A slap to the face. A right hook to the gut. An embarrassing display by a team that was supposedly ready and able to take the next step.
All it took was one minute. One.
As a result of a lackadaisically-clearance by DaMarcus Beasley, Costa Rica's Alvaro Saborio received the ball and stepped through Pablo Mastroeni and Jose Francisco Torres. He whipped a dagger into the heart of a US team that had yet to lose in World Cup qualifying play.
It wasn't just a dagger, it was a message to the 19,200 that crammed into Saprissa Stadium and all those watching around the globe—CONCACAF is no longer a joke, nor is this up-and-coming Tico squad.
In a game that the US were expected to get some sort of result in, a 3-1 defeat (if you count the 92nd minute penalty by Landon Donovan as a goal) was not something that those watching in support of the US envisioned.
At full strength, a veteran-laden United States team went in and laid the biggest egg in national team history. Forget the 3-0 drubbing to the Czechs in Gelsenkirchen—that squad was past its prime before the whistle even blew.
The 3-1 result at Saprissa Stadium spoke volumes of the problems that this team and operation have. For the first time as boss, Bob Bradley is under the microscope. His tactics and substitutions were questioned after the match had ended. The reality for this team is that they're going to have to pull something together and fast.
With a seemingly similar Honduras team raring to go in Chicago tomorrow, the US need a win, not a tie.
What will that solve?
The Tico disaster spelled out a perfect game-plan on how to execute against the formerly-impressive US team that has its share of talent.
But that didn't matter. Not to Costa Rica.
They played their game and obliterated any pregame notion the US would have going into the match. The Ticos spread the field offensively—from corner to corner, from end to end. Their passes were immaculate, their touches were spot-on. Their ability to roam freely for a few paces, before being challenged, proved to be the ultimate undoing for the Americans.
Costa Rica used the second-minute goal to its advantage, pushed the peddle to the floor, and didn't bother looking back. Who would've thought Costa Rica of all teams would send the US into a media-driven tailspin of second-guesses and potential changes on the horizon?
Nobody really saw that coming.
The US played so poorly that it was really hard to bare at times. The passes, the movements, the traps—all second-rate.
Junior varsity soccer.
The offensive flow was bunched-up, and rightfully so.
Bradley essentially had two holding midfielders with son Michael and Mastroeni manning the middle, while Torres roamed freely from wing-to-wing. The 3-3-4 formation was supposed to open up play for play-makers like Donovan, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey. Instead, the match turned into a cluster-jam of confusion and overall sub-par play.
To see what kind of work the Americans need, look no further than the players that played.
Yes, managers are supposed to take the heat and Bradley should have too. He experimented with Beasley at left back against one of the youngest, fastest teams in the CONCACAF.
He inserted Marvell Wynne at right back rather than Jonathan Spector, who probably would've mistakenly taken an overseas flight to merely ride the pine. In terms of the midfield—it was a disaster. You can't have players play out of position. Not in dire games such as this one was.
It's like putting Shaquille O'Neal at the point. It just doesn't work out.
Clint Dempsey shouldn't be running up top, and it's no wonder he looks lost when he plays with the national team. He's used to roaming the midfield with the best in the world, not someone who can't trap a simple square.
Donovan isn't a natural offensive mid or a forward and the Bradley/Mastroeni experiment is DOA. As many critics have said, it may be time to shake things up with this squad. It's almost a drastic issue to comprehend.
Think back to 2002 and the magical run the US had.
Were they so successful because they were a group of guys that had been playing together for a long time?
They were a youthful group of nobody's who were just called up and played soccer as saw fit.
Could it be the fact that many of these players are too comfortable with their positions?
Could it be Bradley? With Bradley what you see is what you get—a semi-boring display of soccer that has a bend-but-not-break mentality.
Is it time fot Sunil Gulati to bite the bullet and make it rain on a legitimate world re-known manager? It seems that that day is closer than further away.
And what to make of this squad?
Tim Howard is one of the top keepers in the world. Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra are a so-so backline tandem. But the backs were exposed, and that spells trouble for the Americans. Backs in soccer are akin to defensive stoppers in the NBA, or even cornerbacks in the NFL. You need athletes that are conscious of their whereabouts and use their athleticism to disrupt the opposition.
Beasley isn't the answer. Neither is Wynne.
I wonder if Mickael Pietrus, Bruce Bowen, or Ron Artest are interested? Couldn't hurt to give them a ring.
The US has never been a squad that pours on the goals. The offense is driven by set pieces and aerial attacks to set up scoring opportunities. While that style of play is imperative, you cannot simply rest your laurels on a header by Onyewu or Altidore.
The US needs flare, they need style.
The offense is flat and needs an injection of youth, mobility and excitement.
Where's Kobe? T.O.? Even Michael Phelps.
With Honduras next on the plate something needs to happen before the squad heads to South Africa to partake in the Confederations Cup. While that's an easy phrase to toss out in the sporting world, what more can you ask for besides change and results?
In soccer, the best player will play and must perform when the number is called. With matches against Italy and Brazil within a four-day span coming up in two weeks, it's put-up or shut-up for a team that was ready to erase the Gelsenkirchen nightmare and the horror of Claudio Reyna giving the ball away at the 18.
The US needs to channel its will. They need to channel the talent pool and most of all they need to channel their players.
At the end of the day, coaches coach and players play.
With what dreams may come against the Italians and Brazilians, the Americans know what they must do. While it's a lot to ask of, 2010 is now exactly a year away.
It's time to assemble the Redeem Team, Part Deux.