LOCATION: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.
TV INFO: ESPN, Univision
For all the hype surrounding the U.S. national team’s June trip to the majestic Estadio Azteca, Friday’s qualifier against Costa Rica at the intimate Red Bull Arena is the Yanks’ biggest match since Brazil 2014.
Encounters against Mexico may have the most pageantry of any in CONCACAF. But there is always room for both of the region’s giants in the World Cup picture, provided they hold form against other opponents. And historically speaking, Costa Rica have been the United States’ greatest threat to that form.
The Ticos have never won a Hexagonal match on American soil since the format was implemented for 1998 qualifiers, though their play in those games suggests they are more than capable.
The U.S. only won the last home qualifying encounter by a single goal during Colorado snow squalls that Costa Ricans still believe should’ve prompted a postponement. In the cycle before that, it took Jonathan Bornstein’s late heroics to rescue a point at RFK Stadium for an already qualified U.S. side and, more consequentially, send Honduras to South Africa ahead of Costa Rica. And who could forget Tab Ramos’ rocket that sealed a crucial win at what is now Providence Park way back during the campaign to reach France ’98?
The Americans will enter Friday as confident as they’ve been all cycle after following up their qualifying draw in Mexico with a run to the 2017 Gold Cup title that included a semifinal win against the same Ticos. They would also be wise to remember how it took an individual moment of brilliance from Clint Dempsey to turn what had been an even match for 70-plus minutes.
As poorly as the Hex began for the United States, Bruce Arena’s men have the outside chance to secure passage to Russia by the time this latest international break closes during the middle of next week.
They’d have to beat both Costa Rica at home and Honduras away, and also get some major help from Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago to do it. But that it’s even possible after beginning the Hex with two defeats and a -5 goal differential is reason enough for hope.
More realistically, securing four points during the window for the third straight time under Arena would probably be enough to allow the U.S. a chance to clinch at home in Orlando against Panama on Oct. 6. And if that plan fell through, the Yanks would probably need a result on the final day of qualifying for the first time since 1989, with Trinidad and Tobago again playing the host.
The Ticos could all but secure their second consecutive World Cup appearance with an upset victory in New Jersey, and still have a reasonable path to Russia should they lose. But don’t expect coach Oscar Ramirez to throw caution to the wind just yet
While Costa Rica have tried to play football more than most during visits to the States, the long-term injury absences of Joel Campbell and Ronald Matarrita complicate things going forward.
They coped well enough in a run to the Gold Cup semifinals that included a valiant performance in their semifinal defeat to the U.S.
But Campbell’s combination of pace, strength and technical ability is exactly the kind of thing that can turn half-chances into goals in a tough away environment, as is Matarrita’s exceptional two-way ability as a wingback. Without them, even more of the attacking burden falls on Bryan Ruiz in the center of the park.
This will be the 37th all-time meeting between the two CONCACAF rivals since their first meeting back in 1975, and there has been very little to separate the two nations over the decades. Following the USA’s win in the Gold Cup semifinals last month, the all-time series record sits dead even at 15-15-6, with Costa Rica scoring 43 goals to the USMNT’s 40. The U.S. hold a 15-5-4 advantage when facing the Ticos on home soil, though did lose the first time they played at Red Bull Arena, a 1-0 Costa Rica victory on Oct. 13, 2015.
USA — Clint Dempsey
“Deuce” may no longer be a 90-minute regular in the international picture, but has a pretty good history against the Ticos, including his efforts as a supersub in July’s Gold Cup semifinal. Way before that, it was Dempsey who scored the decider in the U.S.’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in the infamous snow game played at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Costa Rica — Keylor Navas
More than anyone else, Navas has challenged the notion that the best goalkeepers in CONCACAF belong to the U.S. After many believed he should’ve won the Golden Glove award ahead of Germany’s Manuel Neuer at the 2014 World Cup, he has helped Real Madrid win two UEFA Champions League crowns and the 2016-17 La Liga title.
Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City / ENG), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca / MEX), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest / ENG), Tim Ream (Fulham / ENG), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna / MEX), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Midfielders (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach / GER), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund / GER), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards (5): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburg / GER)
Goalkeepers (3): Keylor Navas (Real Madrid / SPA), Leonel Moreira (Herediano), Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense)
Defenders (9): Cristian Gamboa (Celtic / SCO), Jose Salvatierra (Alajuelense), Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland / ENG), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps / CAN), Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United / USA), Michael Umana (Pars Jonoubi Jam / IRN), Johnny Acosta (Herediano), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Bologna / ITA), Kenner Gutierrez (Alajuelense)
Midfielders (8): Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruna / SPA), David Guzman (Portland Timbers / USA), Yeltsin Tejada (Lausanne-Sport / SUI), Christian Bolanos (Vancouver Whitecaps / CAN), Randall Azofeifa (Herediano), Johan Venegas (Minnesota United / USA), Rodney Wallace (New York City FC / USA), Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon / POR)
Forwards (4): Daniel Colindres (Saprissa), Marco Urena (San Jose Earthquakes / USA), Jose Ortiz (Herediano), David Ramirez (Saprissa)