Finally, a real soccer performance. The US dominated an entertaining game from start to finish. Jordan Morris should’ve opened the scoring inside the first minute but found the post. Costa Rica carved out a few chances but Howard came up big when needed with at least 2 big saves to keep the clean sheet. Despite the US’s control of the attack not kicking into high gear until the local kid, Captain America himself, Clint Dempsey was introduced in the second half. Dempsey absolutely dominated the game from the moment he entered. Displayed his silky-smooth touch that makes the Downy Teddy bear seem rough. Picking up a pass from Nagbe, he spun a Costa Rican midfielder like a top and slipped in Altidore with an inch perfect pass. Altidore calmly dispatched the ball into the back of the net for his first USMNT goal since last year. Ten minutes later, he was given a free kick opportunity very similar to the one he dispatched against Honduras in San Jose earlier this year during WCQ. Instead of going up and over the wall, this time he bent it near post and tied Landon Donovan for all-time leading USMNT goal scorer. The strike was so sweet, Duce was already sprinting away in celebration as soon as he hit it. It was fantastic to see him tie the record not far from where he grew up, in front of a clearly partisan hometown crowd. Similar to the quarterfinal match, two nil ended up being all the US would need as they booked a trip to Santa Clara and the Gold Cup final.
Starting 11, part 1 – Once again massive changes. A completely new back 4 yet again. Shifted the midfield around and changed up the forward pair. For the first time this tournament it actually worked. Hopefully this provides him a bit more of a base that he will build on for the final.
Starting 11, part 2 – Yes, I’m kind of cheating on this one (using the same description). No I don’t care. I continue to hate the flat 4-4-2 but I knew it would be rolled out with Arena in charge so I thought I was generally prepared. However, based on the players he put on the pitch he made the wrong choice. A 4-4-2 simply doesn’t make sense. With Morris’ quality and familiarity with playing out wide, and Nagbe’s influential play in the middle, coupled with Bradley and Acosta both comfortable sitting deep, the starting 11 was tailor made for a 4-2-3-1. People can point to the result and performance in defense and tell me to go climb a tree. But just because something worked doesn’t mean there wasn’t a better alternative. I know Altidore likes to bitch when he is played as a lone striker but he can go jump off a bridge. Use your strength, do your job, and deal with it. Altidore does not have the talent to which an entire team should be bent simply to serve him. Thankfully it appears with Pulisic in the fold, Arena seems willing to play a 4-2-3-1 which will be good moving forward. Formation flexibility is a positive so I do appreciate the number of formations Arena has tried in his second tenure here. But he needs to settle on a primary with maybe a second or third that are regularly drilled to bring some stability to these performances.
Real football – This is kind of a cop out, as it’s not a direct comment on USMNT, but after the El Salvador street fight it was quite nice to see an actual game of football. Usually, Costa Rica is one of the worst offenders against pure football, particularly when playing the US. Perhaps they watched the US quarterfinal and decided that everyone deserved a break from the serious dark arts. Players actually showed sportsmanship to each other. They played hard, physical, but not overly so; and especially nothing dirty. Joel Aguilar deserves a lot of credit for maintaining a great atmosphere. He may have called it a little tight but it worked out. He stayed fairly consistent and never let anything get out of hand. On a similar tangent, it was fantastic to hear Donovan and Holden providing stories and insight from games they played in where Aguilar officiated. It is rare to hear players talk directly about an official they had and it provided a brilliant broadcast moment. Donovan has already become my favorite ever American broadcaster, and he and Holden seem to be developing a great rapport. John Strong is unfortunately not a good soccer broadcaster and brings the trio down. If Fox would get their shit together and put JP back in the booth with Donovan and Holden the 2018 World Cup broadcasts could be some of the best of all time.
Player Ratings: (1-10 Scale)
Howard: 7 – Once again a very solid performance. Kept us in the match with 2 huge saves, bailing out Gonzalez on both occasions. Not much to do otherwise.
