HARRISON, N.J. – For the first time in his nine months and 15 games in charge of the United States men’s national team, Bruce Arena lost a game on Friday. The veteran coach and his charges picked a wretched time to drop their first game of 2017. A World Cup qualifier. At home. Against Costa Rica. By a score of 2-0 from a pair of Marco Urena goals.
After all, Costa Rica sat just above the U.S. in the CONCACAF standings for the places in Russia next summer. And it has now opened a gap of six points, making the Americans’ third place grip even more tenuous. Since only three teams out of six qualify automatically – the fourth will enter a playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher – the margin for error in the three final games, taking place on Tuesday and in October, is reduced to practically nothing.
Fourth-placed Panama trails by just a point and would face Mexico in Mexico City later on in the night. Should the Americans unexpectedly be dumped into fourth place by a Panamanian upset against El Tri, a home game against the Canaleros remains in Orlando on Oct. 6 to make amends.
These are the unfortunate facts. The Americans are here again.
After a disastrous start to the final round of World Cup qualifying with back-to-back losses in November, Jurgen Klinsmann was finally dismissed after years of stasis. Arena was brought back after a decade for a second spell in charge, to set things right and see the Yanks into their eighth straight World Cup. The U.S. won both of its subsequent home games and got a credible point apiece on the road in Panama and Mexico.
Things were looking up. And the fans were pondering scenarios for when the USA could clinch its spot in Russia. For Costa Rica’s obvious strengths and reputation as one of the three powers in the region, along with the home team and Mexico, a win was expected on Friday. And a win would see to it that the Americans likely needed no more than another home victory and a point or two on the road.
In a raucous Red Bull Arena, where the pregame militarism was dialed up by a flyover of threatening combat helicopters, for some reason, the U.S. made a positive start. Understanding that their opponents would likely be happy to leave with a tie, the Americans took it upon themselves to take the initiative. They played a patient possession game, building out of the back. Costa Rica counter-punched by preying on a multitude of mistakes.
The 18-year-old American phenom Christian Pulisic was electric early on, running through the scrambling Costa Rican lines, until the savage treatment he received from his Costa Rican markers took its toll. But all of that toil seldom resulted in real chances. In fact, the clearest goal-scoring opportunities the U.S. got all night were potential, if unclear, penalties not awarded by referee John Pitti – who hails from Panama, and make of that what you will.
If the U.S. was ponderous and imprecise up front, it was downright sloppy in the back. Arena grew visibly exasperated at his defenders’ inability to connect with the midfield, opting for the back-pass instead. And on just such a play to goalkeeper Tim Howard, who cleared the ball upfield, Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz fed Urena. He turned the shaky Tim Ream around and rolled the ball past Howard and into the net from a tricky angle.
Shaken by the goal, the Americans grew even more tentative for the remainder of the first half. Costa Rica, cleverly set up with a band of savvy veterans, knew just what to do with such a lead and disrupted the Americans in every line.
The home team regrouped in the second half, bombing forward in numbers. They put real pressure on their guests, but the end product was invariably lacking.
It was Pulisic, whose influence had faded considerably in the second half, who came closest to an equalizer. In the 68th minute, his shot from inside the box was deflected but acrobatically and somewhat miraculously saved by Keylor Navas, the starting Real Madrid goalkeeper.
Jozy Altidore was denied point-blank by Navas as well.
And just a minute later, with the U.S. fully committed forward following the insertion of super-sub Clint Dempsey, Costa Rica got its insurance goal out of nowhere in the 82nd minute. Geoff Cameron punctuated a troubled night with a bad turnover that was immediately dispatched into the path of Urena by David Guzman. Urena beat Howard one-on-one.
Ironically, it had been another loss to the Ticos in November – a savage 4-0 beatdown – that had plunged the Americans into crisis. Much work had gone into reopening the path to Russia since then. Going into this game, it ran straight and was well-paved. Now it is twisty and bumpy.
Next, the Americans travel to Honduras where they have never had an easy time of it. And they badly need points to avoid a bleak outlook.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.