Live through enough World Cup qualifying cycles in CONCACAF, and you eventually start to feel like you’re in some kind of time loop. The regional governing body has 41 member associations, but it is narrow at the top. It is always more or less the same group of countries entering the six-team hexagonal round for three places at the World Cup and another in an intercontinental playoff. And so the same opponents, and the same scenarios, return again and again.
This isn’t necessarily true for results. After four straight cycles in which the United States won its home game against Mexico 2-0, every single time in Columbus, Ohio, that same grudge match was lost 2-1 last Friday at the exact venue where Jurgen Klinsmann’s team appeared to have a psychological hold on its historical arch-rivals. It was a discomfiting start to the hex for the U.S., which was doomed by an 89th-minute winner from old boogeyman Rafa Marquez.
What is replicating itself in the qualifying series for the 2018 World Cup in Russia from the one for Brazil 2014 is that the second game of the hex falls against Costa Rica. And that, like in early 2013, a loss in the opener – 2-1 in Honduras back then, when the Catrachos were still a good team – adds early heft to Tuesday’s game, even though eight more qualifiers will remain after this one.
As you may recall, back on March 22, 2013, in the wake of a scathing article in the Sporting News in which several players threw their coach under the bus for his various shortcomings, the Americans ground out a 1-0 result in a blizzard just outside Denver. It came to be known as the “Snow Clasico,” and in truth, the game never should have been played. It snowed so hard that the grounds crew couldn’t shovel the lines fast enough. All the same, the U.S. went on to get a creditable 0-0 tie with Mexico at the fearsome Azteca four days later and won six of seven the rest of the way, qualifying comfortably as the best team in the region.
The lone loss? Against Costa Rica, in San Jose.
The Americans are 0-8-2 on Costa Rican soil all-time. In World Cup qualifiers, they are 0-8-1. And that single point, earned back in 1985, was won in Alajuela. In the cauldrons of San Jose, where the U.S. will turn up once again on Tuesday, the Yanks have lost all eight times that they’ve played a World Cup qualifier. That’s a worse record even than their famously bad ledger at the Azteca.
So now, desperate for some momentum to carry it through to the next set of qualifiers in late March – against Honduras at home and in Panama – Klinsmann’s side will attempt to get a result where it has never gotten one before.
“The message is very simple,” Klinsmann said after the Mexico loss. “We’ve got to go down there and get a result, which we will do. I told them, ‘We’re going to correct it in Costa Rica.’ It’s just part of the qualifying process, the long road over 10 games.”
“It gets a sense of anger in us, a sense, absolutely, of urgency,” the German head coach went on, referring to the Mexico loss. “Because you don’t want to be behind. Costa Rica won tonight [a 2-0 win at tricky Trinidad and Tobago]. So it’s right there. All those qualifying games are nail-biters. All those qualifying games are difficult. I think if we pick up the second half [form from the Mexico loss] and play that way [against Costa Rica], I’m not worried.”
Indeed, the second half against Mexico was strong after Klinsmann badly hampered his own team with some ill-conceived tactics that could well have led to a 3-0 deficit within 25 minutes – it was by the grace of the goal frame that Mexico scored just once early on, rather than three times – but the decision raised yet more questions about Klinsmann’s coaching chops. Five years into the job, we’re still not entirely sure what to make of him.
After significant pressure on his position earlier this year, he was redeemed by a strong fourth place at this past summer’s Copa America Centenario. But an 0-2 start in qualifying for the World Cup, the ultimate prize and only truth every four years, would surely build up pressure again, especially with the negative sentiment festering for 4½ months.
It’s an outcome that is sufficiently likely for U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to feel compelled to address it preemptively. “Every coach at some level is on the hot seat in every game,” he said, per MLSSoccer.com. “We have not had a coach in 27 years that has started World Cup qualifying and not finished World Cup qualifying. The last time was in 1988-89. We’ve never changed coaches in the hex. And I expect that to be the case here.”
Gulati, who hasn’t exactly had a quick trigger in his decade in charge of the federation, appointing just two managers in all that time – Klinsmann and Bob Bradley – made the fair point that the Americans have often had a front-loaded schedule. The last time, they began with the aforementioned Honduras and Costa Rica games, followed by Mexico away. This time, Mexico at home is followed by Costa Rica away. Those are arguably two of the three trickiest game out of the slate of 10. And so it was always likely that the USA would be getting the bulk of its points later on, after a slow start.
That such couching, mitigating and qualifying are already necessary at this early juncture, however, is fairly telling in its own right. Nine games remain, yet the pressure is already on.
Will the Americans be fine if they lose in San Jose as well? Most likely. The CONCACAF region is incredibly forgiving, with more than half of teams either reaching the World Cup directly or qualifying for a playoff out of the final round.
But a first-ever win in Costa Rica would go a long way in easing the angst throughout a long winter before the next qualifiers.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.