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Team USA falls short to Costa Rica

NO CAN DO
Clint Dempsey's goal was not enough to help the United States defeat Costa Rica.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA

FALLING SHORT

Relive the best action shots from USA's match against Costa Rica.

Asked to think back to the last World Cup qualifier the United States men’s national team played here in 2009 ahead of Friday’s rematch, Landon Donovan could remember the feeling that crept up on him during that dire 3-1 defeat. “I never felt like we were in the game,” he recalled on Thursday. “They were all over us from the beginning.”

Sometimes history is prescient. Because this time around, things scarcely looked different from the way they did in the early going back then. In 2009, it took 13 minutes for Costa Rica to race out to a 2-0 lead. This time around, it took just 10 for the Ticos to get the pair of goals they needed in yet another 3-1 win.

The venue, the personnel and the year were different, but the deciding opening phase of the game was in essence the same, reviving a bad American habit of making sleepy starts to games.

And so, in handing the United States its seventh consecutive loss in their country, Costa Rica got its sweet vengeance. For the snow game back in March, when the US slogged to a 1-0 win in their first World Cup qualifier matchup of the final qualifying phase for Brazil 2014, a game buried by so much snow the Ticos felt wronged for its having been played at all. And for the final qualifier ahead of the 2010 World Cup in Washington, D.C., wherein a 95th-minute American equalizer robbed them of a direct berth for South Africa, after which they lost their playoff to Uruguay.

Ominously, a lashing rain, punctuated by thunder and lightning, had pounded the city all afternoon, clearing up just in time for the game. The Americans had taken heart in not having to return to the Estadio Ernesto Saprissa across town, where the spiteful spectators historically made their lives difficult from just a yard or two from the field. Instead, the new Estadio Nacional promised to be a tad more welcoming. Now, with a 12-game winning and several ground-breaking victories in tow, seemed to be the time to finally earn that first win on Costa Rican soil. Or to at least take just their second-ever point here. Either would preserve the Yanks’ first place in the hexagonal round with three games to go.

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But in surroundings that were as loud as any other, the Americans looked off from the very start. Or perhaps they did even before the start, when the indispensable Michael Bradley hobbled off the field with an ankle strain just after the warm-up. To lose so influential an on-field orchestrator, the team’s unquestionable emotional leader, just minutes before the game must have had quite some impact on the collective psyche.

“It kind of maybe shocked the team a little bit for a couple of moments,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

“This team has in large part been built around Michael, ,” said Landon Donovan. “And in my opinion him and Clint [Dempsey] have been the two most influential players over the last few years. That hurts, you lose a leader, you lose a good player, you lose a lot of stability.”

And just a minute or so into the game, eternal nuisance Bryan Ruiz squirmed through the American lines and extracted a strong save from Tim Howard. However, the corner by Joel Campell, the other thorn in the American side, sailed to Johnny Acosta, who rose above Clint Dempsey at the near post and nodded home the go-ahead goal.

Tim Howard proved ineffective for the United States in front of goal vs. Costa Rica (Image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images).

“We couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start,” said captain Clint Dempsey. “We concede another goal and we have a mountain to climb.”

The 10th minute had barely registered when Yeltsin Tejada whipped in a sharp cross. This time around, Celso Borges climbed over DaMarcus Beasley and bounced his header out of Howard’s reach and into the net.

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Shell-shocked, the Americans took the bulk of the first half to collect their wits and regroup. The distribution was dishevelingly imprecise, leaving forwards Donovan and Dempsey isolated while wingers Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi were seldom seen or heard of.

Several more Howard saves finally induced a spell of American competence. Fabian Johnson hammered a shot at Keylor Navas, whose reaction save was a sight to see. At length, in the 40th minute, a free kick earned by Dempsey was quickly clipped over the top and into the path of Fabian Johnson by Zusi. Navas charged out, brought him down and incurred both a penalty and a yellow card. Dempsey rammed his poorly-aimed effort through Navas’s arms to make it 2-1.

Visibly strengthened in their resolve, the USA emerged from the other side of half-time much more composed. An open game offering up high entertainment was salvaged somewhat for the American conscience in the second half, as they were the better side then.

But too much damage had been sustained already. Ten frightful minutes had doomed an increasingly respectable performance. Dempsey got a pair of good looks, carving out a little room for the left-footed shot he’d ping off the post and getting onto a Donovan chip for an open header he couldn’t imbue with enough force, but nothing could be salvaged from the wreckage.

And when Campbell broke away in the 75th minute, eluding Matt Besler on an interminable run and sticking his finish under Howard, the point was well made.

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While dispiriting, the result is hardly disastrous. The Americans now sit in second place in the six-team hexagonal round with three points on their nearest pursuers Honduras. With three games to spare, qualification isn’t in any danger.

“We’re looking at three games to go and we badly need four points so we better start on Tuesday night with that,” said Klinsmann.

Far more consequential than the loss were Bradley’s injury and the yellow cards handed to Besler, Jozy Altidore and Geoff Cameron, ruling all three out of Tuesday’s crucial bout with Mexico in Columbus, Ohio with suspensions -- considerable collateral damage.

“We’re going to have to have guys step up,” said Howard. “But over the last three years we’ve built towards that – have a guy step in and not miss about and get that cohesion right.”

The Americans will just have to take heart in the knowledge that they’ve beaten arch-rivals Mexico 2-0 in each of their last three World Cup qualifiers in Columbus and hope that that history proves prescient too.

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