Three for Thursday: Memorable United States-Costa Rica World Cup qualifiers
From an injury-ravaged USA side's desperation for points to some candid, although anonymous, assessments from players regarding Jurgen Klinsmann's coaching ability, the United States national team's World Cup qualifier on Friday against Costa Rica (10 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) is shaping up to be another classic between the two sides.
The Ticos and the Yanks have met in every World Cup qualifying tournament since 1986 (not counting 1994, with the US automatically qualifying as hosts), meaning there have been some high-stakes, fiery encounters between the two sides. From a heartbreaking loss in 1985 to Jonathan Bornstein's late heroics in 2009, there's plenty to like in nearly every US-Costa Rica matchup, and here are three of the most memorable:
September 7, 1997 – United States 1, Costa Rica 0 (1998 World Cup qualification)
At the time, the US was middling in the chasing pack, stuck with the likes of El Salvador, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago while trailing behind Mexico and Costa Rica. Had the US lost this game, they would have been in fifth place out of six, needing five points from their final four games – including a trip to the Azteca – to make it to France the following summer.
The game was decided by one of the finer goals you'll ever see from the US national team – Preki twisted past his man on the right wing and pulled the ball back across the box, finding Marcelo Balboa, who in turn laid it off for Tab Ramos to rifle it into the goal first time from the edge of the area and send the packed house at Portland's Civic Stadium into delirium.
The win set the previously 1-1-3 USMNT on an unbeaten run to the 1998 World Cup (they even earned a heroic 0-0 draw in Mexico City). The game is notable not just because it spurred a major turnaround for Steve Sampson's team – it seems the US could sure use a similar catalyst 16 years on – but also because of the capacity crowd that turned up in Portland that evening. Though the Timbers were still over 12 years away from making their MLS debut, many argue that it was that game that sowed some of the critical seeds that brought the Rose City to MLS.
September 5, 2001 – Costa Rica 1, United States 0 (2002 World Cup qualification)
If you think people are panicking about US chances now, just consider how USMNT fans felt 12 years earlier, as the US headed to Costa Rica on the back of a two-game losing streak, just days removed from a humiliating 3-2 loss to Honduras at RFK Stadium.
If that wasn't enough, head coach Bruce Arena was forced to take a ragtag lineup to San José thanks to a swathe of injuries (sound familiar?), meaning he fielded what was essentially a formation that at times looked like a 5-5-0.
Costa Rica duly dispatched the beleaguered visitors, dropping them into a tie with Mexico for the third and final qualification spot (there was no intercontinental playoff for the fourth-placed team at the time). Arena even said, after he had moved on from the US job, that if there was any time he should have been fired during his eight-year USMNT tenure, it was after that loss, the latest in a three-game losing streak and one that put US World Cup hopes in serious jeopardy.
Despite all the doom and gloom, though, the US, in part galvanized by tragedy that engulfed the nation a week after the loss, when on to score a legendary victory against Jamaica and book their trip to South Korea and Japan after a scoreless draw with Trinidad & Tobago, though Honduras' stunning collapse certainly helped, too.
October 14, 2009 – USA 2, Costa Rica 2 (2010 World Cup qualification)
This wasn't even close to a make-or-break game as far as the USMNT was concerned – they had already booked a trip to South Africa with a 3-2 win in Honduras four days earlier. No, this game sticks in the US soccer fan's psyche (not to mention those of Honduran and Costa Rican fans) for other reasons.
US fans pay tribute to Charlie Davies
Costa Rica headed into the final game of the Hexagonal in third place, needing a win against the already qualified USA or for Honduras to drop points to be sure of their place. Meanwhile, Honduras faced a difficult trip to El Salvador needing a win against a team that – although eliminated – would have loved nothing better than to force their neighbors and fierce rivals to miss out for the seventh tournament running.
To add to the drama, the game took place only a day after up-and-coming US striker Charlie Davies suffered a career-threatening car accident, meaning there was plenty of emotion coursing in the crowd and on the field.
The Ticos jumped out to an early lead in Washington, D.C. – the start of a phenomenon that would become an all-too-painful occurrence for Bob Bradley's US side in the two years ahead – and were up 2-0 by the 23rd minute.
Even as Honduras pulled ahead in El Salvador and Michael Bradley pulled one back for the US in the second half, it looked as though the Costa Ricans would be heading to South Africa, at least until Bornstein came through in the fourth minute of stoppage time with a header that relegated the visitors to a playoff against Uruguay (which they would lose), a play that made him a national hero in Honduras and sparked an eruption of joy for an emotional team and fanbase.