Stunned and Shamed at Saprissa
I would like to say I predicted this, but while I believed the US would lose, potentially badly in Costa Rica, even I did not think it would be this ugly. I believed the US would have defensive problems, but I did not expect Costa Rica would be able to totally shut down the attack. After the final whistle, there can be no surprise that Costa Rica had not given up a goal in a home qualifier until Landon Donovan's garbage time penalty. Now, Bob Bradley has to figure out where to begin. He should start with a long look in the mirror. There is a saying that big losses are easier to deal with than small losses because they are an aberration. Bradley won't fall into that trap because another stumble on the weekend against a tough Honduras side and the red, white and blue will be black and blue and struggling to hold on to the third and final automatic World Cup berth at the turn. Sure, it is tough to play in Central America and Costa Rica in particular. If the Saprissa Stadium's artificial turf is so bad, then maybe Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn should pester Sepp Blatter to re-ban the fake stuff. Until that happens, deal with it. No excuses. Sure, the fans can get loud, but anybody who has played the game knows how to take the crowd out of the game. Control the ball. Don't let the home team touch it - and whatever you do do not panic defensively and give up an early goal. What happened last night? The US could not string three passes together for much of the match. The inexperienced outside backs played like inexperienced outside backs and a talented Tico side had their way with them in the first half. Even so, a bit more composure and the US could have found a way to cut the lead in half by the half and make a game out of it. Instead, the Yanks could not even put a shot on net until Freddy Adu's bouncer in the 87th minute. Adu was actually one of the bright spots - showing off his control and making quick decisions, which has been a problem of his in the past. Charlie Davies also looked very good off the bench, but that might be in comparison to an out-of-game-shape Josmer Altidore who struggled to fill in for an ailing Brian Ching. Would Ching have made a difference? Possibly, but I hate the idea of planting the token big man at the top of a 4-5-1 which has been the case more often than not when the Dynamo forward starts for the US. Against Costa Rica, Bradley opted for an attack-minded 4-3-1-2, or at least that is the way it looked on paper. Tim Howard was in goal, with Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra in the middle. With Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk out, the right back responsibilities fell to Toronto's Marvell Wynne. On the left, the continued experimentation of what to do with DaMarcus Beasley found the former winger converted into a wingback. Many fans might not have heard of Rodrigo Kenton, but he has to have earned a lot of respect for the way his team played smart, attacking football to take the US out of the game from the start. Kenton has coached most of the team from when they were youngsters as the under-20 and under-23 national team coach. Stepping in to the senior side when Hernan Medford left the role, he has the Ticos as heavy favorites to qualify for their third straight World Cup. Therefore, it can't be considered a surprise that all three goals came from attacking the outside backs, the weak link in the US chain. Beasley was pressured into an early turnover and was out of position to help defend the resulting goal. Later in the first half, Wynne got spun around on a nice give-and-go that led to goal number two. The third goal was just as smart. Late in the game with Beasley pushing high up the left wing, a Costa Rican counter caught a tired US defense flat-footed and allowed substitute right back Pablo Herrera to perform his best Diego Maradona impression and put the game on ice. Wynne did get better and actually made some nice runs as the game progressed but his passing still needs to improve dramatically. Beasley did accomplish one thing. He proved that if he is not good and healthy enough to play left wing than he should be left out. Michael Bradley and Pablo Mastroeni had some good and bad moments, but both got better as the game settled down. It had to be a tactical reason that Jose Francisco Torres was substituted at the half - because after getting off to a rocky start, (in fact, watching him during the national anthems it looked like he just got finished praying to the porcelain before he was pushed onto the field,) the Pachuca midfielder was probably the best US player in the first half. Up front, Landon Donovan was unused, Altidore was ineffective and Clint Dempsey did his best Macbeth - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is not all his fault because the formation and personnel doomed the US from the outset. If you are going to play aggressive attack-minded soccer as the starting lineup suggested, you cannot go out scared and tentative. I did like the lineup, but I did not like the attitude. The danger now is that Bradley - instead of changing the latter, will constrict the former into a more pedestrian, plodding style. What would I do? First, take the armband away from Carlos Bocanegra. It is not that he did anything particularly bad in San Jose. It is just that he didn't do anything - nothing a captain needs to do to shake things up and snap a struggling team to attention. He might be a great silent leader, but this was an occasion where the US needed a big stick. That will be even more necessary a year from now in South Africa, assuming the US qualifies. With Hejduk and Maurice Edu still out with injury - (four years ago who would have ever thought the US World Cup hopes would rest with Surfer Dude) - Bradley's hands are still tied. I think Wynne recovered well enough to earn another shot at right back, next to Gooch. On the left, if Jonathan Bornstein is not up to snuff, than put Jay DeMerit or Jonathan Spector on the inside and push Bocanegra out to the left back where he plays for Stade Rennais. Michael Bradley's yellow card rules him out for Honduras, so Mastroeni should step back in. I think the situation calls for a Barcelona like 4-3-3 with Adu and Torres playing the Xavi and Iniesta roles and providing the link to the attack. Up front, even though he is more of a striker, Davies did more in ten minutes on the right side than anybody did offensively all game. That should be worth something, with Donovan mirroring him on the opposite side and Ching - with a hopefully healthy hamstring by Saturday - plugged into the middle. If not, it is Chicago after all. Maybe Bradley could convince Brian McBride to make a comeback. This match against Honduras is vital for the US. A loss or a tie at Soldier Field could well be followed by three straight defeats in South Africa against Italy, Brazil and Egypt. With the heavy schedule, an alternate squad will likely contest July’s Gold Cup, and that would mean the US’s A-squad could carry a five-match winless streak heading into a near must-win road match against Mexico in August. If that happens, Torres will have a lot of company around the porcelain at Azteca.