USA vs. Costa Rica: USMNT defense got exposed in World Cup qualifier

While there were a few positives to take away from the 2-0 loss the United States suffered at the hands of Costa Rica, there was one glaring negative: the performance of its defense, especially the central pairing of Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron. Their issues weren’t completely their fault — there were tactical issues as well that left them exposed — but that just served to make their mistakes all the more painful.

It was clear almost right away that Ream and Cameron were having issues with Marco Ureña at the top of Costa Rica’s formation, with the big striker’s off-ball movement and ball pressure giving both of them fits. Ream in particular struggled whenever Ureña was starting to push up, not managing to deal well with reading and reacting to his movement in any way. Add that to positioning woes from both Ream and Cameron all match long, and it was little surprise that Ureña was able to easily beat them on both goals that he scored en route to Friday’s upset for Costa Rica.

The first goal at least required a truly impressive bit of finishing.

But the second was just downright poor play by the American defense.

The blame doesn’t lie entirely on Ream and Cameron, even though their poor individual showings certainly deserve scrutiny. The U.S. defense was also badly exposed thanks in large part to their tactical setup, which left Michael Bradley essentially alone in midfield as a shield for the defense, with Darlington Nagbe and both wingers spending much of the match pushed high.

It was a risky setup with Costa Rica bringing a couple of quality midfielders going forward in Bryan Ruiz and David Guzman with a packed-in defense behind them, though it wasn’t an unreasonable risk to take. The U.S. needed numbers to break down the Ticos’ defense, and it nearly worked on a number of occasions, but it also ultimately cost the Americans more than it helped them, with the lack of midfield support leaving Ream and Cameron overexposed time after time in crucial moments.

Bruce Arena at least admitted that he was outcoached in the match, but it wasn’t clear that he learned the right lessons from it. He was quick to praise Ream despite his struggles, saying that he was “solid” even though he was directly involved in giving up both goals and frequently poor the rest of the night.

Yes, Ream is an experienced veteran, but the level and quality of that experience — he’s a regular starter for a good-but-not-great Championship side in Fulham that allows a lot of goals — doesn’t really suggest that he should be playing regularly at this level, especially not paired with a defender like Cameron who has a similar skillset. They don’t complement each other well — neither player is athletic enough to cover mistakes and both are acceptable, but not great passers — and tend to make a lot of the same mistakes.

Ideally, the USMNT wouldn’t need to start Ream or Cameron, but John Brooks’ long-term knee injury, along with the recently shaky form of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, apparently forced Arena’s hand. Cameron is generally an acceptable option in defense. But when he’s played with someone like Ream, who is neither significantly quicker or significantly better technically, his weaknesses are exposed. When that exposure is met with tactical frailty like the U.S. had on Friday, bad things happen and Cameron looks poor. Arena asked his central defenders to be superstars, and they were incapable of that. Cameron and Ream are decent players, but they’re not good enough to cover for a team without a midfield.

Hopefully Arena has indeed learned the right lessons from this match, because the U.S. are quickly running out of time to earn a place in the World Cup next summer. They have a must-win match in Honduras on Tuesday, and if their defensive woes aren’t at least somewhat addressed between now and then, the USMNT could be in a world of trouble.

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