COLUMBUS, Ohio – The U.S. soccer team has a Jekyll and Hyde personality that makes it difficult to determine which will show for Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.
During last weekend’s 1-0 loss at Panama, the Americans were as stagnant as ships backed up outside the canal.
“It’s really disappointing to watch the team, especially when we’re not playing as good as we can play,” said left back Antonee Robinson, who didn’t make that trip due to British COVID-19 restrictions. “Having to watch and not being able to try and help out is frustrating.”
The U.S. flowed during the second half of last month’s 4-1 win at Honduras and last week’s 2-0 victory over visiting Jamaica. Play was haphazard during an opening 0-0 draw at El Salvador and a 1-1 home tie against Canada.
A portion of the fan base nervous and skeptical following the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup hyperventilates at DEFCON1 in response to any hiccup.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter swapped seven starters in Panama in an effort to have fresh legs ready against Costa Rica, and a team already missing Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna due to injuries couldn’t string many passes without Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson. The Americans failed to manage a single shot on target.
“When I took responsibility for the result the other day, it was not aimed at the choice of players, because we believe in every single player in this squad,” Berhalter said Tuesday. “I don’t regret in any moment playing that lineup. I regret more of our performance and some of the attacking adjustments we could have made in that game to be more mobile, to be moving more, but not personnel.”
Mexico leads CONCACAF qualifying with 11 points after five of 14 matches, and the U.S. has eight, ahead of Panama on goal difference. Canada follows with seven and Costa Rica six after rallying for a 2-1 win at home over El Salvador.
El Salvador has five points, Honduras three and Jamaica two.
No. 44-ranked Costa Rica has qualified for four of the last five World Cups, missing on 2010. The 13th-ranked U.S. has lost three straight qualifiers against the Ticos: 3-1 and 4-0 on the road and 2-0 in New Jersey.
“It’s massive. It’s a really big game. We all have to be up for it. There’s no other option,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “You look at your home games, those games are the games that you have to win and they become increasingly more important when you don’t get a result on the road.”
In 66 home qualifiers since 1976, the U.S. has 51 wins, 11 draws and four losses: two to Costa Rica (1986, 2017) and one each to Mexico (2016) and Honduras (2001).
Robinson (knee) and McKennie (quadriceps) are uncertain for a U.S. team that has made slow starts routine. Robinson's knee was wrapped during training Tuesday night.
The Americans have had difficulty breaking both high presses and low blocks. They have gone scoreless in eight straight first halves since Shaq Moore’s goal 20 seconds in against Canada at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the second half Sunday was just as inert.
“It’s just a testament to that we’re building confidence in games,” Robinson said. “Maybe going forward that just means that we need to be a bit more ruthless.”
Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell will miss the match because of a sprained right ankle, and forward José Guillermo Ortiz due to a positive COVID-19 test. They were replaced by Christian Bolaños, a 37-year-old winger with Saprissa, and Álvaro Saborío, a 39-year-old forward with San Carlos.
“The whole thing took me by surprise,” Bolaños said. “I was training with my club and have to complete all the requirements very fast. The years keep passing by but there’s nothing else that gives you more pride than playing for your country
Costa Rica started five players 32 or older in Sunday’s win over El Salvador, and the others were at least 27.
“I don’t have a full picture of the state of Costa Rican soccer, but we really need to do an assessment of the work in the youth divisions,” coach Luis Fernando Suárez said.
Berhalter coached Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew from 2013-18, and the U.S. team played five straight home qualifiers against Mexico at old Columbus Crew Stadium, winning four “Dos a cero” games before a 2-1 defeat in 2016. The Crew moved to their new downtown stadium in July.
“The fans are original fans of Major League Soccer. They’re the ones that go back since day one,” Berhalter said. “And it’s a special environment.”
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