By Mike Woitalla
Much has been made of the USA's rivalry with its big neighbor, Mexico, but tiny Costa Rica -- population 4.5 million -- has been an even more frustrating foe for the Americans in World Cup qualifying on the road.
The USA has never won a qualifier in the Central American nation with a Caribbean coast. Its best result was a tie in 1985, and that was followed by a home loss that eliminated the USA from 1986 World Cup qualifying.
Since then the USA has lost seven straight qualifiers in Costa Rica, under four coaches: Bob Gansler (1989), Steve Sampson (1996 and 1997), Bruce Arena (2000, 2001, 2005) and Bob Bradley (2009). That’s a worse record, during the same period, than at Mexico, where the USA managed to tie in Azteca qualifiers in 1997 and last March.
A big relief for the USA when it faces the Ticos on Friday is the game won’t be played at Saprissa Stadium, where fans are much closer to the field than most venues, including Azteca. The Ticos’ 2-1 win in 1996 featured the brilliant play of then 21-year-old Paulo Wanchope but was marred by their fans, who showered the field with debris. After the game, U.S. goalkeeper coach Milutin Soskic gathered coins, batteries and screws off the grass to present to FIFA observer Jim Fleming -- who probably didn’t need much convincing as he was doused with a beer after a Tico goal.
“The worst place I ever played,” Eric Wynalda said after the game. But censured by FIFA, the fans refrained from throwing stuff at the Americans a year later in final-round play, a 3-2 Costa Rica win.
Despite the losses, Spanish-speaking Sampson made a good impression in Costa Rica and would serve as its national team coach in 2002-04. His successor, Arena, likely has no fond memories of Costa Rica. He was suspended for three games for his postgame reaction to Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast for calling a handball penalty kick that led to the Ticos’ winning goal in the 2000 loss. “I told him he cheated us,” Arena admitted. Captain Claudio Reyna was suspended for two games for throwing his captain’s armband toward Prendergast.
Under Arena, the Americans lost twice more in Costa Rica, but both teams qualified for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Bradley’s biggest loss while the USA qualified for the 2010 World Cup came with a 3-1 defeat at Costa Rica. Unlike Sampson and Arena, Bradley was spared having to play the Ticos in the semifinal round. Same for Jurgen Klinsmann, for whom Friday’s game marks his first with the USA in Costa Rica.
If the Americans pull off a win, it will add to U.S. milestones since Klinsmann took the helm two years ago:
* First win over Italy (1-0, friendly in Genoa, February, 2012).
* First win at Mexico (1-0, friendly in Mexico City, August, 2012).
* First away World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica (2-1, in Kingston, last June).
* First come-from-behind win on European soil (4-3 friendly at Bosnia-Herzegovina, last month).
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as confident about getting a result on one of these trips,” said Landon Donovan. “In theory, there are small advantages in not playing at Saprissa and that the weather is going to be cooperative, but that only matters if you make it an advantage."
A win on Friday would also extend the USA’s record win streak to 13 games.