It Starts At the Top – Costa Rica Versus the United States

By Paul Oberjuerge

So much for the paired notions of the "United States national soccer team" and "the inevitability of playing in the 2010 World Cup."

In two mind-boggling hours Wednesday night, Costa Rica not only knocked the Americans from their perch atop the standings in CONCACAF qualifying for next June’s big event, the Ticos’ comprehensive 3-1 flogging of the Yanks at steamy Saprissa Stadium also seemed to expose previously unrecognized inadequacies on the U.S. side. Deep inadequacies, at that.

What before kickoff looked like an American campaign to all but clinch a finals berth halfway through the 10-match qualifying tournament now could be shaping up as a long and grinding campaign to secure one of the three guaranteed CONCACAF berths for South Africa 2010. (The No. 4 finisher also can qualify by winning a home-and-home playoff with the No. 5 squad from South America.)

The issues range from the competence of coach Bob Bradley to the mental toughness of the U.S., to personnel issues nearly all over the field.

Yes, Costa Rica is formidable, particularly in the cauldron of Saprissa, where the United States has never salvaged so much as a tie in seven World Cup qualifying matches.

But the United States team the Ticos walked over was so shockingly inept, so sloppy, disorganized and passionless, that it is hard to view the match as anything but a bright red warning flare for American soccer aficionados.

It starts at the top.

Bradley heretofore has enjoyed almost a free ride by domestic soccer pundits. Since taking over the U.S. national team in December of 2006, he won most of the matches the Americans might be expected to win, lost those the U.S. couldn’t really be expected to win and has rarely been second-guessed, let alone pilloried in the reflexive way of his immediate predecessors, Bruce Arena and Steve Sampson.

That could be about to change, especially if the U.S. doesn’t bounce back with three points from a victory over Honduras in Chicago on Saturday, a match that suddenly carries significant weight in the World Cup campaign.

In San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, Bradley put on the field a lineup doomed to failure and arrayed it in a formation unseen in American soccer in years, if not decades. And in those matters, there is no one to blame but the manager.

First, the formation: Bradley designed an offense-minded 4-3-3 scheme presumably intended to carry the attack into the Costa Rican end of the field, apparently failing to take into account that the U.S. hasn’t played with three men up top in, oh, forever and would have trouble making it work; and that the diminshed numbers at the back might lead to some truly dire consequences on defense.

Second, the personal: Bradley took his two most creative playmakers, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, and slid them into two of those three forward slots, leaving the Americans with a midfield that was simultaneously too young, too old and too slow to win the ball, let alone move it forward and distribute it. That trio being the little-used Jose Francisco Torres on the left, Michael Bradley (the coach’s son, and really a holding mid) in the center and Pablo Mastroeni, 32 going on 40, on the right.

And if that front-seven folly weren’t dangerous enough, Bradley deployed Glasgow Rangers benchwarmer DaMarcus Beasley, who peaked in 2002, at left back and Marvell Wynne, making his first international start, on the right.

The results were stunning, but hardly unpredictable. The U.S. couldn’t hold the ball, couldn’t create scoring chances and was a sieve in the back. A stunningly easy Costa Rica goal 79 seconds into the match put the Americans on their heels, and a second goal, at the 12-minute mark, left them on their knees, from which they never were to arise in the worst qualifying performance by the U.S. in at least a decade.

It was 3-0 before Donovan converted a penalty in the 90th minute, allowing the Americans the hollow victory of leaving San Jose with a goal for the first time in nine years.

Hard to imagine, scant minutes into the match, that some thought a U.S, victory possible, a result that would have put them four points ahead of the Ticos in the Hexagonal standings and coasting effortlessly toward South Africa.

Instead, Costa Rica is out front with nine points and the U.S. is second with seven. The region’s other four teams each have a match in hand and currently are led by Honduras with four points, Mexico with three and El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago with two each.

The U.S. remains the only nation in the Hexagonal with even one point from a road match (the 2-2 tie in El Salvador). And much of the wreckage of Wednesday’s result could be cleared with a victory over Honduras on Saturday. But that seems like anything but a certainty now.

Bradley has several issues he must confront, and in a hurry:

–Who plays wide right and left on the back line? The search for a competent left back has been years in the making, and Beasley’s thoroughly inept performance would seem to disqualify him from further consideration. Is it time for one of the Jonathans (Bornstein or Spector) to get another try? Probably so. Wynne certainly seemed to play himself out of lineup with his hesitant and error-ridden performance on the right, which was Steve Cherundolo’s job until his latest injury and surgery (to his hip). Bradley has to be hoping Frankie Hejduk’s muscle pull abates sufficiently that the indefatiguable veteran can start against Honduras.

–What to do in midfield? Michael Bradley, one of the few Americans to show any energy or passion in Costa Rica, is suspended for the Honduras match because of an accumulation of yellow cards. How Bob Bradley reconstructs his midfield will be key. Torres seemed generally effective, yet Bradley replaced him at halftime with Sacha Kljestan and seems unlikely to entrust Torres with the "playmaking mid" role. Assuming Bob Bradley goes back to a 4-4-2 formation, what seems to make the most sense is Kljestan at holding mid (despite extremely spotty play of late), Torres or Freddy Adu on the left, Dempsey on the right and Donovan pulled back to attacking mid, where he can get more touches and use his great field vision to move ahead.

–At forward, Bradley’s best options seem to be Altidore (despite his rustiness from two months of sitting in Spain) and Brian Ching, who has a muscle pull but could be ready for Honduras. If Ching isn’t fit, then perhaps Dempsey stays up top and Adu goes to right mid.

So, overnight, the U.S. team went from being perceived as the Class of CONCACAF to a squad with issues nearly everywhere, outside of Tim Howard in goal. And there is very little time to address all the problems.

Yes, playing in Costa Rica is difficult. The Ticos’ qualifying runs in 2001 and 2005 were fueled almost entirely by victories in Saprissa. The artificial turf there is horrible, which may have contributed to the Americans’ inability to hold the ball and to Donovan’s horrendous performance on restarts, particularly corner kicks. And no, veteran observers couldn’t really expect a victory or even a draw out of that match.

It was the magnitude of the U.S. defeat, Bradley’s uncontrovertible strategic gaffes and the apparent lack of passion, guile and skill by the Americans on the field that was alarming.

What looked like an American victory parade to South Africa could be about to turn into a forced march.

Paul Oberjuerge writes about soccer for the NY Times soccer blog Goal. He can be reached at: