Three points separate the U.S. Men’s National Team from reassurance and a state of panic. The sky hasn't fallen yet, but don’t be surprised if it does Friday night.
After a letdown in San Pedro Sula, American soccer fans have been on edge.
Landon Donovan’s profile has been superimposed on the bat-signal. A 41-year-old Brad Friedel—who retired from international soccer in 2005—offered his services, and every one of Jurgen Klinsmann's decisions has been intensely scrutinized.
The same cannot be said for Costa Rica. Not as much angst and pressure rests on the shoulders of La Sele this Friday.
A stunning comeback allowed Costa Rica to steal a pivotal point in Panama last month. The most decorated nation in Central America is on pace to qualify for its fifth World Cup. The team's odds rested at 80 percent before a 2-2 draw on the road last month (per ESPN's Soccer Power Index).
The Yanks are reeling, and Costa Rica is more than capable of landing a devastating blow.
The aura that once safeguarded the USMNT has fizzled out. The rest of the CONCACAF region no longer fears the Stars and Stripes.
According to Guatemalan international Carlos Ruiz, that reverence and high esteem now belong to Mexico.
Ruiz's candid comments on the ExtraTime Radio Podcast earlier this month have been unspoken for some time, but they still ring true.
It’s not the same. The respect the Central American players have for United States in the past is not the same in this moment. We actually...that respect we have now for Mexican National Team. Mexico right now is one of the best national teams in CONCACAF and over United States from my point of view.
The USMNT’s depleted roster complicates the situation further. With no Landon Donovan, Tim Howard or Carlos Bocanegra, the Yanks are devoid of quality leadership for the first time in years.
This is not the same USMNT that finished atop the Hexagonal in 2009.
That’s not to say that the rest of the CONCACAF are looking past the Yanks. With talent the likes of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, the USMNT is still one of the premier teams in the region.
But the rest of the CONCACAF now believes it can get a result on American soil. That was not the case when the Yanks were unbeaten at home for the 2010 World Cup cycle.
Colorado's high altitude is the sole intimidation factor the USMNT enjoys this Friday. That is hardly enough to guarantee a positive result.
It does not bode well for the USMNT if recent history is indicative of what will transpire Friday night.
The Yanks boast an all-time losing record against Costa Rica (11-12-5) and are winless in the last five matches between the two (0-3-2).
The Yanks had already clinched a berth in the 2010 World Cup. Costa Rica was in search of a victory to do the same, but Jonathan Bornstein’s equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time ultimately shattered their 2010 World Cup dreams.
The draw forced La Sele into an interconfederation playoff against Uruguay. Costa Rica fell 2-1 on aggregate to a team that finished fourth in the 2010 World Cup.
A “Revenge is Here” tifo—much like the one displayed at Red Bull Arena last Saturday—will not hang from the stands at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
But that tifo will hang from the hearts of every Costa Rican international.
The desire to avenge a heart-rending result is at the boiling point for Costa Rica. No team in the Hexagonal will be as motivated to take down the Yanks as La Sele.
Costa Rica already possesses world-class talent capable of qualifying for the World Cup. It's the added incentive that makes them that much more dangerous.
Unlike Jozy Altidore, Joel Campbell has made the most of his opportunities at the international level.
The 20-year-old prodigy has been heralded as Costa Rica’s most promising talent since Paulo Wanchope—arguably the greatest footballer in Costa Rican history.
It is a comparison Campbell welcomed in an interview with the Spanish outlet Marca last year.
“Of course I would love to do what Paulo Wanchope did, or even exceed his accomplishments," he said. "I believe that with hard work I can do it.”
His hard work is already paying off.
Campbell added two more goals to his international total (seven goals) in the third round of World Cup qualifying.
His remarkable technique and goal-scoring ability is difficult to defend. The youngster is a threat to score from anywhere on the pitch.
Deportivo La Coruna can attest to that after his long-range stunner last December.
The USMNT’s questionable back line was exploited by Honduras. Campbell has proven he is more than capable of doing the same.
Joel Campbell is not the only Tico capable of finding the back of the net. Costa Rica has a plethora of weapons at their disposal.
And the attack has formidable depth.
Saborio is among MLS’ leading goal scorers with three goals in as many matches. Ruiz is second on the Cottagers with six assists. The latter Costa Rican international has started 17 matches this season, scoring three goals in the process.
Ruiz’s equalizer in 84th minute against Panama—a bicycle kick that ricocheted in off the post—exemplifies his world-class ability.
Christian Bolanos and Celso Borges round out an attack that has scored 16 goals in the third and fourth round of qualifying combined. That is tops for any team remaining in the Hexagonal.
That’s one more than the dreaded attack of El Tri and four more than the Yanks.
Costa Rica’s main concern Friday is earning another point on the road. The offensive firepower is there for La Sele to earn three.
Don’t be surprised if the USMNT finds itself up a goal Friday night. The potential is there with Altidore's scorching form.
But don’t be surprised when that lead is relinquished, either.
Look no further than the opening matches of the Hexagonal for verification.
Colorado hasn't exactly been a USMNT stronghold either: It has hosted just one match since 2003.
Panama City, on the other hand—like the rest of Central America—carries the reputation of providing a hostile and often volatile environment. That advantage allowed La Marea Roja to outscore its opponents 11-1 at home in the second and third round of qualifying.
And yet, despite 25,000 fervent fans and a two-goal deficit, Costa Rica still managed to leave the Crossroads of the Americas with a crucial point.
That experience will boost Costa Rica’s confidence should it find itself chasing a goal late in the match.
Confidence, however, is something the USMNT and its steadfast supporters are lacking. The Yanks’ inexperienced defense was unable to protect a one-goal lead in San Pedro Sula.
Piling injuries only raised more questions for what was an already dubious back four.
No lead is insurmountable for La Sele. No lead is safe for the Yanks.
Hold off all celebrations until the final whistle is blown. An expected draw Friday night is not worth celebrating for the USMNT.
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