The United States national team have faced two different must-win situations in the past two months. First, they were tasked with defeating lowly Guatemala at home in World Cup qualifying back in March after blowing up Jurgen Klinsmann-style in Central America. Then, in the second match of the Copa America, they had to avoid a loss to Costa Rica in order to stay in the tournament—a draw would have required lots of future help as well—following an underwhelming defeat against Colombia.
They passed both tests with flying colors.
The US crushed each of their CONCACAF foes by scores of 4-0, and managed to briefly restore hope in the national team. But the problem is, getting into those must-win situations could have been and should have been avoided beforehand. Losing to Guatemala was horrifying and it resulted in the US coming dangerously close to missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and while the loss to Colombia wasn't exactly the end of the world (they are the third best team out there, according to FIFA), it almost cost them a chance at a spot in the quarterfinal round of the Copa America.
It's time they stop getting into those situations.
Here are five other thoughts on the US's 4-0 domination of Costa Rica:
1. Positional problems
Bobby Wood is a center forward. Bobby Wood is a center forward. Bobby Wood is a center forward. Bobby Wood is a center forward. Can we have Klinsmann write this on a chalkboard 96 more times?
For proof that Wood is, in fact, a center forward, refer to the goal he scored on Tuesday:
That, right there, is a classic number-nine's goal. Wood stays on the shoulder of a center back, receives the ball in the box with his back to goal, brings it onto his favored right foot, and slides it home past the shocked goalkeeper, who was not expecting the shot to come. The hold-up play and quick release are trademarks of a modern center forward, as are the pure finishing and goal-scoring ability shown above. Judging from his 17 goals at Union Berlin this past season, Wood has those abilities.
Yet he continues to be played on the wing, where he has trouble, well, being a winger. The conventions and necessary abilities of outside players—1v1 dribbling, crossing, defending, cutting in, finishing on runs from the wing—appear to not be in his skillset, which is perfectly normal for a center forward. He just doesn't score goals the same way when isolated in a position that he is not comfortable in.
Please play Wood at his correct position, Jurgen. Please?
In this sport—really, in all sports—continuity is an important thing. It develops chemistry, allows players to adapt to the system and the players around them, and gets players to 1) understand what their role is and 2) how to apply that role on the field/ice/court. Continuity is something that all good teams have, from FC Dallas to FC Barcelona. I think you know where I'm going with his: The US haven't had a hint of it since Klinsmann became manager, and I'm ready to complain about it again.
Actually, no. I'm not launching into another well-used spiel about why he should be fired. I am actually going to praise him for the first time since I became a writer on this site last July. And what am I going to praise him for? Continuity.
Klinsmann used the same lineup in two straight games—against Colombia and against Costa Rica—for the first time since 2014, when he used an identical starting XI in the final 2014 World Cup warmup game and in the first group stage match of that tournament, against Ghana. That's a very good thing.
Granted, that lineup was not ideal. Far from it, actually. Fabian Johnson, Gyasi Zardes, Wood and Clint Dempsey each played in roles that don't suit them. But it was a step in the right direction.
3. Mid-game changes
Another crucial aspect of being a manager, aside from continuity? The ability to make smart and useful mid-game tactical adjustments that reflect game states. Whether this is by way of a substitution, a formation switch, or something else, it's critical that coaches can do this effectively. And no, FIFA players, it isn't as simple as pressing a button and moving to "All-Out Attack" or "Park the Bus."
Klinsmann hasn't always been great at this—what has he been good at, honestly?—but it isn't one of his many major criticisms. Against Costa Rica, he made a very good tactical modification that had a noticeable effect on the match.
A switch from the 4-3-3 they played against Colombia and in the first 25 minutes against Costa Rica to a flat 4-4-2 cut the number of players out of position from four to two. Here's what that 4-4-2 looked like:
Really, it was a 4-4-1-1 with Dempsey under Wood as a false nine and Alejandro Bedoya spread out wide. Michael Bradley stayed planted in front of the backline throughout the entire game, allowing Jermaine Jones to range forward and poach next to Dempsey. Zardes remained on the wing—a spot better reserved for Christian Pulisic—but overall, this is a good lineup and one that was fairly effective.
4. Improving stars
The stars didn't play like stars against Colombia. They did against Costa Rica.
Bradley was a dominating presence in defensive midfield—winning balls and exploiting the space Los Ticos allowed in the middle of the park with savvy distribution—Dempsey found his niche at the false nine position and constantly pressured the opposing backline, Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin were much, much more effective at overlapping and causing havoc farther up the field, and Jones seemed to be out on a mission, creating turnovers, scoring a goal and playing more like his Colorado Rapids self.
That's a good sign, because Klinsmann has publicly announced his support of the veterans. The US needed them to play well, and they did.
5. The future
This has to be mentioned: The United States did not play particularly well against Costa Rica. Obviously, they played well enough to win 4-0 against the third-best nation in CONCACAF, but overall, they won in the fashion they did because of pure ability, determination and motivation. The US realized the significance of this match, just like they did against Guatemala, and played like it was a World Cup final.
So, that said, what now? Well, the US face Paraguay on Saturday in a game that they should most certainly win. With a victory, they go through. With a draw, they go through unless Costa Rica beat Colombia by six goals or more. With a loss, they're eliminated and Paraguay face Brazil or Ecuador. Basically, a point and they're through.
They'll make it to the quarterfinal barring some sort of unforeseen breakdown.