The result, underwhelming as it was on the night, will barring catastrophe do little to dent the World Cup hopes of the United States, who remain in favorable position with three matches left in Concacaf’s qualifying hexagonal. But Friday night’s 2-0 defeat by Costa Rica before a spine-tingling atmosphere at Red Bull Arena offered vital and instructive reminders of USA’s shortcomings, lest they allow themselves to peek too far ahead toward next year’s tournament in Russia. Should earnest yet perilously negligent outings like these become the norm, why bother making the trip?
The historic signposts in the immediate aftermath were dire. It marked only the United States’ fourth defeat in a World Cup qualifier on home soil in 32 years and the first where they failed to score a goal. But their predicament pales in comparison to the calamity the team faced nine months ago, when Bruce Arena took over a dispirited, rudderless program that had dropped their opening two qualifying matches, a latter a 4-0 drubbing in the Costa Rican capital of San José that prompted the dismissal of Jürgen Klinsmann.
Since then, the US played 14 matches prior to Friday’s crucial qualifier eight miles from Manhattan, winning nine, drawing five and losing none, buoyed by a renewal of institutional confidence, a Gold Cup triumph over admittedly reduced competition and the emergence of Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder who’s already been hailed as the most talented player the country of 320m has ever produced. That unbeaten run is no longer thanks to a stunning brace by Marco Ureña, the San Jose Earthquakes striker whose first came against the run of play at the half-hour mark, followed by a second off a grievous defensive miscue that put the proceedings on ice nine minutes from time.
All the while the well-drilled defense of Costa Rica, surprise quarter-finalists at the last World Cup, would deny the United States time and again with no small help from Keylor Navas, the Real Madrid keeper who made a pair of critical hair-trigger saves to keep the hosts off the board.
It had started as a night of immense promise for the United States before a rollicking sellout crowd at the 26,500-seat home of the New York Red Bulls in northern New Jersey, the first ever World Cup qualifier staged in the NYC metropolitan area for which tickets on the secondary market started at $200. A cagey, intense opening abruptly gave way in the seventh minute when the United States survived a poor giveaway by left back Tim Ream, who was bailed out when team-mate Jorge Villafaña raced back to disrupt the Costa Rica counter.
Soon after Pulisic darted across the area and won a foul, then moments later carried it 20 yards up the right flank before he was hacked down by a gang of Costa Rican defenders, the hard man David Guzmán seeing yellow for good measure. The teenage ingenue, who turns 19 later this month and has already made a name for himself with Dortmund in the Bundesliga, offers the United States a talent capable of the sort of lean-forward moments that American supporters had previously only read about or consumed vicariously on YouTube, equipped with a dangerous pace and confidence to run at defenders and slip them instinctively.
He nearly broke through for an opener at 16 minutes when an excellent sequence involving Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe and Jozy Altidore ended with a Pulisic missed header. Even as the US continued to press, a poor giveaway or dispossession, including no less than three by talented youngster Wood, was never far behind.
A note of controversy struck in the 23rd minute when Graham Zusi sent a long through ball to Pulisic on the right edge of the area, whose well-timed cross to Altidore found the target man snarled in a heap and prompted vociferous appeals for a penalty to referee John Pitti, of Panama, that fell on deaf ears. Two minutes later Altidore had another chance when Michael Bradley found him on the left side of the box, the forward perhaps taking a touch too many as a pair of Costa Rica defenders closed in before his tightly angled shot was parried away by Navas.
That set the stage for Ureña, who ran on to a pass from Bryan Ruiz, split Ream and Geoff Cameron and managed to slot a right-footed shot from the right side of the box past Tim Howard just inside the bottom-left corner at the 30-minute mark, making the hosts pay for their early missed chances – and perhaps indicted Arena for starting a new defensive combination against such a high-quality opponent. It marked the first time in 10 matches the US had failed to score first.
The US redoubled their attack after the goal but were frustrated one chance after another. Seven minutes from half-time, Altidore slipped through a pair of defenders and found Pulisic near the goal, but he was denied by Kendall Watson. Moments later Pulisic went down for several minutes after a foul by Guzmán, which left the teenager limping the rest of the night.
More chances followed for both sides after the half and quickly with Zusi taking an corner in the 47th that found the head of Ream, who couldn’t quite negotiate it on target. Soon after came a phantom foul on Wood that cost the US a breakaway, heaping even more invective toward the referee’s Concacaf-familiar laissez-faire approach.
Arena began pulling strings after the hour-mark, inserting Clint Dempsey for Villafaña in the 65th and shifting to a 4-3-3 with the longtime captain up top alongside Altidore and Wood. It nearly paid immediate dividends moments later when a Dempsey free-kick was deflected into the vicinity of Pulisic, whose shot made it through a forest of Costa Rican defenders only to be deftly corralled by Navas. It would prove the US team’s best chance of the night.
Then came the 81st-minute strike by Ureña, his 13th in 56 international appearances off an inexcusable giveaway by Cameron, silencing the legions of US fans behind the goal while sending the Costa Rican supporters in the arena’s upper reaches into hysterics. Arena swapped in Jordan Morris as a fourth forward in the 84th, but of course by then it was too little too late.
“They outplayed us and outcoached us tonight,” Arena said afterward. “On the night, we didn’t make any plays that mattered. We were probably outplayed in most positions on the field and made some critical errors.
“It’s going to be a battle among the remaining four teams.”
There will be no shortage of hand-wringing after Friday’s showing, which marked the first time in six decades the US have dropped two home games in a World Cup cycle. But in sober assessment the US played neither well enough or awfully. They remain safely in third place with eight points, level with Honduras but a comfortable eight goals ahead on goal difference and one point above fifth-place Panama. Above them are Mexico (17 points) and Costa Rica (14), with a top-three finish necessary for automatic qualification and the fourth-place team forced into a two-leg play-off with the fifth-place team from Asian and Australian confederation.
With three remaining matches against the three teams beneath them in the standings – Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday ahead of dates with Panama and Trinidad and Tobago in October – an eighth straight World Cup berth remains squarely within touching distance. All that’s changed is their margin for error and the heightened stakes for Tuesday’s trip, one the US will make without the suspended Altidore thanks to Friday’s late booking.