SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – It’s been a while since the United States national team has taken a punch – 12 games to be exact. Now they have four days to pull themselves off the mat.
Costa Rica leapfrogged the US into first place in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal stage of World Cup qualifying with a 3-1 win at a sold-out Estadio Nacional, avenging the Snow Game and ending the US’ record winning streak after a nightmare first half gave the Americans a mighty hill to climb.
First, midfielder Michael Bradley was hobbled just before kickoff, limping off the pitch with a left ankle sprain that forced Geoff Cameron into the starting lineup alongside Jermaine Jones. Then Costa Rica pounced twice in the first 10 minutes, jumping out to a 2-0 lead that the US trimmed to 2-1 via a Clint Dempsey penalty kick before Joel Campbell put the game away in the second half.
Never one to stick to conventional wisdom, US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann surprised many by opting for Michael Orozco at right back. He also shifted Dempsey into the central striker role vacated by Jozy Altidore, who made the bench after an injury scare, and started Landon Donovan in a second forward role.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, stuck with the five-man backline that’s been their calling card in World Cup qualifying, and head coach Jorge Luis Pinto opted for Joel Campbell up top instead of Alvaro Saborio, with Bryan Ruiz and Cristian Bolanos in support.
The decision to go with the young forward paid dividends immediately as Jermaine Jones’ giveaway in the midfield allowed Campbell time to turn and bull his way into the box. And although the US nicked the ball away, it fell to Ruiz, whose close-range effort was saved by Tim Howard.
Howard could do nothing about the ensuing corner kick,though, as Johnny Acosta beat Dempsey to the near post and headed the ball past DaMarcus Beasley on the near post to give the hosts a 1-0 lead after just two minutes – the same amount of time it took them to open the scoring in the corresponding fixture in 2009.
Seven minutes later, the Ticos and their fans were celebrating again, as another header undid the American defense. This time it was midfielder Celso Borges who beat his marker, rising to meet Bolanos’ cross at the far after a throw-in split the US defense, before heading past a flat-footed Tim Howard.
The goal made it seven straight World Cup qualifiers on Costa Rican soil in which the US has allowed at least two goals, and it looked like the home team would add more to their 2-1 lead in the ensuing minutes.
Still, the US won the possession battle – even if the majority of it was in their own half – and finally threatened the Costa Rican goal in the 29th minute when a loose ball fell to Fabian Johnson in the 18-yard box, who swiveled and uncorked a powerful half volley only to be denied by a world-class reaction save from Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
The only way Navas could stop Johnson in the 41st minute, however, was to take him down after Graham Zusi’s quickly taken free kick sprung the left sider in behind the Costa Rica backline. Despite appeals for a red card, Navas only saw yellow before Dempsey stepped up to lash his penalty kick down the middle, an attempt the ‘keeper got a hand on but couldn’t keep out.
Neither side made a change at the half, but the US came out of the break and immediately put more pressure on Costa Rica than they had throughout the entirety of the first half. Omar Gonzalez nearly got on the end of a Donovan corner kick in the 51st minute, and a left-footed blast from Dempsey smacked the outside of the left post five minutes later.
Needing a goal to pull the US even, Klinsmann went to his bench in search of attacking options, bringing Eddie Johnson on for Zusi in the 58th minute and Altidore for Fabian Johnson in the 71st.
Despite the influx in firepower, it was Campbell who put the game out of reach for the Americans in the 75th minute, outrunning Matt Besler and slipping the ball under Howard after Jose Cubero cleared the ball into the space behind a high US backline.
In addition to the loss, Klinsmann will not be able to call on the services of Cameron, Besler and Altidore against Mexico on Tuesday in Columbus after all three saw yellow against Costa Rica, triggering one-match suspensions for yellow-card accumulation.