Stars, Stripes and Soccer: Five Takeaways from the U-23’s 1-0 win vs. Costa Rica

By Cameron Meyer

The US started out the U-23 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament with a win, but not without raising the blood pressure of all those watching in the process. Thanks to a lone goal by Jesus Ferreira, the US was able to narrowly scrape by Costa Rica in a game they didn’t deserve to win.

Defensive struggles and attacking frailty highlighted the US’ day as a depleted U-23 side looked gassed in the Guadalajara heat and altitude. Ultimately, however, three points is three points and this win is huge to gain momentum moving forward into the group stages and, hopefully, the semis. 

Here are the five takeaways from the US’ performance against Costa Rica:

Costa Rica owned the US tactically 

Remember when I tried to predict the lineup for this game and I said I will probably be very wrong— well, I was right in saying that. Kreis really did bamboozle fans with his odd categorical format in listing out his team selection. He was going with the 4-3-3 the whole time.

The team’s tactics were very reminiscent of the performance against Trinidad earlier this year with some of the same personnel as well. Unfortunately, those tactics were not executed similarly. One of those reasons is because the Ticos did their homework.

The US’ tactics relies on attacking through the middle and using the number 6, Jackson Yueill, as a general with his long ball ability to spray balls to the flanks. To combat that, Costa Rica came out in a 4-5-1 to clog the midfield options with a five-to-three advantage. Knowing that Yueill would drop back to receive the ball, they had their industrious number 9, Manfred Ugalde, shadow him during the build up.

That forced the two American center backs, Justen Glad and Mauricio Pineda, to have to find other options as Costa Rica inflicted a heavy press on the two. As the defensive pair passed between each other, the Costa Rican midfielders would take turns running kamikaze to step up onto either of the center halves, daring them to play long. 

With nerves and an MLS offseason to boot, mistakes were made— many mistakes. Take this instance in the 17th minute, which was one of many. Pineda especially was horrible under pressure and could hardly make a good pass in this match and Costa Rica were able to push him and Glad to make many forced errors. David Ochoa bailed the two out on many occasions, which I’ll highlight later.

The Costa Rica press kept daring Pineda to make a line-breaking pass and, for the most part, it worked considering the amount of times he passed it to a Tico’s feet or into the stands. But, as they say— if you give a monkey a typewriter, it will eventually write Shakespeare and that’s how the US scored their goal. 

Pineda was finally able to find a great pass to a streaking Sam Vines who had space in behind. After some great work from the left back, who had a pretty good game, Ferreira was able to slot away the first and only goal of the game. His false nine presence in the midfield also did wonders to relieve the American disadvantage in the midfield. 

As nerves were coming down to a simmer going into the half and the US adjusted to the speed of the game, I really expected the US to dominate coming out the gate— dictating the speed of play. However, the opposite came true. The only true attacking option the US had going forward in the first half was Vines, who gave great service and combined well with his Colorado teammate in Jonathan Lewis. How do you combat that?

Just pile on the pressure on that left hand side to stop that attack from revving up. If you thought Costa Rica piled on the pressure in the first half, they hit the NOS in the second. MLSers Luis Diaz and Randall Leal kept constant pressure on Vines and Pineda and really pinched them back the entirety of the second half. (By the way, I wasn’t able to get a full tape of the game, so I apologize if the game tape is a little lackluster).

It was only God and David Ochoa’s hands that somehow allowed the US to come out with a clean sheet. You can’t blame Jason Kreis for this one though, it falls almost solely on the players. 

The team was their own worst enemy

Kreis used the tactical archetype used in the senior team— as he should. Although the team floundered in vast stretches of the game, the head coach is hardly to blame. The team should be able to deal with pressure and adjust on the fly and they simply were not able to even though Kreis gave them all the tools to do so.

The manager did not fall into the danger of the tinker bug and held steadfast in his tactics. That’s credit to him considering his squad’s performance. His substitutions were also astute. 

He brought off Benji Michel and Djordje Mihailovic early in the second for Sebastian Saucedo and Andrés Perea, which were two needed and impactful decisions. Both of the starters were very evidently fatigued and both Perea and Saucedo were decent in the final stretches of the match. 

As the US were basically playing win-and-clear type soccer for the final ten minutes, Kreis brought on Araujo and Cardoso for some necessary defensive reinforcements. So although I can’t speak on his team talks, his concrete actions show he wasn’t at fault for a lackluster performance— that goes on the players.

They showed apathy at times and made some incredibly irrational errors. I wish I could get the tape for this, but there was a play in stoppage time in the first half where Aaron Herrera whipped in a cross and it was fumbled by the goalkeeper and no runner was available to get the rebound. Mihailovic was just in view, but he just looked too tired to be an option.

In a sense, this tiredness and lack of sharpness is somewhat out of the players’ control. Most of the guys that took the field on Thursday were four months deep into their offseason in MLS. Combine that with 90 degree temperatures, a 5000 foot high altitude and a Costa Rican team largely in the middle of their season and it’s a recipe for sloppy play.

