US Soccer USMNT

Olympic qualifying preview: US U-23s v. Dominican Republic

After a solid win (in sometimes-frightening fashion) against Costa Rica, tonight’s game against Dominican Republic should be a chance for the Americans to catch their breath before a winner-take-all match with Mexico. Let us take a look.

The essentials

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Opponent: Dominican Republic U-23
Time, Location: Sunday, March 21, 6:00 p.m. CDT • Guadalajara, Mexico
Weather: 84ºF, 0% chance of rain, 6% humidity, 12 mph Westerly wind
Watch • Listen: FS1 (national) • TUDN (nacional)

The rankings (senior teams): USA 22 , Dominican Republic 159
Competition: Group A (matchday two).
Format reminder: Top two teams in each group advance to semifinal round. Semi winners qualify for Olympics.

Elsewhere: Charles Boehm on the transition from game one to game two. ASN recaps the Costa Rica game.

The Competition

Through one Matchdate, Group A looks like so:

TeamPointsGoal DifferentialStill to play
Mexico3+3Costa Rica, USA
United States3+1Dominican Republic, Mexico
Costa Rica0-1Mexico, Dominican Republic
Dominican Republic0-3USA, Costa Rica
Group A – Through Matchdate 1

Mexico leads the way after a 4-1 victory against the Dominicans, and the United States is in the driver’s seat to join El Tri in the next round of the competition with a first-game win. Given that DR is the worst team in Group A by a pretty wide margin, the Americans have to be feeling good here.

Today’s results can go a long way toward locking in the final outcome in these standings:

  • If both Mexico and the United States win, the Americans have to make up a two-goal differential, or will have to win the head-to-head Wednesday to win the group. However, both will have secured advancement out of the group.
  • If Mexico wins and the US draws, the Americans need a result against Mexico to ensure advancement (while Mexico would already seal its place in the semifinals).
  • If the US wins and Mexico draws, the US is through. El Tri can be knocked out of the competition with a loss to the Americans and a Costa Rica win against DR (while making up a four-goal differential between those two games).
  • If either team loses, they likely need a win in the head-to-head to advance.

So what I’m saying is get a win, and the rest basically takes care of itself. DR will have to go for it – not only is that fairly typical of big underdogs, but they’ll have to make up a big goal differential even with a win to feel like there’s any shot at advancing. The Costa Rica-Mexico game should realistically be the more competitive of the two. It’s also the evening game, so the US must take care of business before knowing the full stakes of the Mexico contest.

In the other group, Honduras and Canada lead the way after wins against Haiti and El Salvador, respectively, and the Catrachos have a goal-differential advantage over the Canucks. As with Group A, the headlining game between those sides is on the third matchdate.

Los Quisqueyanos

The Dominican Republic experienced one-way traffic for most of Thursday’s game, with Mexico finding particular joy in the left attacking channel. Winger Uriel Antuña and attacking mid Sebastián Córdova were eatin’ on the left side of the penalty area. With that in mind, one might consider right back Jose Luis de la Cruz a bit of a liability, and the fact that he was the defender pulled for a striker when DR was chasing a late goal might not be directly related to that… but it probably is to a degree. CBs Brian López and Alex Jiménez didn’t directly give up any of the DR goals, but they left unmarked attackers available frequently enough that a sharper Mexico could have made it 7- or 8-1. One-v-ones and short, low crosses behind the backs of those CBs were all dangerous.

Goalkeeper Johan Guzmán gave up a penalty for the final goal, but he was forced off his line – almost out of his box – to make a tackle because his defense let a Mexico striker (substitute Santiago Muñoz) sprint straight up the middle of the field unperturbed for what would otherwise have been an easy goal. I wouldn’t pin it on the keeper, and he even saved the penalty before Córdova banged home his own rebound to complete the hat trick. Guzmán plays in the third division in Spain, as do most of the non-domestically based players on the DR roster.

The lone goal-scorer is one of the exceptions: Edison Azcona started on the left wing and converted a penalty for the Quisqueyanos. The former Orlando City academy prospect moved over to IMCF a couple years back, and signed an MLS club this offseason – he has yet to make his first-flight debut, though he scored three goals for Fort Lauderdale in USL League One last season.

