By Ridge Mahoney
Every time the USA plays Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier, there's a lot more at play than just the result.
Dating back to Costa Rica's 1-0 win in Torrance, Calif., that knocked the USA out of contention for a spot in the 1986 World Cup, there’s a long and deep history of memorable meetings. The most recent encounter followed form.
As the teams walked onto the field three and a half years ago at RFK Stadium, Carlos Bocanegra wore the captain’s armband. Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber started in midfield, Tim Howard was in goal, and Jozy Altidore joined Conor Casey up top as a replacement for Charlie Davies, hospitalized by critical injuries suffered in an auto accident the morning of the day before the game.
In this final game of the Hexagonal, the Americans, who had just qualified for the 2010 World Cup four days earlier, came out intensely focused as thousands of fans waved placards and posters bearing Davies’ face and his jersey number. A win for Costa Rica would clinch its spot in South Africa, but it couldn’t handle the occasion despite jumping out to a 2-0 lead with a pair of Bryan Ruiz goals.
Michael Bradley scored to cut the lead in half and deep into stoppage time Jonathan Bornstein headed home a Robbie Rogers corner kick to snatch a dramatic 2-2 tie. The Americans topped the Hexagonal, Mexico took second, and Honduras finished third ahead of the Costa Ricans, who were forced to face off with Uruguay in a playoff the South American nation won.
From that RFK game in October 2009, the only U.S. returnees from the 18-player squad for Friday night's game are Altidore, Bradley and Brad Guzan, who backed up Howard. (Clint Dempsey, who will captain the team Friday, missed the final Hexagonal matches four years ago because of a sprained shoulder.)
Though the USA has failed to beat Costa Rica in their last five meetings -- including three at home -- the Americans have usually prevailed at home in World Cup qualifiers with the one notable exception.
A raucous sellout crowd celebrated a spectacular long-distance strike by Tab Ramos that brought the USA a 1-0 win in Portland, Ore., during the 1997 Hexagonal, eight years after his goal in Fenton, Mo. brought the same result.
More than 45,000 fans attended a 2005 Hexagonal match in Salt Lake City, a 3-0 win for the USA that featured a pair of Landon Donovan goals and an unforgettable triple-save sequence by Kasey Keller.
The Costa Ricans have their own list of players, past and present, to make their names in games against the Americans. In 1985, Evaristo Coronado's goal handed the USA a 1-0 loss, its only defeat to Costa Rica in eight home qualifiers on one of the darkest hours in the history of the national team.
Paulo Wanchope,an assistant coach of the current team,attended high school in Southern California before playing club ball in England, Spain and Argentina and scoring 45 international goals, including the winner in a 3-0 defeat of the USA in October 2005 that clinched a World Cup spot for the Ticos. Hernan Medford, Ronald Gomez, Walter Centeno, Rolando Fonseca and Mauricio Solis (who had a brief stint in MLS) all have a place in the USA-Costa Rica rivalry.
Alvaro Saborio's prowess with Real Salt Lake -- 17 goals last season, 40 in his MLS career -- is mirrored by his 30 international goals, second on the nation’s all-time list. He scored in the Ticos' last qualifying win, a 3-1 victory in June 2009.
Along with his teammates, Saborio sank to his knees in disappointment when Bornstein’s RFK goal pushed Honduras past Costa Rica in the final Hexagonal standings. Head coach Rene Simoes and his assistants surrounded and jostled Mexican referee Benito Archundia as they furiously protested his liberal application of stoppage time, and joyous American fans waved their flags and No. 9 posters. Celebrations broke out throughout Honduras as well.
Friday's game is only the second game of the Hexagonal and won’t clinch anything for anybody, but as the only U.S. home date of the first four matches, it’s a vital opportunity for three points.
In their Hexagonal opener, the Costa Ricans rallied with goals (by Saborio and Ruiz) for a 2-2 tie in Panama City and must believe they can do at least as well against an American squad roiled by published, anonymous quotes critical of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his methods.