Costa Rica vs USA
Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 10 pm ET
Estadio Nacional, La Sabana, San José, Costa Rica
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Five-and-a-half months after the USA's 1-0 “SnowClasico” victory in a late-winter Colorado blizzard at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, a storm again hangs over the Yanks and Ticos as the US national team visits Costa Rica in a pivotal World Cup qualifier between the current frontrunners in the CONCACAF Hexagonal round.
Next week's Mexico match in Columbus is traditionally the most highly anticipated match on the US national team's quadrennial calendar. Yet Friday night's tangle in Central America has suddenly ramped up to white-hot intensity levels as Costa Rica – from everyday fans all the way up to president Laura Chinchilla – have made it clear that ample hard feelings linger from the USMNT's snowy victory in March, when Los Ticos protested in favor of a weather-enforced postponement and fumed when match officials waved play on.
“As with diplomacy, there is reciprocity in soccer, so the American national team will receive the same treatment that they gave us in the United States,” declared Costa Rica's chief executive in an official statement on Facebook late last month.
And sure enough, many of the usual courtesies provided to visiting teams have been conspicuously absent since the USMNT's arrival in San José – where a crowd of Ticos fans was waiting at the airport to offer a jeering welcome – on Tuesday, from expedited customs clearance to training venues and even practice balls. The hostility has added further edge to a match which already loomed large as both teams seek to lock down a berth in next summer's World Cup.
The USA's 1-0 win in the group stage of this year's Gold Cup broke a deadlock between these CONCACAF rivals, giving the Yanks a record of 13-12-6 in the overall series.
The story has been drastically different in World Cup qualifiers on Costa Rican soil, however. The USMNT is 0-7-1 all-time in those contests as the Ticos' rickety former venue, Estadio Saprissa, proved a house of horrors for generation after generation of Norteamericano players.
Observers of Jurgen Klinsmann's side would catch little sign of that daunting history this week, however. The USMNT is flying high on a program-record 12-game winning streak, having not tasted defeat in a competitive fixture since the watershed, Hexagonal-opening loss to Honduras in February that made the SnowClasico such a pressure-packed occasion.
On Thursday, Landon Donovan – making his triumphant return to the US' so-called “A” team after a year away – told reporters that the current squad is the best USMNT side he's ever been a part of, while goalkeeper Tim Howard noted that “we’ve had a lot of firsts under Jurgen, so it gives us confidence that we can do it again. Because we’re so close [to World Cup qualification] now, our sole focus is getting a win.”
There are some vexing injury concerns, though. Red-hot striker Jozy Altidore reported to camp with a hamstring issue which, despite U.S. Soccer's decree of full medical clearance, has limited his participation in training this week. And Brad Evans' calf injury has robbed Klinsmann of his likely starter at right back, with Geoff Cameron or perhaps Michael Parkhurst expected to deputize.
COSTA RICA OUTLOOK
Depending on results elsewhere, the US can clinch qualification for Brazil 2014 within a week, and Costa Rica are just a step behind them. Los Ticos have 11 points from six Hex matches, with that fateful night in Commerce City, Colo., their only loss so far.
Road trips to Jamaica and Honduras and a visit from Mexico on the round's final fixture date add up to a tricky conclusion ahead, however, making a good result on Friday against the gringos even more important.
To that end, Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto is expected to attack the Yanks with far more fervor than was shown in his cautious approach when the teams met in East Hartford, Conn., in the Gold Cup, with weapons like Real Salt Lake star Álvaro Saborío, Fulham schemer Bryan Ruiz and young phenom Joel Campbell at his disposal.
The home side always looked supremely comfortable hosting the USA on Saprissa's well-worn artificial turf and many see the gleaming-new Estadio Nacional as a step down in terms of intimidation factor. But the Chinese-built facility's lush grass surface is well-suited to the snappy passing they produce when at their best and with their soccer-mad nation hungry for revenge, they'll be eager to get after the USMNT right away.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Michael Bradley
The USMNT's grisly history in Costa Rica is littered with cases of Yank midfields being overrun by the skilful, uptempo work of their bustling Tico counterparts. Everything about the match environment in San José feels more oppressive when you are pinned back in your own end, gasping for purchase and unable to sustain possession. It's up to Bradley, the intelligent, unflappable cog at the heart of Klinsmann's lineup, to prevent that from happening again on Friday.
COSTA RICA – Álvaro Saborío
Even if the US conjure up a much better performance than in past visits, Friday's hosts will surely stretch them out here and there and carve out a few scoring chances. The question is whether they can finish them off, and that's where “Sabo” comes in. The RSL hitman has one of CONCACAF's keenest noses for goal and he'll need to be razor sharp in the USMNT penalty box to keep his team on course for Brazil.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) John Brooks (Hertha Berlin/Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg/Germany), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Michael Orozco (Puebla/Mexico)
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes/France), Michael Bradley (Roma/Italy), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Jermaine Jones (Schalke/Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland/England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
GOALKEEPERS: Keylor Navas (Levante/Spain), Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense/Costa Rica)
DEFENDERS: Johnny Acosta (Alajuelense/Costa Rica), Junior Díaz (Mainz/Germany), Óscar Duarte (Club Brugge/Belgium), Cristian Gamboa (Rosenborg/Norway), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Valerenga/Norway), Bryan Oviedo (Everton/England), José Salvatierra (Alajuelense/Costa Rica), Michael Umaña (Saprissa/Costa Rica)
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Barrantes (Aalesunds/Norway), Cristian Bolaños (FC Copenhagen/Denmark), Celso Borges (AIK/Denmark), Diego Calvo (Valerenga/Norway), Mauricio Castillo (Saprissa/Costa Rica), José Miguel Cubero (Herediano/Costa Rica), Óscar Esteban Granados (Herediano/Costa Rica), Yeltsin Tejeda (Saprissa/Costa Rica)
FORWARDS: Randall Brenes (Cartaginés/Costa Rica), Joel Campbell (Olympiakos/Greece), Víctor Núñez (Herediano/Costa Rica), Bryan Ruiz (Fulham/England), Yendrick Ruiz (Herediano/Costa Rica), Álvaro Saborío (Real Salt Lake)