Marco Urena, who tallied both Costa Rica goals, celebrates the victory at Red Bull Arena. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, N.J. — Did somebody say Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago?
It looks like the United States’ quest to qualify for its eighth consecutive World Cup will go down to the wire, after a disappointing and distressing rare home qualifying defeat at Red Bull Arena Friday night.
The Americans lost a home qualifier for only the fourth time in 32 years, dropping a 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica before a sellout crowd of 26,500 in the first-ever WCQ in the metropolitan area.
The setback meant the U.S. (2-3-2, eight points) has three more opportunities to set the record straight or miss its first World Cup since the 1986 competition. Their road to Mexico ’86 was ended by Costa Rica in 1985 in a 1-0 loss in Torrance, Calif. They also suffered a 3-2 defeat to Honduras with current head coach Bruce Arena in charge in Washington, D.C. Sept. 1, 2001 — Friday was the 16th anniversary of that result — and a 2-1 defeat to Mexico to open the CONCACAF hexagonal last Nov. 11.
There is a good possibility of the hex going down to the wire — against Trinidad & Tobago Oct. 10. The top three teams get automatic qualification, with the fourth-place team in a playoff vs. an African side.
“We obviously didn’t play well tonight,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We didn’t make any plays that mattered. We were outplayed in most positions on the field and made critical errors. We didn’t have a good night. Give Costa Rica credit. I thought they outplayed us.”
The Americans won’t have much time feel sorry for themselves as they fly down to Honduras for a must-win Tuesday qualifier.
“We’ll respond in a big way, like we always try to do,” captain Michael Bradley said. “We have three games to go, nine points on the table, everything still to play for.
“It’s disappointing to lose at home. We always talk about how important it is to take full points and we weren’t able to do that tonight. We’re ready to go down to the wire to get ourselves into the World Cup.”
The U.S. most likely will have to play Trinidad & Tobago at Hasely Crawford Stadium next month to book a spot to Russia 2018. That is the same stadium where the Americans clinched their first World Cup berth in 40 years in 1989.
If you were one of the American supporters among the sold-out, red-clad crowd of 26,500, it turned into a painful night.
Forward Marco Urena struck twice for Costa Rica (4-1-2, 14 points), once in each half. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who stars for Real Madrid, kept the U.S. off the scoreboard with stellar performance, including a spectacular kick save on 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic in the 68th minute.
Pulisic, who has scored seven goals in his first 17 international matches, was not much of a factor as he did not produce much magic.
“He had a tough game today and obviously they played a lot of attention to him,” Arena said. “I think he got a little frustrated. “They just defended very well against him.”
Then again, Pulisic wasn’t the only player who struggled. Striker Jozy Altidore twice was denied by Keylor and Bobby Wood was ineffective. Super-sub Clint Dempsey, who turned out to be the difference in the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup final triumph, could not duplicate his late-match heroics.
Then there were the center backs.
The Ticos drew first blood in the 30th minute. Captain Bryan Ruiz launched a pass to a racing Urena, who got a step on former Red Bulls central defender Tim Ream. Urena shot from the left side past goalkeeper Tim Howard into the net.
Costa Rica took advantage of another U.S. error in the 82nd minute as center back Geoff Cameron had his pass intercepted by David Guzman. The midfielder then fed Urena, who connected from 15 yards for a two-goal advantage.
“We made a big mistake turning the ball over on the second goal,” Arena said.
Arena added later: “Tonight was not our night. We didn’t play well. We still have three games left. We’re still in position to qualify for the World Cup.
“We’ve got to put this past us real quick.”
Or the U.S. will be on the outside looking in at soccer’s promised land for the first time decades.