U.S. Stumbles in Qualifying on Night Mexico Clinches Place in World Cup
HARRISON, N.J. — If a sense of inevitability about qualifying for next year’s World Cup had begun to take hold for the United States national team under Bruce Arena, a feeling that he had reset the team’s course since replacing the team’s previous coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, that aura vanished Friday night.
Costa Rica, playing with poise and a strong opportunistic streak, got two goals from Marco Ureña and some highlight-reel saves from goalkeeper Keylor Navas to defeat the United States, 2-0, before a capacity crowd at Red Bull Arena.
The loss doesn’t necessarily put the United States World Cup campaign in a precarious position; the U.S. is done with Costa Rica and Mexico, the two toughest opponents in its final-round group in regional qualifying, and the Americans still have their fate in their hands. But the defeat will raise the temperature for the their final three qualifying matches.
The United States is tied for third place with Honduras in its six-team group, 6 points behind Costa Rica and 9 behind Mexico (which qualified for next summer’s World Cup in Russia by defeating Panama, 1-0, late Friday). But only the top three teams advance directly to the World Cup, and now one of those spots has been claimed. The upside for the Americans is that they will close against the bottom three teams — at Honduras on Tuesday, and then home to Panama and at Trinidad and Tobago in October.
“This is our reality at the moment,” said midfielder Michael Bradley, the American captain. “The likelihood is that it’s going to go down to the wire, and that can’t faze anybody. That can’t scare us.
“Costa Rica and Mexico are gone. Us and Panama and Honduras play a few games and at the end. One will go to the World Cup, one will go to a playoff and one will be out.”
One of the big questions entering the match was how the United States defense would hold up without the injured center back John Brooks, who is out for three months. Friday’s one-match answer was definitive: not well.
One central defender, Tim Ream, was beaten by Ureña on the first Costa Rican goal, and a bad pass by his partner, Geoff Cameron, started the sequence for the second goal by Ureña that finished off the Americans in the 82nd minute.
Arena called the errant pass from Cameron “a bad mistake,” but all it did was finish off the game. It was the first goal that inexorably changed it.
It came in the 30th minute, when the ball landed at the feet of Bryan Ruiz — after the United States players nearby protested that he had handled it. Turning quickly, Ruiz released a pass that settled to the feet of Ureña, who had sprinted through a yawning gap between Ream and Cameron.
Ureña took a small touch toward his right, then another and another — keeping Ream at bay — before calmly sliding a shot back across the face of the goal and inside goalkeeper Tim Howard’s back post.
“We got split there with our center backs, which shouldn’t happen,” Arena said.
Finding itself in an early hole was problematic for Arena’s team. The Ticos rode their defensive 5-4-1 formation and the brilliance of Navas to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, where they knocked out by the Netherlands on penalty kicks. Once Costa Rica gets a lead, it has the cohesiveness and the savvy to ride it to the finish line.
“They’re set up to close down space, to make things difficult,” Bradley said. “It requires patience. It requires the right timing. It requires being sharp.”
He added: “I think at times we put together some good play, but we couldn’t get the final part of the play right. In other moments, it was a little too slow, a little too predictable.”
The Americans’ plan was to play through Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old who has flourished since making his national team debut late last year. But Pulisic grew increasingly frustrated Friday — not just at the attention of two defenders seemingly every time he touched the ball, or over a handful of scything tackles, but also because of a number of poor touches that turned into wasted opportunities.
“He had a tough game today and obviously they paid a lot of attention to him,” Arena said of Pulisic, who declined to speak to reporters. “You could see early in the game, they always sent a second player to him. I think he got a little frustrated.”
Searching for a spark, Arena turned to Clint Dempsey in the 65th minute. The stadium came alive when Dempsey put on his jersey, poured water over his head and shook hands with Arena before replacing left back Jorge Villafaña. But Dempsey, a former captain who most recently has taken on the role of super sub, could do little to change the game.
That role went to Navas, who parlayed his 2014 World Cup performance into a transfer to Real Madrid. He made a spectacular save midway through the second half, leaping to his left for Pulisic’s left-footed shot and then reaching back with his right leg to stop the ball after it had been deflected.
It was one of 14 shots by the United States, but also one of only two that were on goal. The other came in the 81st minute, when Navas smothered an attempt from Jozy Altidore after he had bulled his way through two defenders.
A moment later, Cameron’s errant pass out of the back went straight to the feet of midfielder David Guzman, who pushed it back to spring Ureña, splitting the defense again. He slid the ball against past a helpless Howard, and the Ticos’ victory was secure.
Their trip to Russia next summer is all but assured, but for the other team at Red Bull Arena, there is still work to be done.