Cool & Precise | a USA Match Preview

The next two matches are a critical patch in the qualification campaign. Who am I kidding? They're all critical in some fashion, aren't they? True. But these two matches, away to Costa Rica and home to Honduras, come against our stiffest competition (outside of Mexico, assuming they pull out of their current tailspin) for the top four spots. And finishing fourth means a play-in against the #5 side in CONMEBOL, no easy chore. Also, after these matches, we'll be half way through the Hex.

Is it realistic to expect six points from these matches, leaving the US at least four points clear at the top and six points clear of the play-in? Nope. But four might be somewhere within the realm of the possible and would give us a bit of a cushion for the push through the second half of the Hex. So let's take a look at the first match, tonight (10 PM, ET) in Costa Rica...

Thinking Things Through

How about a few key points to consider?
  • Cool under fire. The atmosphere will be intense. It will be key to avoid mental mistakes on the defensive end and in our tackling, particularly given how many of our players are in yellow card jeopardy. To that end, I don't think you'll see Bob throwing too many young guys in the lineup.
  • Watch their midfield. They've got some trickery and long-range bombers in the attacking midfield. In some respects, this plays right into Bob's hands tactically, as he's been playing a two holding-mid set that should be ideally suited to combat this type of attack, as we saw against Mexico. The problems occur when we get stretched and pulled out of position, particularly with the bouncy-bouncy ball on that basketball court of a playing surface at Saprissa.
  • Possess the ball. Easier said than done, but there's nothing, shy of an early goal for the US, that would turn the volume down on the crowd better than holding onto the ball. Of course, having said that, the aforementioned nasty turf isn't conducive to slick, one-touch, pretty play. The key will be not to rush clearances and to try and play simple when the occasion presents itself, rather than dumping useless balls over the top, which will inevitably bounce out of play or to their keeper, and trying to thread needles that don't exist.

X's and O's

Sure, it's not ideal, but it does tick some of the boxes identified above, namely (1) maintaining possession and frustrating the opposition (and their fans) and (2) going with an experienced roster that has either faced qualifiers in Central America or plays in a demanding league. A couple of words of explanation for this 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-4-2, whatever-it-is...
  • I don't think anybody would bet against the central defense and keeper selections, so we'll leave those as given and understood.
  • I like Wynne's recovery speed and athleticism at right back, but that athleticism often gets him into trouble with ugly tackles that might be card-bait in this match. Spector is a more seasoned defender who is less likely to get into such trouble. Also, Spector has faced this sort of crowd before. Wynne? Not so much.
  • Left back is a great big pile of suck. If we had a reliable third option in central defense, I'd be tempted to push Boca there. If Hejduk or Cherundolo were healthy, we could push Spector to the left. If, if, if. Pearce might have recent qualification history on his side, but his last trip to Central America didn't go well. Bornstein might be the best option, but I'm not sure he's seasoned enough for a game like this. Beasley isn't exactly match sharp, and I wasn't terribly impressed by his turn at left back last time out, but he is vastly experienced and brings excellent recovery speed to the table. And, despite my doubts, Bob's been mouthing only good words about his play at left back against T&T. But the primary reason for selecting him is my midfield alignment...
  • Bradley Jr. is pretty much a given, and with Edu out, Clark just flying in, Feilhaber in recovery mode, and Kljestan stinking up MLS, I think the experienced head of Mastroeni gets the call to pair with him in the holding roles. Likewise, Mastro can drop back to cover any runs Beasley may make from left back because I'd want Beasley overlapping Torres, who is playing pinched in on the left and more like a playmaker than winger (granted, we might see Kljestan in this role, but I want to see more out of Torres). Donovan has room to roam between Ching and the midfield, pulling onto the left wing for balls from Torres or to play ticky-tack stuff with Beasley. Dempsey also has freedom to roam the right flank and attacking central midfield in support of Ching and to get on the end of crosses from the Donovan/Beasley/Torres triumvirate.
  • Altidore's youth, playing with a bum toe on turf, and yellow card danger argue against his inclusion from the start, so Ching gets the call to hold up play and work the ball to Donovan on the left and Dempsey on the right, though I wouldn't bet against seeing Jozy as a sub if we're down.

Closing Thoughts

Is this a must-win game? No. But if we lose, the Hex is going to get really tight, particularly given that our next match after Honduras is a trip to Azteca. While I might wish for a victory, and the safety that it brings, I think a scoring draw is a more realistic ambition. I expect us to use the El Salvador wake-up call as precisely that. No early let-downs. Stay focused, remain compact defensively, use the ball wisely, and let their aggression play against them. There will be chances. The key will taking them cooly and with precision.


  1. I like the lineup. I'm not sure we will see it tonight though. Maybe against Honduras in Chicago.

    My bet is that Bob will be a tad more conservative and elect to put Bornstein in at left back and slide Beasley up to the left mid position. Torres and Altidore will be the options off the bench (or he might start Torres at left mid and use Beasley off the bench) given the fitness issues.

    I agree with your analysis of the defenders. Our second team of central defenders (Califf and DeMerit)has not really grown in the last few years and it would behoove us to improve our depth there (oh but what might have been had Subotic chosen the Stars and Stripes!). I'm hoping we will get a better look at Whitbread and Simek during the Gold Cup and it will beinteresting to see how Lichaj fared in this USMNT camp. I'm not sure about Lichaj, but I think Simek and Whitbread also offer us options at the left back slot. Otherwise, the Beasley experiment is the way to go (even though Beasley himself is reluctant to play there).

    The midfield is reassuring. Mastroeni is a good pick to play against Costa Rica. He's been in that situation before, will give Hernandez a rough time, and hopefully shut down the space at the top of the box. Clark is also good in this situation but doesn't have the experience of playing n Costa Rica as far as I can remember. We don't really need Klejstan in that defensive role (Edu would have been good though).

    Cing and Donovan can do the job up top and Jozy can add something off the bench if we need to reinforce the attack (or counter-attack as will more than likely be the case).

  2. I wasn't with you right away on Torres, but after some thought, I think you're probably right. And we could very well see this lineup tonight. I think there's little doubt that BB wants Jr. and Pablo in the double-holding spots he favor. I do think Beaz is a solid bet at fullback, plus he gives us some speed on the counter. I was initially thinking Jozy gets the start, but given the atmosphere, holding the ball and making the most of opportunities is the most important thing at the start, and augmenting the midfield with Torres helps with that goal. He also provides some vision to the left side of the field, and he should have composure beyond his years, given his PT south of the border. Whatever the scoreline, I wouldn't be surprised to see Altidore on the pitch late in the game - he holds the ball well, and is really difficult to knock off if we're up. Plus, the kid's a clinical finisher when he wants to be.

    As for Honduras, I think we put a little bit more firepower up top, and that's when we see Altidore getting the start alongside Ching (who just might be the lubricant that keeps the rest of the machine from locking up).

  3. Yeah, I'm pretty certain Bob will go with Bornstein at LB and push Beasley onto the left wing as well. Yawn ;-)

    My reasoning with trying Torres as a pinched left mid is that he brings a patience on the ball (and the ability to use it) that would be particularly useful in this game. With Donovan pulling wide, Beasley overlapping, Ching playing back-to-goal, and Jr. + Duece making forward runs, Torres' ability to hold the ball and then make the pass would make us all wonder why we endure Kljestan's wastefulness. Plus, the kid can spank them accurately from distance, which could provide useful variety in attack.

    Just my tactical 2¢ (and that's about all it's worth!)

    Honduras is its own beast to deal with, particularly given that we may be facing suspensions and injuries after this match, but rest assured that I'll be all over it on Friday/Saturday.