Villafana: 5 – Not tested much defensively. Didn’t bring much offensively in terms of final product but was involved.
Besler: 6 – Decent night for the SKC man. Clearly in a different universe than Hedges. But wasn’t overly great. Generally managed things well and clearly has a good partnership with Gonzalez as they worked in tandem for the most part. Did have an absolutely horrid back pass to Howard go out for a corner as he played it into a different zip code than the one Howard was in.
Gonzalez: 4 – Somewhat of a rough night. He’s been our best and most consistent defender throughout the tournament so this was not super concerning. Was beat straight up for pace on both of Costa Rica’s best opportunities. Also made the horrible decision to step up on a clearance from Costa Rica off a US corner and totally misjudged the bounce. The Costa Rican striker turned him like a rag doll and all Gonzalez could do was bring him down and take his yellow. Hopefully this was just a bad night and he’ll shake it off for the final.
Zusi: 5 – Couldn’t hit a cross to save his life, but at least he was getting forward into position to hit the crosses. Nothing spectacular defensively as usual but didn’t really get turned seriously.
Nagbe: 6 – I wasn’t as happy with his night as Ian was. Thought he was far too slow with his decision making. Simply wasn’t all that influential moved out wide. Not particularly connected with Villafana but I guess they combined well enough. Did find Dempsey in the lead up to the Altidore goal but I’m not sure how much he actually knew about it and how much of it was just emergency passing as he was getting pushed off the ball.
Acosta: 5 – Once again did not assert himself to the same extent as many expected. He’s young so he’s got plenty of opportunities ahead of him with the USMNT, but he is burning through his opportunities to secure a significant role in Russia. He did win the free kick that Dempsey dispatched, so I bumped his grade up. Outside of that it was a disappointing night as he really had no other impact.
Bradley: 5 – Ian seems to be getting mesmerized by the light reflecting off the Toronto man’s dome. In his defense everyone always seems to be drinking the Bradley Kool-aid. I remain immune. He didn’t commit anything atrocious on the night, which is literally some of the highest praise I can ever give him. But as usual was slow, plodding, and negative with his passing. Didn’t help the pace. Was a major reason we didn’t have any serious attacking sparks prior to Dempsey’s entrance.
Arriola: 6 – Had one of his better performances of the tournament. Continues to struggle with the final pass or cross. I continue to hope that this is just pre-season rust that he’ll shake off. He could be, at the very least, a useful sub option in WCQ and possibly Russia next year.
Morris: 5 – Crashed one off the post in the opening minute. Unfortunately that would be the high point of the night. Seems to be struggling to get some traction in games and outside of the 10 minute span against Martinique that included a brace he really has not had a good tournament.
Altidore: 6 – Again, I wasn’t as impressed as Ian. He did alright. But the only thing that got him over an average grade from me was the goal. It was a great run and finish and he’s clearly got a good partnership with Dempsey. However he just falls so far short of his potential that I’m becoming very discouraged about Altidore’s worth long term for the USMNT.
Dempsey: 9 – You literally can’t have much of a better performance off the bench. An assist, a goal, a goal-scoring record; and all of it not far from his hometown. It’s clear Dempsey is the most crucial piece of this team moving to Russia. Without him we are an average team without any real game-changing depth. With him, either starting or off the bench, we have a confident, inventive leader who’s a natural scoring and creative threat. It frees everyone else around him up to perform at their best.
Zardes: 5 – Helped lock things down at the end. The game was over and he didn’t need to bring anything special, which he didn’t.
McCarty: 5 – Similar to Zardes, just even less time.
Arena: 6 – Bringing Dempsey on was clutch. I still think he made a mistake with the formation but at least he put out a solid starting 11. He’s one win away from bringing home a trophy to really kick start his second tour of USMNT duty.
Great performance. Something similar will be needed in the final, particularly if we face El Tri.