In American soccer circles, the rivalry between the USA and Mexico men’s teams is the bitterest and most celebrated, and rightly so.
But there’s always a healthy dose of angst
bubbling when the opponent is Costa Rica, and their meeting Friday at Red Bull Arena will likely add itself to a list of tough and memorable encounters.
The home team usually prevails,
though the rivalry really kicked off 32 years ago, when the USA -- needing just a tie at home to reach the final round of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup -- stumbled to a 1-0 loss at El Camino
College in Torrance, Calif.
Since then, no home team has been defeated in a competitive match between the nations. As they prepare for the seventh game of the 10-match Hexagonal, both
teams can qualify for Russia 2018 if they sweep their next two games. The odds are slim: the Americans would also need to beat Honduras Tuesday in San Pedro Sula, and get some help with other results,
and though los Ticos are at home on the same day, their guest is Mexico.
Even when these nations tie, the emotions can be searing. Case in point is the 2009 Hexagonal finale at RFK
Stadium. Already qualified for South Africa 2010 and trailing, 2-1, the Americans scored a stunning equalizer on a Jonathan Bornstein header and knocked the Ticos from an automatic
qualification slot, which instead went to Honduras.
In that World Cup cycle, the Concacaf wild card met its counterpart from South America, which turned out to Uruguay. Adios, Ticos.
Back and forth. In just the past 13 months, the Americans have drilled Costa Rica, 4-0, in the 2016 Copa America Centenario;
suffered a lashing by the same score that prompted the dismissal of coach Jurgen Klinsmann in Round 2 of the Hexagonal; and paid back the Costa Ricans, somewhat, by prevailing 2-0, in a
Concacaf Gold Cup semifinal.
That’s a hefty menu of drama and intrigue for regional rivals used to dueling with Mexico for superiority in the region.
On Friday, Costa
Rica will also field a few veterans of the “Snow Clasico,” the 2013 Hexagonal meeting in Colorado decided by a Clint Dempsey goal while the field was still green in most spots. As a
heavy snowfall obscured the playing lines, the Costa Ricans insisted the game be halted and replayed at a later date. It wasn’t. Their protest was denied.
Oh, and the all-time
series is dead even at 15-15-7.
Though the U.S. prevailed in the Gold Cup semifinal less than six weeks ago, qualifiers take on a hotter intensity and in that match neither team was close
to full strength. The same will be true Friday though the injury lists are shorter.
The missing. Costa Rica is missing attacker
Joel Campbell and flank threat Ronald Matarrita, both injured, andsuspended centerback Giancarlo Gonzalez; U.S. head coach Bruce Arena is deprived of two starters
-- right back DeAndre Yedlin and centerback John Brooks – as well as attacker Kelyn Rowe, who debuted during the Gold Cup and scored a crucial goal in a 3-0 defeat of
Nicaragua that clinched first place in Group B.
The absence of Campbell, scorer of the last two goals in a 4-0 blowout last November, aids the U.S. cause. But it must contend with
Cristian Bolanos, absent during the Gold Cup after creating the first goal of that rout and scoring the second. At 33, he’s lost a bit of flat-out speed yet none of the
guile. Equally dangerous gliding along the edge of the attacking third in search of a serve or driving at goal to pass or shoot, Bolanos has scored four goals during World Cup qualifying.
He and Whitecaps teammate Kendall Waston are among a contingent of seven MLS
players picked by head coach Oscar Ramirez, who can cite the league experience of Daniel Guzman (Portland), Rodney Wallace (New York City FC) and Marco Urena (San Jose)
when he fills out his lineup card. If none of these players are outstanding, they are all solid and more than capable of making a big play at a crucial moment.
The European group is an
impressive one starting with Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.Attacker Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon) is nearly impossible to track and was named Concacaf Player of
the Year in 2016. He'sably supported by La Liga linchpin Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruna). Surplus of
options. Domestic-based players are employed by Herediano, Deportivo Saprissa, and Alajuelense, which regularly battle MLS teams in Concacaf club competition. Defenders Johnny Acosta
and Michael Umana give Ramirez a surplus of options.
Though the U.S. transformation under Arena from a confused, conflicted bunch to a confident, cohesive team has rolled
through 14 games unbeaten (nine wins, five ties), Costa Rica is extremely well-organized and quite capable of stifling an opponent in a 5-4-1 formation.
Both teams can point to
egregious breakdowns as reasons for defeat in their meetings, and like many qualifiers this game might boil down to which mistakes are punished.