SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – The United States missed the chance to move to the brink of World Cup qualification on Friday night, suffering a 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica that saw its record winning streak snapped at 12.
Facing a hostile home crowd and a motivated host nation, the U.S. was unable to recover from conceding two goals in the opening eight minutes, and lost its position at the top of CONCACAF's final six-team qualifying group.
The top three of those nations will reach Brazil next summer, and, despite this setback, the Americans' chances of being part of soccer's greatest show are still highly probable, especially after traditional regional power Mexico sustained a shocking defeat at home to Honduras.
Yet that will be of little consolation to the Americans, who have come to expect more from themselves than spirited, though ultimately futile, performances on the road. For all the passion of the Estadio Nacional crowd, for all the history that says no U.S. team has ever won here, and even though midfield talisman Michael Bradley went down injured moments before kickoff, this was a match head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players expected to win.
Such results must be hard-earned, and while the United States responded strongly toward the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, this clash was effectively decided by a few critical moments near the outset.
The night ended with Costa Rica as the new group leader on 14 points, one clear of Klinsmann's men. And it began in perfect fashion for the home side, with Johnny Acosta knocking the ball home from a corner on the right with only 119 seconds played.
Seven minutes later, Celso Borges added a second and Los Ticos, still smarting with frustration that governing body FIFA did not order the infamous snow-affected clash between the sides in March to be replayed, could already taste revenge.
Previous American teams may have folded there and then, especially with midfield anchor Bradley hobbling on crutches on the sidelines instead of marshaling a response. However, this one would not be allowed to slip by without a struggle.
Much is made of the technical improvements made since Klinsmann took charge two years ago, but a significant development is the discovery of a never-say-die attitude.
Fabian Johnson won a penalty kick three minutes before the break when his run at goal was ferociously stopped by goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who was fortunate to earn only a yellow card for his infraction.
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Clint Dempsey, celebrating his 100th appearance for the national team, blasted home the penalty – and suddenly it was game on again.
Costa Rica is a different proposition when playing on home turf, though, and despite some evident nerves, especially when Dempsey struck the post midway through the second half, they held firm.
Joel Campbell put the result beyond doubt with 15 minutes left, using his pace to outrun the U.S. defense before sliding the ball past the reach of goalkeeper Tim Howard.
This was not a catastrophe for the U.S., but it does serve to set up a mouthwatering fixture against fierce rival Mexico in Columbus on Tuesday night. Depending on other results, Klinsmann and his players could wrap up qualification with two games to spare, while another defeat by Mexico would leave that proud soccer nation on the verge of disaster.
World Cup qualifying campaigns are rarely without a hiccup or two along the way, even for the strongest of soccer superpowers. U.S. supporters, so confident – and justifiably so – at the start of this trip, will hope this was nothing more than a blip. Tough teams, the kind that do well in the cauldron-like atmosphere of a World Cup, know how to bounce back strong from adversity.
The U.S. has the opportunity to show it is made of such mettle in less than four days time.