goals during Sunday’s 2-0 victory over the Montreal Impact, though this weekend’s greatest impact on Atlanta’s season is perhaps yet to be felt after Miguel Almiron left the game with an injury early in the first half.
17′ — Almiron leaves the field in tears, injured — Almiron left the game with an apparent leg injury. The 23-year-old Paraguayan, who has 9 goals and 13 assists this season, appeared to be in tears as he left the field.
28′ — Villalba unleashes a thunderbolt for 1-0 — If not for the back of the net, Villalba’s laser beam would still be traveling at a slightly upward trajectory two or three hours from now.
U.S. manager Bruce Arena has maintained that he wants to use players who’ve been a part of the team in qualifying and the Gold Cup, and he’s the sort of defiant character who is likely to stick with that philosophy.
But his center backs, aside from Matt Besler, really let him down in the Yanks’ one-point international break, and Morris’ injury opens the door to someone to join Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Bobby Wood in the strike corps (Chris Wondolowski was also called up earlier this month).
Let’s humor ourselves in spite of Arena’s stated plans, and take a look at Americans in form or back to health, here and abroad:
Right-sided man DeAndre Yedlin is back from his hamstring injury and made the 18 for Newcastle last week.
Matt Miazga has returned to Vitesse’s Starting XI, and led the back line to its first clean sheet of the season on Saturday.
Timmy Chandler has played every minute for Eintracht Frankfurt at right midfield/wingback during the club’s 1-1-1 start to the Bundesliga season, and scored in Cup play.
The leading American scorers in MLS this season? It’s a tie between obviously call-up Altidore and inconsistent but powerful CJ Sapong with 13 a piece. Next is Wondolowski, Dempsey, and Christian Ramirez with 11 each.
Not angling for a call-up with this one, but while we’re here spare some positive thoughts for Julian Green. The 22-year-old World Cup goal scorer finally got a start for 2.Bundesliga side Greuther Furth, who broke a four-match losing streak with a 1-1 draw. Green went 90 minutes at left mid.
So what’s an early guess at the 23 men Arena will call up next month? Again, this isn’t our 23, just an “Arena’s mind” prediction.
Unless Arena has a sudden change of heart and opts for Club Brugge’s Ethan Horvath and DC United’s Bill Hamid (or LA Galaxy man Brian Rowe because, well, LA Galaxy), it’ll be the same trio: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando.
Nothing’s certain after Geoff Cameron, though educated guesses say Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, and Jorge Villafana are coming, too. Eric Lichaj didn’t get into either qualifier, but could still be in the mix. Was Arena turned off by Tim Ream or DaMarcus Beasley? More importantly, does he see anyone else who’s a clear improvement (Again, does he see them)? Completing our eight will be Chandler and Yedlin.
Arena called up eight earlier this month, and it seems likely he won’t change much from Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Dax McCarty, Darlington Nagbe, and Christian Pulisic. Wild card looks to Danny Williams (if he can get some Huddersfield PT), Lee Nguyen, Cristian Roldan, or Kelyn Rowe.
Let’s face it: It wouldn’t be completely out of left field for Arena to ditch Johnson for one bad performance, and Rowe could get a chance to build on his Gold Cup. But if there’s a change, it’ll be Jermaine Jones for one last hurrah. That would likely come at the expense of McCarty.
Jozy Altidore is due for a big, big performance having taken a terrible yellow card to miss the Honduras draw. Bobby Wood will be there, too, and maybe we’ll see them together. Clint Dempsey makes it three, which leaves a spot for… Wondolowski like last time? Old pal Gyasi Zardes? Sapong?
Honduras enters the match on eight points, the same as the visitors, but the U.S. holds an eight-goal advantage in differential thanks to a 6-0 beatdown in San Jose earlier this year.
A win boosts the Yanks three clear of Honduras and four ahead of Panama. A draw opens the door for Los Canaleros to leap over both the U.S. and Honduras.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler will pair up at center back, with DaMarcus Beasley and Friday starter Graham Zusi at fullback.
Only Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, and Zusi remain in the Starting XI from Friday’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, as Brad Guzan, Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, and Kellyn Acosta complete the XI.
