COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Few United States players could recall ever playing in conditions like the ones they faced against Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night.
Driving snow, swirling wind, freezing temperatures. In short: a blizzard.
But many players said the experience in a 1-0 win over Costa Rica was exactly what the U.S. needed to find the unity that had been missing since the final round of World Cup qualifying began last month.
"A lot has gone on this week and we talked about still knowing that the real response would come when we stepped on the field," midfielder Michael Bradley said in response to criticism Jurgen Klinsmann's team faced over the past week. "As a team on the inside, we talked about it beforehand. Not knowing what the game would be like, how the conditions would be, but the thing that had to be there was the commitment, the mentality, the determination, the willingness of every guy to fight for the guy next to him.
"So I think on a night like tonight, that's what carried us through."
In a game where the field was covered with more than three inches of snow, the sense of camaraderie might have been the best thing the Americans could take away from the victory. Well, that and a much-needed three points that elevated them from sixth place in the Hexagonal to second heading into Tuesday's big showdown at Mexico.
The U.S. desperately needed to feel better about itself after a tough loss to Honduras in the Hexagonal opener led to mass criticism by both media and fans and ultimately a report in the Sporting News that quoted several players as being unhappy with Klinsmann. However, all of that seemed to fade into the background when midfielder Clint Dempsey knocked in a deflection in the 16th minute to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
And while a fairly pretty first half turned into a sloppy and miserable second half – thanks to increased snowfall that even led to a brief stoppage while the referees asked the field crew to be more active about clearing snow off the endlines and sidelines – it was still a solid result and a building block for a young American team.
Now, the U.S. heads into Estadio Azteca in Mexico City with a little bit of moxie, which will be necessary in what will no doubt be a tough match against a Mexico squad that has yet to win a game. Both teams will be itching for three points to stay in the hunt for a spot in next year's World Cup.
[Slideshow: Team USA, Costa Rica battle it out in the snow]
"We're in a better position in the table and there's less pressure," Dempsey said. "We find ourselves in second going down to Mexico with that confidence. It's kind of when you get a good result or you score a goal. It kind of helps you get on a little bit of a run and it's whether or not you can keep that run going. So, hopefully, we can use it to our advantage of getting that win and getting back to winning ways and kind of stay on that pattern."
The U.S. is 16-32-12 against Mexico all time and, up until last August, had never beaten El Tri on their home soil. The surprising 1-0 result seemingly made people believe the Americans could become a soccer power and compete with some of the better soccer nations in the world.
Friday's win provided another source of confidence for this team, especially after spending a week getting used to high-altitude conditions similar to Mexico City. The Americans will actually stay in Denver until Sunday – partially due to the snow – before traveling to much warmer temperatures south of the border. Mexico is coming off a 2-2 draw against Honduras and has just two points in the Hexagonal so far.
"The main thing now is excitement," Bradley said. "You have a chance to go to that stadium to play against that team, and as a player those are the type of games you want to play in."
Klinsmann wasn't exactly as poetic about the trip.
"[Mexico] is as desperate as we are," he said.
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