The US national team’s rivalry with Costa Rica doesn’t get the hype of US-Mexico, but the numbers do not lie – the rivalry is as close as ever. And the recent numbers are by no means pretty.
The US all-time have 11 wins, 12 losses and six draws against the Ticos, and haven’t won a game against the team they’ll face on Friday night since 2005.
“They are very good at hanging around,” said forward Josh Wolff, who started up front for the last US team to beat Costa Rica. That was a Bruce Arena coached team that won 3-0 at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on June 4, 2005.
Another player who started for the US in that game, midfielder Kerry Zavagnin, said “I’m surprised to hear it goes back that far since we’ve beaten them, but you cannot underestimate Costa Rica or you’ll pay the price. They are a very good team.”
Both Wolff and Zavagnin recall the energy in Salt Lake City, which had never hosted a US game before. More than 40,000 pro-American fans jammed the place, providing an atmosphere that Wolff described as, “Kind of shocking in a good way. It was electric.”
In the sixth minute, Landon Donovan gave the US a 1-0 lead (right), which Zavagnin recalled, “Gave us a lot of confidence and got the crowd into it. But before we broke the game open (Donovan scored again in the 63rd minute and Brian McBride (below, right) finished off Clint Dempsey’s first US assist in the 87th minute), Kasey Keller made some big saves.”
Since that game nearly eight years ago, the US have lost three and tied two against the Ticos. The first two defeats in that run were World Cup qualifiers played four years apart at Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. On Oct. 8, 2005, the US sent a young team to Saprissa, having already qualified, and lost 3-0.
On June 3, 2009, the US played the Ticos on the road in the first game of a qualifying double-fixture setup, and lost 3-1. They returned home three days later to defeat Honduras in Chicago.
In 2005, the US followed up their win over Costa Rica with a 3-0 win in Panama four days later, setting up what would be a dominant run through qualifying for Arena’s squad.
Which brings us to the Friday-Tuesday, Costa Rica-Mexico, double-fixture for Jurgen Klinsmann and a US national team that lost its first game of the CONCACAF Hexagonal, 2-1, in Honduras on February 6.
Both Wolff and Zavagnin agree, it’s tense.
“I don’t remember ever playing in a game in 2002 or 2006 qualifying that seemed as critical as what the US faces on Friday night,” said Wolff, now an assistant coach for Ben Olsen at D.C. United. “Knowing you go to Mexico City to play at Azteca on Tuesday, and knowing the formula to qualify is to win at home and steal points on the road, the game on Friday night certainly has a ‘must-win’ feel to it. It won’t be easy. We also know that players like Bryan Ruiz and Álvaro Saborío will be a handful.”
Adding to Costa Rica’s motivation is the last meeting between the two countries, back on Oct. 14, 2009, when Jonathan Bornstein’s 95th-minute header earned the US a 2-2 draw and pushed Costa Rica into a World Cup play-in series with Uruguay, which they lost.
Zavagnin, who is an assistant for head coach Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City, said, “As much as Mexico is our fiercest rival, and as much as you want to go into Azteca and shock the world, the US players need to know you can’t look past Costa Rica.”
The numbers don’t lie.