The Costa Rica national men s soccer team is sitting in second place after three games in the North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) zone qualifier for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
La Sele snagged in South Africa three points Wednesday night as they beat El Salvador 1-0 at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium, on the north side of San José, giving the team a total of six and placing them right behind the U.S., which has seven, in zone standings.
It was a necessary win for the team. Four days earlier, they dropped their first game in these World Cup qualifiers to Mexico, losing 0-2, albeit in the infamous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City where home team El Tri carries a staggering 63-4-1 record.
Wednesday s game saw the return of Captain Walter Centeno, who had to sit out Saturday s game for foul trouble after accumulating two yellow cards in previous matches.
It was El Paté s game in every way: the Saprissa midfielder, 35, notched the game s sole goal in what was his 125th appearance with La Sele, a new national and Central American record, according to local media.
The players had the crowd in a constant chant as they reached to connect passes, dove for headers and squeezed past defenders.
It looked like the Ticos would take the lead when striker Andy Furtado was taken down in the box and awarded a penalty shot in the 19th minute. But Furtado missed, tossing a weak grounder into Salvadoran keeper Miguel Montes hands.
But that wasn t the only missed opportunity. Several set plays within the front offensive third barely tested the Salvadoran defense.
Both Tico keeper Keylor Navas, back in the starting position after sitting out the Mexico game, and Salvadoran Miguel Montes had solid games, shutting out at least a half dozen shots on goal each.
The pace picked up in the waning minutes of the first half as La Sele linked nearimpossible passes and broke past the stride of the opposing players.
But even with constant pressure on the opposing team s defense, it took until the 69th minute to put the ball in the back of the net.
Carlos Hernández, who entered the match in the 62nd minute to enormous cheers, floated a ball to the center where Centeno deftly headed the cross down below the goalkeeper s grasp.
La Sele held on for the win, as El Salvador lost steam toward the end.
I am very happy, Centeno told reporters after the game. I feel great physically and mentally.
I missed. That s football. I m not going to cry, Furtado told media after the game. The important thing is that we won and got the points.
Following the match, La Sele Head Coach Rodrigo Kenton praised the opposing team for their skills.
They seem very tactical, a model that paid dividends in the tie with the United States, he said, referring to the opposing squad s home match four days earlier. It s a team with surprising tactical discipline.
At the press conference after the match, Kenton expressed concern that nearly half of his team has yellow cards, meaning that if any one of those players receives another yellow in a qualifier, he must sit out the following game.
I don t like the situation, he said. But sometimes we have to accept them as we play on the edge. But we will continue our work with humility.
Costa Rica s six points put the team right behind the U.S. and just above Honduras, which has four. In the lower half of the group, Mexico has three points, while El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago both have two points.
On Wednesday night, the U.S. shut out Trinidad and Tobago 3-0, with 19-year-old Jozy Altidore nabbing a hat trick scoring all three goals in his fourth appearance with the U.S. national team. Honduras also handled Mexico 3-1 at home in San Pedro Sula.
No team has yet to win on the road in this final regional qualifying round, known as the hexagonal, and perennial favorites U.S. has hardly been dominant and Mexico uncharacteristically flaccid, having won only one game in their last six, for which they fired their coach, the Swede Sven-Göran Erickson on Thursday.
Teams receive three points for each win, one for a tie and none for a loss. If two teams have the same number of points, the advantage is given to the team with the better goal differential (goals scored vs. goals against).
In the hexagonal, the six teams will play 10 games each, as they face off against the other teams twice, once at home and once away. Play will continue through November.
For their next game, La Sele will host the U.S. on June 3.