The United States soccer team stepped off the field Wednesday night after a 3-1 loss, still haunted by the curse that’s kept it from winning a game in San José for more than 20 years.
In each World Cup qualifier since 1989, the United States has been unable to deliver a win in the intimidating concrete confines of Ricardo Saprissa Stadium, just north of the city. And this most recent game was no different. From the beginning, the North American giant never had a chance.
Costa Rican players, dancing around the defense and picking off every stray ball, caught the North Americans flat footed. Pushing up the field with an unrelenting attack, the Ticos lodged an early goal in the second minute and chased it with another goal 10 minutes later.
Despite efforts to control the game with long sequences of passes and organized attacks, the United States team could not break away from the Ticos’ constant pressure.
“If you look at every area, we came up short,” said Coach Bob Bradley, speaking to members of the media before his team climbed on a 1:30 a.m. flight out of San José.
“We weren’t able to control the game from the start and (the Costa Rican) team took advantage of that.”
The scoreboard remained stagnant until the 69th minute, when Costa Rican player Pablo Herrera moved past a defender and charged the goal unmarked. He drove the ball to the lower right-hand corner, making the game 3-0 with less than 25 minutes left on the clock.
The U.S. team got a lucky break in the 92nd minute, when Costa Rican defender Junior Díaz tripped Oguchialu Onyewu in the penalty box. Veteran Landon Donovan drove the ball into the net, allowing the U.S. team to leave the game with one goal on the scoreboard.
“We got out passed, out played and out competed,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. “We were below average across the board.”
Although they were ranked higher in the World Cup qualifying group, the U.S. team came into this match as the underdog. Along with never having won a game on Costa Rican soil, they were facing a 24,000-fanfilled-stadium, clad in red and rooting against them. They were also playing on Saprissa’s hard artificial turf, the only artificial grass used in FIFA World Cup qualifiers anywhere the world, and they had to adjust to the ball bouncing higher and skipping further.
But, in the end, it wasn’t the turf or the fans or the curse that got them; it was the team.
“They were the better team,” Bradley said in summary. “And, as a group, we weren’t as good as we needed to be.”
The U.S. team returns home to face the Honduran team in Chicago on Saturday. The result of Wednesday’s game will make the U.S. even more ready for that game, Howard said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us and, in a way, that’s kind of good.” Costa Rica’s National Team, La Sele, will play against the Trinidad and Tobago team on Saturday and against the Honduran team in August.
La Sele Coach Rodrigo Kenton credits efforts on and off the field for Wednesday’s win. “In a large part due to the fans in the stands, each player stepped onto the field with confidence,” he said. “We came into this game knowing it would be difficult. But we prepared for it, and the results fell in our favor.”
With this win, Costa Rica tops its qualifying group and, if it maintains this position, it will be one of the three teams sent to the FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament in South Africa in 2010.
The U.S. team players left the pitch on Wednesday night with their heads hung low, but soccer pundits still expect them to be among the three regional teams competing in South Africa.
As far as the lack of success that continues to haunt the U.S. players at Saprissa Stadium, there should be some good news for the next time they visit this little country of four million people. A new national team stadium is under construction in the heart of the city, and the blocky Saprissa Stadium, which shakes when the stands fill with people, may be seeing its last days as a venue for international matches.
But for now, the curse lingers on.