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2016 CONCACAF Hexagonal match preview: Costa Rica vs. United States

Could the second match of the hex be a do-or-die match for the USMNT?

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United States manager Juergen Klinsmann is under pressure to defeat Costa Rica away - something the US has never done before.
Trey Madara / Brotherly Game

Game: Costa Rica vs. United States Men’s National Team

Date: Tuesday, Nov. 15

Time: 9:00 p.m. ET

Venue: Estadio de Nacional de Costa Rica, San Jose

Television: beIN Sports, NBC Universo

Streaming: beIN Sports Connect

All-time record: 14-14-6

With just three days off, the United States Men’s National Team must rebound from its loss to Mexico and travel to Costa Rica for an equally important game. The USA has never won in Costa Rica and earned a point there just once, and without a result tonight, they could face serious trouble qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. No team has ever lost its first two matches in the Hex and gone on to finish in the top team of the group. Only Trinidad and Tobago have qualified for a World Cup after losing their first two matches, and that was via a playoff against Bahrain in 2006. When the USA faced Costa Rica in the group stage of the Copa America Centenario at Soldier Field, the Americans played their best soccer of the year and ran out 4-0 winners.

What to watch for Costa Rica

Los Ticos are dealing with some injury issues and are not quite at 100% strength. Despite their health, they still pack one of the best sides in CONCACAF with more than enough strength to batter the Americans. The key absences are right back Christian Gamboa who is suspended, and center back Francisco Calvo who with an injury. The USA could and should find a way to exploit whoever steps up the backline. Captain and star man Bryan Ruiz limped off with injury in the win over Trinidad and Tobago, and is questionable to play.

Head coach Oscar Ramirez prefers a three-man central defense and two wingbacks, commanded at the back by Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who probably is the best goalkeeper in the CONCACAF over the likes of Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and yes, Philadelphia Union Goalkeeper Andre Blake.

MLS fans will recognize some of the standouts in the lineup — Christian Bolanos, Ronald Matarrita, and Kendall Waston. The beating heart of the team is Celso Borges in the midfield, and the Ticos are always a threat to score with the strike partnership of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, who are now club teammates at Sporting Lisbon.

The key matchups for Costa Rica are how Ruiz and Campbell attack the weaker half of the USA back line (read: where John Brooks is not playing) and how whoever deputizes for Christian Gamboa deals with the electric Christian Pulisic.

What to watch for the USA

To start, Tim Howard is out of goal with a season-ending injury that requires surgery on his knee. The veteran goalkeeper could now be staring down the end of his career. On Tuesday night, Klinsmann will turn to Brad Guzan, who he hopes can provide reliability. The problem is that Guzan’s time in net against Mexico was first since early September. Expect Costa Rica to try and test him from distance and with crosses into dangerous areas more frequently than usual.

Klinsmann made a mess of his tactics at the start of the Mexico match, and it’s clear that he shouldn’t use a three-man back line against teams that are already experienced with it. Costa Rica is one of those teams and Klinsmann would be ill-advised to continue his experiment on the road in a hostile environment. The USA will be on the back foot from the start and a 4-4-2 is in order. From left to right across the backline it should be Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez, and Timothy Chandler and Christian Pulisic, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya in the midfield. Wood and Altidore should reprise their roles from the Mexico game up top.

Jones may be too tired to start or appear in this match, as he is still recovering from an injury that sidelined him until the end of October. Sacha Kjlestan could get the start. Klinsmann also curiously used Matt Besler at left back on Friday and should return Fabian Johnson to his usual left back role. Klinsmann does like the element of surprise with his lineups and anything here is just an idea.

Whatever the lineup is, the USA need to have a solid defensive game against Campbell and Ruiz, and, it should go without saying, mark on set pieces. Altidore and Wood need to find space in the hosts’ back line and target whoever fills in for Calvo. The Americans will probably be on the defensive, at least at the start because of Costa Rica’s superiority at home, and if they are playing counterattacking football, Pulisic remains their best option. If Johnson isn’t playing left back, or has a bad game, Costa Rica will repeatedly attack that side to force Pulisic to track back. Lastly, Bradley and his central midfield partner need to shut down Borges, Costa Rica’s most complete midfielder and deny him the time to run the show.

What to expect

Costa Rica will take charge of this match early and play on the front foot. Klinsmann’s sides have been weirdly flat when they play in Central America and have only won once, against Panama thanks to the “San Zusi” goal in 2013. Klinsmann needs to get the tactics right, and then provide his usual strong in-game adjustments depending on who scores the first goal. The USA have enough fight and ‘character’ to grab a point but there can be no mental switch-offs like the one on Rafa Marquez’s late goal on Friday. The USA has no need to panic regardless of the result, but the match will be the ultimate barometer of an up-and-down 2016.

Prediction: 1-1. A scrappy result for the USA would be enough from these first two difficult matches.