After all the acrimony and hand-wringing, the United States bounced back from a 2-0 loss to Colombia in their Copa America Centenario opener by routing Costa Rica. The game was essentially decided as a contest when Oscar Duarte gave Bobby Wood carte blanche to face goal and fire past Patrick Pemberton in the 42nd minute, expanding the USMNT's lead to three, and Graham Zusi padded that lead with a late solo effort.
The US has been disappointing against CONCACAF foes for a while now, losing last year's Gold Cup semifinal to Jamaica and thoroughly deserving to lose to Guatemala in qualifying just a few weeks ago. Costa Rica is supposed to be CONCACAF's third-best team. What happened that allowed the US to crush what should have been a difficult foe, and what does it mean going forward?
Costa Rica played without a true defensive midfielder
Oscar Ramirez, both with Alajuelense and with Costa Rica, has emphasized a high-octane, frenetic style of play. It can be fun to watch, and when it works correctly it can be overwhelming (as any D.C. United fan knows from last year's CCL quarterfinal). However, when your style is designed to provoke an up-and-down sort of game, your central midfield needs to be very sound defensively to a) prevent your defense from being exposed and b) to win the ball back so you can feed your hungry attackers. It's especially vital in Costa Rica's long-preferred 541/343 hybrid formation, where the wide players have very flexible duties. In that set-up, the players in the spine have to be reliable, and they have to fit the job required.
Against Paraguay - a game that Costa Rica realistically had to win - Ramirez sent out a team that made sense. Celso Borges, long Costa Rica's best player give or take the form of Bryan Ruiz, was partnered by Yeltsin Tejeda. Tejeda is a pure destroyer who earned a European transfer at just 22 due to his success with Saprissa (side note: his club in Ligue 2, Evian, was just relegated, so there's a 24 year old regular on a good CONCACAF team who would probably not mind an MLS move right now). He is a reasonable partner for Borges, who is a playmaker comfortable with the double pivot Costa Rica's formation settles into.
That changed against the US. Fox Sports 1 listed Costa Rica as playing a 532, but that was incorrect. They stayed with the 541/343, and made two changes. Francisco Calvo coming in for Kendall Waston was enforced due to Waston almost predictably picking up a red card against Paraguay. Calvo is more mobile than Waston anyway, and with the US not fielding a physical target man, this wasn't really that big of a deal (especially as the problem for the Ticos across the back ended up being the more experienced Duarte).
The other was to drop Tejeda for Christian Bolanos, and it ended up being a huge mistake. Matt Doyle already covered this for MLSsoccer.com in a more timely fashion (sorry folks, I ended up lazily drinking a beer and watching the Colombia-Paraguay game instead), and his piece has some gifs that exemplify the problems this caused. Bolaños is a very good player having a solid season in Vancouver, but in this formation he flat-out does not belong in central midfield. He's a utility attacking midfielder who, in this formation, belongs on the wing. Tejeda wasn't very good against Paraguay, and that game was held in withering Orlando heat, so making a change might have been necessary, but this was not the way to handle the situation. Ramirez has two other true defensive midfielders - CS Herediano duo Randall Azofeifa and Oscar Granados - to call on.
To their credit, the US seized on this issue time and again in the first half. Borges, forced to play much deeper than he normally does, was unable to adjust in two different ways. When he was able to find the ball, he wasn't used to the angles he was seeing, meaning that he needed more time to move the ball along (which invited US pressure). On many other occasions, Borges wasn't even properly available for the ball, which was a factor in numerous Costa Rica turnovers. Bolaños, a player not prone to disappearing from games, was a non-factor. Along with some high-quality finishing, this is where the US won the match.
Ramirez's nickname is "Macho," and I can't resist the facile comparison here. "Macho" made a hyper-aggressive choice in his midfield thinking that his side could simply overrun the US early. They did have the better of the early exchanges - soccer twitter quickly turned this into Belgium vs. USA dominance, even though the US had already punched back before the penalty kick - but the risk here was not worth the reward. Ramirez's tactical arrogance ended up exposed when Wood was shoved down in the box, and if your whole gameplan can be undone by an early goal it's probably not the best idea.
