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Tactical Preview

How the U.S. Can, and Should, Attack Costa Rica

American Soccer Now's resident tactician walks us through what he expects to see when the United States takes on Costa Rica Friday night in a crucial World Cup qualifier.

BY Liviu Bird Posted
September 05, 2013
2:54 PM
WITH THE BEAST OF ESTADIO AZTECA slain in Jurgen Klinsmann’s time as United States head coach, he and his team have another CONCACAF behemoth in their sights this week. The U.S. has never won in Costa Rica in any competition, taking just one point total in World Cup qualifying.

That point came outside of the capital city of San Jose, in Alajuela, in 1985. If the string of eight matches without a victory is going to fall, Klinsmann will have to make some tough decisions correctly with regard to player selection.

Forward Jozy Altidore may be out with a hamstring injury, or at least not 100 percent, and the right-back conundrum persists and would persist even if Brad Evans were healthy—not to mention Costa Rica’s unique tactics among the CONCACAF elite, which have only failed against Mexico (twice) and the U.S. in 2014 qualifiers.

Selection Questions

Assuming Klinsmann sticks to his favored 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 hybrid formation, Friday could be the perfect opportunity to get Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the field at the same time. That would likely change the dynamic of the forward pairing into a more side-by-side relationship rather than one under the other, as neither of them plays the target role.

If a target is what Klinsmann wants, then Eddie Johnson becomes the only selection. He is the only player among the five forwards called into camp who plays a target role for his club besides Altidore, as Aron Johannsson prefers to drop in to find the ball and run at players.

Meanwhile, Michael Parkhurst played every minute of the Gold Cup at right back and did an adequate job. But seeing as how it took an injury to Evans for him to even be called into camp, Geoff Cameron is a more likely candidate for that role.

Cameron has the high-level experience to carry him through a difficult match in Costa Rica, although neither he nor Parkhurst provides the attacking option on the flank that the U.S. will need to find success in San Jose.

For attacking flair on the right flank, look no further than Michael Orozco, who starts at right back for Puebla in Liga MX. His technical ability and soccer IQ would be the best option to exploit isolation opportunities as he bombs down the flank.

Tico Wing-Back Strategy

In both matches in 2013 against the United States, in the March 22 qualifier in the Denver snow and the July 16 Gold Cup game in Hartford, Conn., Costa Rica employed three stay-at-home central defenders and a wing back on each flank. Depending on the situation, it looked either like a 5-4-1 or a 3-4-3.

In its last home qualifier, against Jamaica, the Ticos ran out a 4-4-2, but the 3-4-3 seems to be their preferred plan against opponents closer to their level.

The wing backs in Costa Rica’s system cover the most ground out of any players on the field. They attack with gusto, but they are also quick to recover and support the center backs defensively. In March, Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa played there, while Junior Diaz and Carlos Johnson took over in July.

Beating Three Backs

The nature of the wing back position, with its fitness requirements and importance in providing width for the attack, makes that area the most important for the U.S. to win on Friday.

In defense, the U.S. outside backs must be willing to step up as the wing backs make their runs from deep positions, confronting them higher up the field. That means the central midfielders and center backs will have to share responsibility for the three forwards. The Americans should still outnumber the Ticos four to three in the middle.

In attack, the wide midfielders will have to pull to the touchline and look to pin the wing backs into their own defensive third of the field and exploit one-on-one and two-on-one isolations, assisted by the overlapping outside backs and forwards pulling wide.

The U.S. has done better on the left side than the right in its two meetings with Costa Rica in 2013, primarily due to DaMarcus Beasley’s comfort in getting forward, since he is a converted midfielder playing left back.

The U.S. completed 46 of 62 passes on the left flank in March and 31 of 40 in July against the Ticos, which were good for 74.2 and 77.5 percent completion rates, respectively. On the right side, that number dropped to 55.6 percent (25/45) and 74.3 percent (55/74), respectively.

The spike in July came when Alejandro Bedoya and Michael Parkhurst tore up Costa Rica’s right side. Here, you can see Bedoya in a perfect situation to isolate two-on-one, or at least two-on-two, with the defenders, but Chris Wondolowski doesn’t pull wide enough to provide a second attacker.

The near center back steps to cover the first defender and leaves a large gap for Wondolowski to find the ball if he were in position. Instead, Bedoya has to play a hopeful ball into box because he has no support, and it is cut out easily.

Donovan could play on the flank to balance out the wide attacking options again, but more than likely, the U.S. will concentrate its wide efforts on Beasley and Fabian Johnson’s left side.

The Time is Now

With the Americans’ dominance of Costa Rica in the last calendar year, this is the best opportunity the U.S. will get to win in San Jose and slay another demon under Klinsmann. Just like its friendly win and qualifying tie in Mexico City, it will require a pragmatic tactical approach.

After 70 minutes in the snow, coach Jorge Luis Pinto changed his team to a 4-4-2. If the U.S. can cause a tactical switch by pushing Costa Rica out of its comfort zone, it should open up even more space for Donovan and Dempsey to exploit.

If the U.S. bunkers in defense, Costa Rica will attack with seven players and make the game difficult. If the Americans take the initiative, they can pin at least eight behind the ball at all times and make Costa Rica’s attack difficult.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com.

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