The aforementioned penalty was earned by striker sub Nowend Lorenzo, who plays for the U-19 team of Spain’s Osasuna. The player he replaced in the lineup – Dorny Romero – plays for Venados FC in Mexico’s Ascenso (second division). Holding mid Gerard Lavergne plays for FC Tuscon of USL League One, and was a wire-to-wire player in Thursday’s game. At least their PDL-based player (Sebastian Mañón of Black Rock FC) didn’t see the field.

There’s not a ton of top-flight experience going on here, regardless of where in the world the Dominican players ply their trade with clubs, unless it’s domestically.

The Americans

I came away feeling less negatively about the game Thursday than I think the broader pool of National Team observers did. There were some obvious weak performances (namely from centerbacks Mauricio Pineda and Justen Glad), and some aspects of the game that clearly need to be cleaned up.

There was also a breakout performance from goalkeeper David Ochoa (who’s been one of the best in USL over the past few years, but has just one appearance for Real Salt Lake), while Jesús Ferreira hit the post on what could have been a tone-setting goal early in the game, and couldn’t quite chip the keeper in a one-v-one situation for another near-miss opportunity. Justen Glad missed a free header wide – hardly a guarantee in the best of circumstances, but certainly one that you wouldn’t have been surprised to see him convert. There were positives to take away.

So there are a few questions here:

  • How much of the Americans’ struggle could be ascribed to being out-of-season, being unfamiliar with teammates, and playing at altitude?
  • How much of the success was replicable? How much of the struggle would opponents be able to replicate?
  • What changes could Jason Kreis make to tactics or lineups to improve play?
  • Would the United States have played differently if not for holding the lead?

Taking them in reverse order, the answer to the final question is “of course, yes.” Nashville SC fans are probably pretty familiar with a team holding a 1-0 lead and playing to maintain that lead, with the opponent creating chances. But despite tilting the field in the second half, Costa Rica held only a 51% possession advantage for the game, and only a couple of their eight shots on-target felt truly scary. The ones that did feel truly scary were extremely so, yes.

The centerback pairing did not include the guy who had easily the best MLS season among available players – New England Rookie of the Year candidate Henry Kessler – and while his style for his club may not be quite as play-out-of-the-back-friendly a Pineda’s… results-based charting service says Pineda didn’t get the job done. Against a DR team that’s far less athletic up front than Costa Rica, I’d at least give Kessler a go there. I was also slightly surprised not to see Julian Araujo start at RB, and he looked good when he replaced Aaron Herrera in that role. While I’ve been a big Jackson Yueill fan and Hassani Dotson really impressed me (I was lukewarm on him for Minnesota United last season – not entirely his fault because he had to play out-of-position a bunch due to injuries on his team), there are also other bullets in the central midfield chamber. Andrés Perea got just half an hour and Tanner Tessmann (a late add to the official squad, though he’d been training in Guadalajara with the team) didn’t see the field. There are also options up top; I would contend that wasn’t the area most open to improvement through personnel change.

It felt to me like some – not all – of Costa Rica’s best chances were not replicable. Certainly the Ticos took advantage of major mistakes at the back from Glad and Pineda, but by definition, that requires those guys first making unforced errors. Meanwhile, the US created a number of early chances (and a couple late) primarily through tactical progression and an athletic advantage against Costa Rica (and Dominican Republic ain’t as athletic as Costa Rica, either). Maybe I’m being pollyanna-ish, but the good seemed earned, the bad seemed unlucky.

Lastly, I don’t think the proportion of the Americans’ lack of sharpness that can be attributed to training time and/or altitude is going to simply disappear by this evening… but it shouldn’t be necessary for that to happen if you want a win against Dominican Republic. Using this game as a competitive fitness session in addition to a must-win game against a relative minnow is a dual purpose heading into Wednesday’s headliner.

Predictions

With a two-goal deficit in the table vis-a-vis Mexico, the Red, White, and Blue will likely feel a bit of pressure to make that up (especially not knowing how El Tri does against Costa Rica later that evening). At least matching the three-goal win that their primary competition earned against this opponent will be imperative.

That should lead to a fairly open game, and based on what we saw from DR Thursday evening… it’s unlikely they have the ability to take advantage of even that, without a bit of luck? I see a similar contest to the way Mexico played Los Quisqueyanos, but without the bad luck that led to El Tri’s conceding a goal.

The US wins 4-0.

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