Sometimes it's better to be secure with who you are and admit your weaknesses rather than trying to cover your flaws with bluster. Costa Rica's options for defensive midfielders aren't great - Tejeda could hack it in MLS, as could Granados, but I'm not sure Azofeifa would start on any half-decent team here - but someone has to be on the field whose decision making doesn't consist of "GO GO GO!!!!!!!!!!!" every time his team wins the ball. Ramirez bet everything on breaking the US early in the game, and now his team is in deep trouble.
One of the few things American soccer twitter can agree on, apparently, is that Chris Wondolowski playing a game for the USMNT is the actual end of the world. Apparently the miss against Belgium is not only his defining moment as a player, but the lack of depth in the US pool as far as out-and-out strikers go must be ignored in favor of just raging against the very idea that the best American goalscorer in MLS for several years now has any place even wearing a US shirt he bought himself, much less being handed one by the national team.
This is not exactly a full-blooded defense of Wondo; my preference for this substitution would have been Christian Pulisic coming on (with Gyasi Zardes moving into the middle). However, the fury that greeted this move, during a 3-0 win that should have been at least mildly pleasing, requires some pushback. Wondo gets into games because of his work rate, his rough-and-tumble approach to the game, and his willingness to sacrifice on the behalf of the team. The US pool, with Jozy Altidore injured, does not allow for the luxury of leaving him out.
Wondo also helped the US score a goal. His run ensured that Calvo - after being stripped by Zusi - couldn't even commit a DOGSO foul to prevent the fourth goal. It might not seem like much, but there are plenty of American forwards who don't make that run at 3-0 up in the 87th minute, even being on fresh legs as Wondolowski was at the time.
Wondo is not perfect. His technique outside the penalty area is exposed at the international level in a way that it never will be in MLS, and his record as a finisher in a US shirt is not as prolific as it is in MLS. However, we should stop pretending that he's unfit for the USMNT, or that him entering a game is a disaster. It's a strange decision with Pulisic available, but the reaction was less "Why no Pulisic?" and more "Wondo is the worst soccer player in human history!," and that is nonsense. Jurgen Klinsmann may not be able to properly evaluate goalkeepers or left backs, but he generally has a handle on who our best forwards are. Like it or not, Wondolowski is in that group on merit.
Finishing the job
The US put themselves in a good position to advance. A draw will see them through as Group A's second-best team (provided that Costa Rica does not beat Colombia by 6+ goals), and Paraguay is supposed to be the group's weakest team. In seven days, Paraguay will have played in 90+ degree temperatures on turf in Orlando, then in California, and then back to the Atlantic coast in Philadelphia. The Copa group draw and resulting schedule are basically designed to grind the Albiroja into dust.
And yet, Paraguay gave Colombia a very tough time after starting about as poorly as the US did against the same opponent. Colombia scored in the opening 15 minutes and then struck again before halftime against both sides, but only Paraguay mounted a concerted effort at a comeback. Granted, it required Victor Ayala's golazo, which may well end up as the best goal of the entire tournament, but the second half ended up being a lot of fun as a neutral. Paraguay troubled Colombia in a way that the US did not.
So that's the bad news. The good news is that Paraguay didn't really threaten in the run of play:
These are Paraguay's successful passes from last night. The thing to note here - even more than how left-sided they were - is where the completed passes dry up. Paraguay completed 11 total passes in the attacking third (out of 19 total attempts), and I'm being generous with three of those being right on the edge. Five of those passes were backward, and two took the ball out of the attacking third.
What that signifies is that Paraguay's success came via set pieces and a thunderbolt of a shot on one of the few times the Colombia midfield and defense were badly disconnected. The US should have an advantage defending set pieces, but that was a main talking point in the build-up against Colombia, and how did they score their opener?
The US should be able to limit Paraguay in a similar manner, though I am a bit concerned about them being so left-sided against Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin. Nonetheless, Paraguay might be able to restrict the US. They're not going to be tactically reckless like Costa Rica was, and it seems safe to expect the US to be less precise in finishing after capitalizing on two somewhat difficult chances yesterday.
In this game, with both teams knowing that a loss will eliminate them, is the US ready to break open what might become a midfield slog? Can they get themselves out in front and force an open game like they did against the Costa Ricans? Or will they follow Colombia's example and let overconfidence creep in? Colombia nearly gave Paraguay an equalizer on a couple of occasions, and Ramon Diaz's side appears to be buying in despite lacking in talent. If anyone in a US shirt thinks the hard part is over, they're fooling themselves.