After starting out the CONCACAF Gold Cup with two impressive wins in group-stage play, the United States men’s national team now prepares to face Costa Rica with the top spot in Group C on the line.
While both teams have already qualified for the knockout round, the winner of the U.S.-Costa Rica matchup on Tuesday, July 16, in East Hartford, Conn., will likely avoid Honduras in the quarterfinals on July 21 in Baltimore.
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has also called Costa Rica "the first real benchmark for us" after the Americans cruised to easy wins over lowly Belize and an outmatched Cuban side by a cumulative 10-2 score.
With first place in Group C on the line, here are the key battles to watch between the U.S. and Costa Rica.
Despite playing Belize and Cuba in its opening two games of the Gold Cup, the United States has not managed to keep a clean sheet in either contest.
While many fans have been excited by the fresh U.S. faces in the midfield, the U.S. backline is full of players who have historically struggled at the international level.
At left back, Edgar Castillo will likely head back to the bench after a poor defensive effort against Cuba and be replaced by DaMarcus Beasley, who is playing the best football of his career.
At right back, the position is a toss-up between Michael Parkhurst and Tony Beltran. Parkhurst has been rusty in his two recent appearances for the USMNT since not playing a match at the club level since February. However, Parkhurst has much more international experience than Beltran, who was simply OK in his start against Cuba.
At center back, Jurgen Klinsmann will have to pick between Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Orozco and Clarence Goodson. All three are solid in the air, but Onyewu and Goodson have both obviously lost a step since their best days and, to be honest, were not the most mobile of defenders even in their heyday.
Orozco, who has struggled with the U.S. in past years, looks the most mobile and comfortable on the ball of the three and is likely to fare the best against the potent Costa Rican attack.
That attack is led by two Major League Soccer forwards—Jairo Arrieta of the Columbus Crew and Alvaro Saborio of Real Salt Lake. Both could make life very difficult for the U.S. defense. Arrieta had nine goals in 18 starts last year for the Crew and Saborio has 58 goals for RSL since joining the club in 2010.
While the U.S. midfield play thus far in the Gold Cup has been sublime for the most part, it has not yet been tested in the tournament.
The Costa Ricans boast a number of talented players, including Michael Barrantes, who scored twice in Costa Rica’s opener. Barrantes plays his club ball for Aalesund in Norway’s Tippeligaen, where he competes against Americans Mix Diskerud, Josh Gatt and Steve Clark.
The Costa Ricans also have Portland Timbers product Rodney Wallace, who has four goals in MLS play this season, as well as Celso Borges, who has 12 goals with AIK in Sweden’s Allsvenskan since arriving in the league in 2012.
Americans Stuart Holden and Mix Diskerud have been bright in the attack for the U.S., but it is likely that only one of them with start as U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has shown a strong preference towards using the much-maligned Kyle Beckerman in the middle for the U.S.
If Beckerman does start, it will be an important game for him. While he has looked solid so far in the Gold Cup against Belize and Cuba, he has struggled badly with the USMNT in the past against tougher competition.
On the wings, the U.S. is likely to use Joe Corona and Jose Torres. Corona has been one of the most impressive U.S. players so far and this game will be a big test for him. He will have the chance to prove that he can continue to be a playmaker for the U.S. against some tougher competition and U.S. fans will see if he is mindful of his defensive duties. Against Belize and Cuba, he could afford to stay well forward most of the match.
Against Cuba, Torres replaced a disappointing Brek Shea at the half. Shea looked about as rusty as a professional player possibly could, losing possession for the U.S. 14 times in his 45 minutes. Torres did better and his tendency to tuck into the middle allowed for Edgar Castillo to get forward into the attack.
Torres is not a traditional winger, nor has he ever looked his best playing wide in the past. Against Costa Rica, he will have to put in a good performance as he is unlikely to find time in the middle over Beckerman, Holden and Diskerud.
While the Costa Rican defense doesn’t boast any household names (other than Roy Miller who is best known for his tendency to score own goals in MLS play), it has managed to shut out Belize and Cuba—something the U.S. failed to do against either squad.
Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan have spearheaded the best of the U.S. attack so far, scoring seven of the U.S.’ 10 goals in the Gold Cup. But against Costa Rica, they will be face a more stringent test.
Donovan’s play has resulted in many saying that he is fully back to form after his long offseason sabbatical, but those who have seen him play this season in MLS will question that assertion. Wondolowski’s impressive five goals in two games in the Gold Cup have led some to say that he is now officially Jozy Altidore’s backup on the U.S. roster.
However, it must be noted again that Donovan and Wondolowski have been beating up on competition that would struggled to be competitive in MLS—a league in which Donovan and Wondolowski dominate. If either, or both, are able to put together an impressive match against Costa Rica, their argument will be much stronger.