HARTFORD, Conn. – This was supposed to be the game the United States met their match, an opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with a technical and tactical peer before the margin for error was removed from the Gold Cup.
And although the narrow margin of victory against Costa Rica on Tuesday at Rentschler Field suggests that was indeed the case, the US once again faced an opponent content to put numbers behind the ball and hope for a handful of opportunities on the break.
Brek Shea finally broke the scoreless deadlock in the 82nd minute to snag a 1-0 victory and the top spot in Group C, but the US were still baffled by their opponents' conservative play, especially with what was on the line, namely the right to avoid a quarterfinal matchup with Honduras.
“It’s like Groundhog Day with these teams. They all just want to play defense for 90 minutes,” Landon Donovan, who assisted on Shea’s goal, said. “Costa Rica is a lot better at it than Belize or Cuba are. It was a little peculiar considering they had to win the game to win the group.
“It was strange that they wanted to play that way, but I think it showed how they feel about us. In the end, it was nice to win the game. It would have been pretty unjust had we only tied the game.”
Of course, a tie still would have given the group title to the Americans. They could have played for it, too, since Costa Rica seemed content to pack the middle with three center backs and force the US to redirect traffic to the flanks, where their outside backs were waiting to pounce.
It’s a tactic that’s worked to perfection in the seven games, all Costa Rica shutouts, since the US famously escaped the SnowClasico with a contested 1-0 victory. But, like that game, Jurgen Klinsmann and his side proved they wouldn’t be content to settle for anything less than three points.
“We could have taken it easy and said, ‘We are first anyway in the group, and a tie is fine,’” Klinsmann said. “But a tie is not fine with us. The team pushed, they grinded until the last minute and deserved the goal – a beautiful combination there. We’re obviously happy. First place, nine points and you can see there is a chemistry developing that’s fun to watch.”
Even Costa Rica head coach Jorge Luis Pinto complimented the Americans on their resolve, also emphasizing the only thing missing for his side was a goal. But no matter the postgame talk, it’s the tactics employed by Los Ticos that speak loudest to Klinsmann and his players.
“That shows a lot of respect for us,” Klinsmann said. “As we told the players, ‘Guys, they’re making it very compact. They’re going to sit deep. They want to counter and break us.’ They had opportunities to do that. They have quality players who can always hurt you in a specific moment, but they’re coming out of a very defensive-minded shape.”
Is it a sign of things to come in the knockout phase of the competition? After all, Costa Rica could meet the US again in the semifinals if both win next Sunday in Baltimore.
Could be, but that’s not likely to preoccupy this US team after yet another victory. As Costa Rica’s approach indicated, the favorite tag has been firmly placed on the hosts, and they intend to live up to it.
“By taking the three points tonight, we really put our stamp on the tournament,” Stuart Holden said. “We feel we want to go from strength to strength in this tournament.”