A win over Costa Rica in Friday’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier moves the United States men’s national team into second place on the Hex table, a far cry from the basement positioning when Jurgen Klinsmann still led the side.
The USMNT has found its footing since Klinsmann was fired, with Bruce Arena overseeing home wins against Honduras and Panama and road draws with Mexico and Panama.
Now the Yanks have a chance to avenge one of the most egregious USMNT losses in recent memory, the 4-0 smashing at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica last November.
How can they do that?
Mind the left
Take away Costa Rica’s 4-0 thrashing of the USMNT and Los Ticos are averaging a goal scored per game in qualifying and just a plus-1 goal differential. The lone loss came at Mexico, when El Tri jumped out to an 8th minute lead and carried a 2-0 advantage to the break.
Mexico used a 4-3-3 to take the match to visiting CRC, which used a 5-2-2-1. That’s a bit less packed in than the 5-4-1 that buried the Yanks in November, but gives you an idea of what to expect.
The stats say Costa Rica attacked the United States’ left side through Randall Azofeifa more often than not, going after Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, and Matt Besler. It’s the same tactic Los Ticos tried against Mexico, and were shutout.
Why? Suffice it to say Hector Moreno, Miguel Layun, and Hector Herrera are a trickier trio to handle than a teenager — even a sublime one — playing his first Hex road match, a left midfielder, and a decent MLS center back who had been in-and-out of the USMNT side since the 2014 World Cup.
What’s this mean for Friday? Likely a lot of pressure for DaMarcus Beasley or Jorge Villafana, with Johnson sitting at left mid and either Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, or Besler up for a very stiff and focused test.
Suck up the space, don’t sleep on the counter
One thing that’s seemingly found the U.S. at sixes and sevens more and more often than not is counter attacking play. Kevin Parsemain blew by Matt Hedges in the buildup to one of Martinique’s Gold Cup goals, and Kellyn Acosta and Co. had a nightmare versus Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela in the Mexico equalizer at Azteca.
A lot of this should be settled by center back Geoff Cameron and defensive mid Bradley, but keep an eye on who Arena pairs with each player. And keep an eye on how much room the Yanks, especially presumed right back Graham Zusi, give Bryan Ruiz and the other Costa Ricans to attempt shots from distance. We don’t expect the Americans to give up goals with the run of play, even given Marco Urena’s instinctive runs and blazing speed, unless they allow the cannons to fire…
Work on set piece defending, Mr. Arena
Even amongst those who didn’t want to see Bruce Arena take over as USMNT coach, there was little doubt the LA Galaxy man would stop the Yanks from their sad habit of hapless set piece defending.
He hasn’t… yet.
Je-Vaughn Watson for Jamaica in the Gold Cup Final (corner kick) wasn’t against the Yanks’ top unit and Asamoah Gyan’s free kick in a June friendly was borderline unstoppable and against second-choice backstop Brad Guzan.
That’s eight total goals conceded against Arena’s USMNT, four off set pieces, and that’s not counting several errors that didn’t come back to haunt the Yanks. Sort it out, Bruce.
Don’t overthink it
The United States should win the game. It’s a fact backed by essentially every visit from Costa Rica in a meaningful match for this generation of national team players.
2017 Gold Cup — USMNT 2-0
2016 Copa America — USMNT 4-0
2013 Gold Cup — USMNT 1-0
2014 World Cup qualifying — USMNT 1-0
2010 World Cup qualifying — 2-2 draw
That’s not to say Costa Rica isn’t a good team, and Los Ticos won Group D over Uruguay, Italy, and England to become one of the darlings of the 2014 World Cup.
But if Arena, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley prepare the side for this match the way they likely should, one game at a time against an inferior visitor, it’s a straightforward win and a foothold in Russia.
With three matches to go, the Yanks would have 11 points. Trips to Honduras (next week) and Trinidad and Tobago remain, as well as an October visit from Panama. With Mexico hosting Panama on Friday and Honduras off to T&T, the table would look like this with three to play should the U.S. handle Costa Rica: