It’s an awkward position: certainly we’d like to see the United States win this afternoon as the first step toward qualifying for the 2020* Olympics. At the same time, the opponent boasts one of Nashville’s own in Randall Leal. A hat trick from the Boy in (Not) Gold while the US wins 4-3? Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Opponent: Costa Rica U-23
Time, Location: Thursday, March 18, 4:30 p.m. CDT • Guadalajara, Mexico
Weather: 86ºF, 0% chance of rain, 12% humidity, 7 mph Westerly wind
Watch • Listen: FS1 (national) • TUDN (nacional)
The rankings (senior teams): USA 22 , Costa Rica 50
Competition: Group A (matchday one).
Format reminder: Top two teams in each group advance to semifinal round. Semi winners qualify for Olympics. Mexico and Dominican Republic round out the group.
We’ll get the awkwardness out of the way first. I alluded to it above: Randall Leal is a full senior international for Costa Rica, and is expected to be one of the stars for the Olympic team. Nashville fans know what he’s going to bring: shooting from distance, solid distribution, and better-than-the-experts-think defensive effort. He’s not beating tons of guys off the dribble, but has the individual ability to do so when he’s comfortable. We’ve seen it; we’re familiar.
So let’s take a look at the rest of the Costa Rica squad.
Per CRC Futbol, top keeper Patrick Sequeira will miss today’s game after obligations with the senior national team for his country, though he’ll be back against Mexico and Dominican Republic. I would anticipate that Kevin Chamorro gets the nod today. He’s the regular starter for AD San Carlos, and although his squad is just in eighth place in the 12-team Primera División, his competition is the backup for last-place San José, so I wouldn’t imagine Adonis Sequeira is quite ready for the big stage.
The backline boasts four (4) options from league-leading Alajuelense, along with one apiece from Guadalupe, Herediano, and Saprissa – this season’s second-place team and two of its other traditional powers, in that order. My assumption is that three of the Alajuelense players start together for a couple reasons. First, they seem to be the best three players available, second, they have proven it for their team – which has allowed just seven goals though 13 matches in the clausura – and third, the chemistry that can be difficult in national-team (particularly youth national-team) settings can be basically imported from their club days. So: Yurguin Román at left back, along with Fernan Faerrón and Alexis Gamboa as the centerbacks. The right side… seems thin? It may very well be a fourth Alajuelense player, Ian Smith, or a guy slightly out of position who’s more comfortable on the left.
Costa Rica’s senior team regularly goes with a Concacaf-standard 3-5-2 formation when playing the bigger teams in the region, so if the U-23s do it, you may very well see Randall Leal technically playing wingback, and the depth at CB in this roster (add Herediano’s Aaron Salazar to the starting unit at that point, or if he’s fully healthy, Guadalupe’s Kevin Espinoza) could facilitate it.
A couple of Leal’s fellow wingers are reasonably familiar to more-astute NSC observers: Columbus Crew’s Luis Díaz was one of the top players for the team that ultimately took the MLS Cup title, and he’s a “get in space and beat a guy” style of player, for sure. Like Leal, his defensive presence is underrated because of that style. The other, Portland’s Marvin Loría, did not see the pitch against Nashville SC, but was a regular presence for the Timbers for most of the other games – whether as a starter who gets subbed off, or that substitute coming in for the starting winger himself. He’s sorta anonymous statistically – I wouldn’t anticipate he gets on the field over Leal or Díaz if those three play traditional winger roles in the setup.
Bernard Alfaro and Jefferson Brenes are the lone central midfield-types, per CRC Futbol. It will surely shock you to learn they play their club ball for Alajuelense and Herediano, respectively. Shoehorning a guy like Loría in here could be necessary if there’s any sort of injury, fatigue, etc.
Up top, the lone player who plays his club ball outside Concacaf (aside from Sequeira who is unavailable today) is Manfred Ugalde, a former Saprissa teammate of Leal’s now in Belgium where he’s scored 11 goals in 18 appearances for Lommel in the second division. (For what it’s worth, when Leal played in Belgium, it was for first-division Mechelen, where he made just 13 appearances before heading back to the land of pura vida). He’s a little-but-lethal guy who was very good combining with Leal in their brief overlap for Saprissa. Juerguens Montenegro has a less-developed résumé, and the 18-year old gets only sparing playing time for Alajuelense.
There are some areas of this roster that look strong. Goalkeeper and goal-scoring (reportedly two important areas!) may be weaknesses.
Especially given that it’s not a full-strength U-23 roster (Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams: among the many age-eligible players who aren’t in Guadalajara for obvious reasons!), there’s a lot to like here in terms of potential, but less in the way of proven talent.
San Jose’s JT Marcinkowski is the most experienced of the keepers at the MLS level – though all three primarily have seen their experience with USL affiliates of their senior teams. Matt Freese (seven Union appearances, 15 Steel appearances) and David Ochoa (one RSL appearance, 22 with Real Monarchs – though to be fair, he led them to the 2019 USL Championship… uh… championship) are still developing. Both are good enough that they could very well win a camp competition against Marcinkowski. For his part, he was a bang-average MLS keeper with 1.03 G/xG allowed this season, while the Quakes’ other goalie, 36-year old Argentine Daniel Vega, was quite a bit worse (pays to be from the same country as head coach Matías Almeyda, I guess).
Defensively, I think there’s a clear best-four along the backline, with LA Galaxy’s Julian Araujo and Colorado Rapids’ Sam Vines on the right and left flanks, respectively, and New England’s Henry Kessler (who was a Rookie of the Year candidate) and RSL’s Justen Glad in the middle. Vines is someone I’m quite a bit higher on than the National Team Followers zeitgeist may be, whereas Glad is someone I’m a little lower on – and to be fair, I think most people have come around to the concept that he’ll be a solid player but never the star he seemed like from a younger age. Aaron Herrera and Mauricio Pineda provide your depth. I could easily see Pineda, who transitioned from midfield to CB for the Chicago Fire as a rookie this year, surpassing Glad, or Herrera’s steady hand being preferred to Araujo’s boom-or-bust style on the right.
The midfield is an area of concern for MNT followers (see: list above of top players not called in because of the nature of the qualifying tournament), particularly because there’s not a lot of obvious offense here. I’m a little less concerned largely because the “there is a gap between Tim’s opinion and the broader public opinion” status for Jackson Yueill is even larger for that with Vines: he’s not the most-mobile guy on the planet, but I really like Yueill’s… ambition with line-breaking passes at times for San Jose, and his ability to hit them. Chicago Fire homegrown Djordje Mihailovic (moving to CdF Montreal this offseason) is an adequate-if-uninspiring No. 10 type. Plug in Ulysses Llanez (currently not playing for Heerenveen in the Netherlands) or Andres Perea (a Colombian dual-national who recently committed to the US, and was a very solid player for Orlando City this season), and you’re good enough.
Up front – I’m assuming a traditional 4-3-3 here – I really like the potential winger duo of Jonathan Lewis and Benji Michel. Lewis’s MLS career has had some unfortunate twists with NYCFC finding him surplus to requirements, while the club they traded him to, Colorado Rapids, often finds the concept of offense entirely surplus to requirements. Michel, an Orlando City homegrown, would have had a lot of press this past season if it weren’t for the headlines being absorbed by his rookie teammate Darryl Dike. The striker position can be either FC Dallas’s Jesús Ferreira or Norwich City’s Sebastian Soto. The former had a disappointing year in MLS, the latter has had a disappointing journey to getting a UK work permit that saw him play mostly for Dutch second-division Telstar in 2020, and Soto’s still looking for his debut in the Championship.
The United States has the overall talent advantage, though – pending a breakout from one of the Americans – I think the Ticos have individuals (including Leal) who are more likely to produce that single moment of game-changing brilliance. Given that the US needs a win to feel good about advancing from the group, you could see open-enough play to provide those opportunities.
- A Yueill throughball produces a shooting opportunity for Lewis late in the first half. Though his shot is saved, Ferreira follows up on the late run as part of that counter-attack move, and dunks it home into an open net.
- Early in the second half, Leal does indeed find that moment of brilliance, and levels the score on a free kick from long range.
- While Costa Rica bunkers to preserve the draw late, the Americans are able to find a winner. Soto, coming on as a substitute, heads home a cross from Michel.
The US wins 2-1.