Sometimes a loss in sports can bring almost unbearable anguish to the players and fans of the losing team. And sometimes, a tie provokes the same feeling.
In a game Costa Rica had to win to qualify for the 2010 International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in South Africa, U.S. midfielder Jonathan Bornstein scored in the game’s 94th minute to force a 2-2 tie. Had Costa Rica held off the U.S. for an additional 30 seconds and won the game, the Ticos would have secured the third spot in the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football (CONCACAF) region and earned an automatic bid to the World Cup.
The tie, however, coupled with a 1-0 win by Honduras over El Salvador, dropped Costa Rica’s La Sele into fourth place in the group. While the fourth-place finish does not eliminate the Ticos from the World Cup, in order to qualify they will have to win a twogame series with traditional soccer heavyweight Uruguay in November. Uruguay was the fifth place finisher in CONMEBOL, the South American qualifying group.
“Right now, the first thing I want to do is lift the spirits of the players,” coach René Simoes said after the game. “At this time, I don’t want to talk about Uruguay. I want to work to put strength back in the players. At this time, they are hurting, they are sad and they are very down.”
What must have caused many Tico players to lose sleep on Wednesday night is the knowledge that they played well enough to win. Playing before a lively crowd at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C., the Ticos silenced the crowd early in the game. In the 21st minute, Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz took a pass from midfielder Michael Barrantes at the top left corner of the penalty area, turned on U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, carried the ball through the box and, from point-blank range, slotted a left-foot shot underneath U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard for the 1-0 lead.
Before the dust had settled from the first goal, Ruiz struck again in the 24th minute.
From a throw-in on the right side of the field, Ruiz worked a nifty combination play with Walter Centeno and Randall Azofeifa, receiving a pass in stride at the top of the right side of the penalty area. Ruiz unleashed a stunning blast past a sprawling Howard that rose into the top right corner of the net.
The Ticos held the 2-0 lead well into the second half, thanks in large part to several missed opportunities by U.S. forwards Conor Casey and Landon Donovan. Each flubbed several chances on net, most notably Casey’s one-on-one opportunity in the 9th minute that he hideously skied over the crossbar.
But with the continued pressure on the Costa Rican defense, it seemed evident the U.S. would eventually strike, and in the 72nd minute, a Donovan shot rebounded to Michael Bradley, who, from six yards out, slid into the ball to bang it past Costa Rican goalkeeper Keilor Navas to cut the score to 2-1. In the final 20-plus minutes, the U.S. continued to barrage the Costa Rican goal, while the Ticos pulled nearly all of their players back in defense to thwart the U.S. efforts.
But at the end of 90 minutes, five minutes of injury time were added by the referee to compensate for time lost due to an injury to Onyewu in the 83rd minute and the timeconsuming ejection of Costa Rican coach Simoes in the 89th minute. The five minutes proved too long, and, with 30 seconds remaining, Bornstein’s goal robbed the Ticos of their spot in the World Cup.
“We had trouble keeping the ball in the end and I think the players were very fatigued,” Simoes said. “But, to me, the game was ours for the taking. We had it in our hands, but we made a mistake in the end and it cost us.”
The game, in essence, was a microcosm of the up-and-down World Cup qualifying season for La Sele. From June to September, the Ticos held first place in the CONCACAF region, and they looked primed for a World Cup berth. However, a three-game losing streak, including an inexcusable loss to lowly El Salvador in September, ultimately cost Costa Rica its place in the top three of the region.
Despite the painful disappointment of Wednesday night’s missed opportunity, the Ticos still control their own fate in 2010 World Cup qualifying. On Nov. 14, Uruguay comes to Costa Rica for the first game of the playoff, and on Nov.18, Costa will travel to Uruguay to play the second game. The team with the better aggregate score after two games will earn the Western Hemisphere’s final bid to the World Cup.
Though it may be tough to find an upside to the heartbreak that was Wednesday night, the Costa Rican draw allowed Honduras to slip into the World Cup. The impoverished Central American country, which is currently mired in political conflict, will make its first appearance in the World Cup since 1982.