Montreal Impact's Johan Venegas enjoys huge game to help Costa Rica sink US

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — At some point during the first half of Tuesday's CONCACAF World Cup qualifying game against the US national team, it seemed inevitable that Costa Rican striker Johan Venegas was going to score.

In the seventh minute, the Montreal Impact player made a beautiful hesitation move to slip by US defender John Brooks only to have his shot blocked by a great kick save from Brad Guzan. Later in the 20th minute, a diving Venegas came within inches of sending home a header.

Finally, just moments before the half, Venegas converted what seemed like his fifth or sixth goal-scoring chance into a score with a header off an inch-perfect cross pass from Christian Bolaños of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

As surprising as it might seem to the casual international fan, this wasn’t Venegas’ first breakout game for Los Ticos. Although his minutes have remained somewhat limited with Costa Rica, as with his club, the 27-year-old shined earlier this year in a Copa América match against Colombia where he had an early golazo and a second play that forced an opponent’s own goal in Costa Rica’s 3-2 win over Los Cafeteros.

Venegas, who was starting in a competitive match for the first time since that showcase, shined again for Costa Rica in Tuesday's 4-0 rout of the US.

“I know my teammates have a lot of confidence in me and we compliment each other well,” Venegas told reporters following the game.

Although his magnificent performance helped lift his country to first-place positioning in the Hexagonal stage of World Cup qualifying, the forward that locals in Costa Rica call Cachetón, or “big cheeked,” said it doesn’t mean anything until Costa Rica clinches a spot for Russia 2018.

“This phase of qualifying doesn’t give you any breaks,” Venegas said. “We haven’t won anything yet and we know the toughest parts have yet to come.”

When Costa Rica returns to World Cup qualifying play in March, they will have to travel to Mexico, where they haven't won since 2001. Los Ticos will then turn around to face former head coach Jorge Luís Pinto and Honduras at home.

But even though the competition is sure to get tougher for the group leaders, Costa Rica seems to have settled on a reliable and energetic striker in Venegas to lift its chances.

While his international minutes have been curiously limited up until this point, so too has his playing time at Montreal. After making 16 total regular-season starts for the Impact over the last two seasons, he's been utilized as a second-half sub during the Impact's run to the Eastern Conference Championship, playing a combined 30 minutes in three MLS Cup playoff matches.

But no matter what his role is, Venegas is looking forward to rejoining the Impact after such a positive international break and helping them try to upset Toronto FC and reach the MLS Cup.

“There have been some difficult moments with the club, but my teammates are playing well and we’ve made it to the conference finals,” Venegas said. “When I get my opportunity there I’m going to make the best of it.”