Still, there needs to be improvement on this front before the Mexico game or else things might get ugly.

The attack struggled in the final third

I touched upon Ferreira’s inconsistent finishing ability in the Trinidad game and I think this game rectified that stance. Ferreira has a fantastic engine and some amazing off-the-ball movement but as a striker he just has to do better in the final stage of a play.

Yes, he got the goal, but he should’ve had a hat-trick. Take this chance in the 2nd minute. He does amazing here up to the finish. He steps well and gets himself in a 1v1 opportunity. Ferreira just needs to be able to score here. 

It wasn’t just him either. Michel looked lost at times when he had a man in front of him. In the 52nd minute, he used his big frame amazingly well to shield off his man and give himself room to run. However, when the Costa Rican defender sized him up, he gave the ball away and stumbled the chance away for the US.

This is definitely a more minut point in the whole scheme of the game, but when a game is deadlocked, you’re going to have to create chances and finish your dinner. Whether it takes some finishing drills or a change in starters, something needs to happen because you simply cannot win a tournament without goals.

Dotson was way better than anyone thought he’d be 

I kind of bashed the inclusion of Hassani Dotson in this 20-man squad a couple days ago and I am now regretting that. Although I didn’t have the idiotic forsight to reproduce this horrible opinion on the internet, I also was pretty unhappy with his inclusion in the starting eleven.

On the contrary to almost everyone’s expectations, he played brilliantly. I can no longer blame Kreis for his decisions in his squad selection because he is evidently always right. Outside of maybe Ochoa and Vines, Dotson was the best American on the field on Thursday. 

He played the 8 on the right side of a double pivot with Mihailovic and he did his job admirably. He floated past defenders with ease and had an eye for a line-splitting pass every once and awhile.

Even though he wasn’t directly involved with the Ferreira goal, his movement is what allowed it to happen. He made a great diagonal run into the box to draw a defender which left Vines space and time to send a ball in and drew attention away from the arriving Ferreira. 

It was an intelligent run that his midfield compatriot Mihailovic failed to make later in the match. Again, I feel like I’m sounding like a broken record here but there were so many instances I wish I could show of Dotson running the midfield when he received the ball, but I don’t have the full game tape. 

I do, however, have the film of his should-be assist to Ferreira and man does he look like a full international veteran. 

Just take away the context and pretend that’s Weston McKennie. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in this play. His work here was a microcosm for his performance in this match— energized, great in transition and some great offensive contribution. 

Dotson was easily the best surprise during this game and I’m excited about what else he can bring later on in the tournament. 

Ochoa stood on his head

Although Dotson was an engine in the midfield, David Ochoa was hands down the man of the match. He had nine saves in the game, which is thanks to a leaky backline, but also due to his fantastic shot stopping.

The 20-year-old wasn’t even supposed to start with Kreis formerly displaying his desire to play JT Marcinkowski. I don’t know what changed, but I’m glad Kreis went with Ochoa. He was called into service very early on and very late in the match but was consistent throughout. 

What particularly struck me was his command of the box. You can see him screaming at his players and showing every ounce of passion after a save and that’s incredibly encouraging from a goalkeeper.

From a technical standpoint, he was also very solid. The nerves that affected his backline were not shared by him as evidenced by his lack of hesitancy and quick movement off his line. If there were to be any gripe with Ochoa’s performance it’d be his handling at some moments, but that’s just me being nit-picky.

His distribution also wasn’t horrible considering the high altitude so there’s really nothing to complain about his performance. Also considering the lack of talent in the young goalkeeper pool compared to the field players, it’s good to see someone like Ochoa make a name for himself on an international stage.

If he keeps up these performances throughout the tournament there’s no doubt he’ll get a senior look. 

My predicted lineup vs. the Dominican Republic

Elsewhere in Group A on Thursday, Mexico picked up a statement win against an obviously outmatched Dominican squad. They put four up on the board and Sebastián Córdova got himself a hat-trick if anyone wasn’t sure about El Tri’s quality in this tournament.

Looking forward to the March 21 matchup against the Dominican Republic, Kreis should probably stick with the same tactics with some fractional lineup changes.The only changes I would make is Michel out for Saucedo and Mihailovic out for Tessman. Both Michel and Mihailovic, as touched on earlier, looked out of shape and not up to task to play a full 90. With the case of Michel, he also probably isn’t the best choice at winger considering Saucedo brings some creativity to the attack that Michel simply doesn’t have in his tool box.

Also considering the DR seemed extremely susceptible on the endline against Mexico and couldn’t defend against a well-hit cross, that type of attacking ability will be needed. 

As far as Tessman’s inclusion, he was only recently added due to an injury to Uly Llanez, but I think he deserves a nod to start. He’s great on set pieces, so we won’t lose that with Mihailovic’s absence, and he brings a real CONCACAF-type physicality to a midfield which is needed against an opponent like the DR. 

(Featured image courtesy of CONCACAF)