Fans could probably use a nice, long break from the United States men's national team given the performances seen in the past few months, but like it or not they're back on the field tonight to play Costa Rica. The Ticos are also suffering a post-World Cup malaise, crashing out of the Gold Cup in the quarterfinals having not won a single game out of four played.
Still, we're talking about a side that made it to the World Cup quarterfinals, and a nation that still bears a hell of a grudge over the Snow Game from the last qualifying cycle. The USMNT could use a slump-buster ahead of the start of qualifying for Russia 2018, but instead they'll have a very tough game against a team that never, ever gives the Americans an easy time.
Key player: Geoff Cameron
After months of either not being called in or being used at right back despite finally winning the center back job that Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted for the Stoke City man, Cameron got the nod in central defense and delivered a strong performance. Sure, it's not ideal to have your center back doing so much defending, but Cameron was up to the job for a team that appears stuck playing reactive, back-foot soccer.
Tonight is a chance for him to make sure Klinsmann keeps starting him at center back without reservations. That's a good thing for a team that has made some pretty strange choices in central defense in recent months. Klinsmann has made it clear throughout his tenure that right-center back and left-center back are two distinct positions with two distinct depth charts, and Cameron playing at RCB means less of a chance of Club America back-up Ventura Alvarado getting starts he's just not ready for. This team needs results to rebuild some confidence, and it's hard to win games without strong play from your center backs. Cameron locking a spot down would be a big help.
Key question: Is this going to get worse before it gets better?
A lot of what Klinsmann says about what he wants the USMNT to do on the field is good. Proactive play? A higher line? More possession? Aesthetically pleasing play paired with results? Sure, it's pure populism in a soccer world where playing defensively is seen as a sin, but whatever. The ideas Klinsmann talks about paint a picture of a national team I think we'd all be proud of. Who wouldn't want to see the things American soccer has done well over the years - determination, athleticism, togetherness, set piece prowess, enthusiasm - married to the sort of ball-on-the-ground, "soccer is a game you play with your brain" version of the sport that draws oohs and aahs from the stands?
Here's the problem: Klinsmann is clearly having a torrid time turning his lofty rhetoric into reality. That's always been the hard part for any coach of any team. The US under Klinsmann consistently appears confused about what they're supposed to be doing as a group. Trying to play short is fairly common, but the team tends to collapse into a very deep defensive shell even against bad opposition. Who can forget only a few months ago, where Haiti - a collection of second and third division players - was on the front foot for most of their game against the USMNT?
Even when Klinsmann makes a smart tactical adjustment, it's not actually particularly good news. Flattening out the midfield against Mexico Saturday helped against El Tri's pressure, but it was a move based on survival rather than changing the balance of the game. The USMNT didn't change the way the game was being played at all; instead, they just got better at hanging on for dear life as a result of Michael Bradley's shift into a deeper spot.
Tactically the team is a mess, and now we have the news of Klinsmann trotting a made-up story about how Fabian Johnson's admission that he simply had nothing left to give - something that was obvious for about 30-40 minutes before Johnson communicated with the bench - ruined his plan to bring in Nick Rimando for the penalty kick shootout. Keep in mind that Chris Wondolowski was up off the bench to be the team's third sub, a fact that renders Klinsmann's gutless trashing of one of his best players based on a flat-out lie. Morale within the USMNT ranks would be low after losing to Mexico and crashing out of the Gold Cup this summer, and on top of that the coach has now decided that his players don't even deserve his protection or respect.
Here's what I'm getting at: It's hard to see this team improving tonight beyond the relief that this is a no-pressure friendly. Klinsmann has had pretty strong results in that context, so we might see a looser, more calm side play better soccer because they're not carrying the world on their shoulders. That is the only way I see the team improving though, because on various fronts the man whose job it is to right the ship has shown fans no reason to believe that he is about to get this group back on track. The only evidence of a change with this team points towards even more regression, if we're being honest.
Match previews: If you need a break from USMNT misery, US Soccer's site has plenty of articles about today's game that are not filled with frustration and anger.
Is Bill Hamid going to play?: *aggravated sigh*
Just confirmed Tim Howard is starting tonight in USA-Costa Rica.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 13, 2015
Match date/time: Tuesday 10/13, 6:30pm Eastern
Venue: Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ)
TV: ESPN (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Watch ESPN (English), Univision Deportes En Vivo (Spanish)
Treat this as tonight's gamethread.
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