Alkis Panagoulias coached the USMNT in 1985. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis is the only journalist to have witnessed in person and write about the four previous World Cup qualifying losses by the U.S. men’s national team. Here are his reports from each of those encounters.
By Michael Lewis
It has happened only four times in the past 35 years. That’s when the United States loses a World Cup qualifying match at home.
Costa Rica, which will meet the U.S. men’s national team in a Concacaf Octagonal match in Columbus, Ohio Wednesday, has inflicted two of those defeats.
In chronological order, here is a look back at those four games.
Costa Rica 1, U.S. 0 (May 31, 1985)
TORRANCE, Calif. — Once again the great American dream of playing in a World Cup turned into a nightmare for the U.S. National Team.
The dream ended on May 31, 1985 on a football field at El Camino College, where Costa Rica extinguished the United States’ hopes, recording a 1-0 victory in the CONCACAF Group 2 qualifying match.
The United States needed a tie or victory to advance, but Evaristo Coronado’s goal, a little luck and some strategic late-game delaying tactics helped boost Costa Rica into the third and final qualifying round with Canada and Honduras. That round-robin series probably will be played in the late summer.
For Costa Rica, it was a major victory after a major overhaul of its national team. After defeating and tying Trinidad & Tobago in two previous matches, Costa Rica fired its coach and replaced most of the team, bringing in a professional club — Alajuela to take its place.
For the United States, it was just another bitter ending to another botched World Cup effort. The Americans will be spectators at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle for the ninth consecutive time. They last qualified in 1950.
U.S. captain Ricky Davis, who wasn’t born then, took the loss particularly hard, sitting slumped at his locker, head in his hands, a half-hour after the game.
“We can’t play much better than that,” he said. “It’s a shame. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
He wasn’t alone.
“I’m kind of numb right now,” defender Kevin Crow said. “The World Cup is a dream of mine. Now it’s blown up in my face.”
“It’s a disaster,” defender Dan Canter added. “To stumble like this, there are no excuses.”
And U.S. coach Alkis Panagoulias offered none.
“Costa Rica beat us because of tradition,” he said. “We outplayed them, but they did what they had to do. They scored on a break. They stalled. They played hard. They did everything they had to do.
“This is one of the most frustrating days in my life. The boys played their hearts out. I’m very frustrated, very frustrated . . . We created so many chances. The team deserved to win.”
But it didn’t as the United States was left with a loss dripping in irony:
* The United States was eliminated by the same country it had defeated at the 1984 Olympics, 3-0, its first Olympic victory in 60 years.
* The loss occurred exactly a year to the day to the start of the World Cup finals in Mexico.
* The loss turned out to be the United States’ best performance in qualifying competition after sweeping Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0 and 2-1, and tying Costa Rica in the first game, 1-1.
What made the defeat more difficult to swallow was the way Costa Rica scored its goal before a crowd of 11,800. It was a lucky goal, similar to the ones the United States scored in earlier matches.
Jorge Chevez sent a free kick into the penalty area that goalkeeper Arnie Mausser tried to punch away. A Costa Rican players, however, headed the ball to the right side, where Coronado knocked it into the net at 34:50.
“The goalkeeper misjudged the distance,” Panagoulias said. “He wanted to punch the ball. He should have caught the ball.”
Crow said he was ready for it. “It was a fluky goal,” he said. “I was going up for the ball with my man. I heard the keeper call for the ball and I bowed out.”
Up to that point, the United States had dominated play and owned the better scoring opportunities.
About a minute into the game, Costa Rican goalkeeper Alejandro Gonzalez dove to his right to stop a 15-yard blast by forward Hugo Perez. At 24:25, Gonzalez barely beat forward John Kerr, Jr. to a loose ball in the penalty area. And in the 30th minute, Crow just missed a shot to the left of the goal.
“Even at halftime, I thought sooner or later one would go in,” Davis said.
At least one appeared to go in.
It happened at 72:20, when Davis directed a free kick from the left of the penalty area to Canter at the top of the box. Canter then ripped a shot that appeared to have gone into the net, which rippled.
Referee John Meachem signaled a goal. Davis took the ball out of the net and walked toward midfield for an apparent Costa Rican kickoff while the visitors protested.
Linesman Robert Allen brought it to the attention of Meachem, and no goal was the ruling. The Americans did not protest.
“It hit the outside part of the net,” Carter said.
But if it was going to be ruled a goal, Canter wasn’t about to complain. “In a game like this, you take what you can get,” he said.
In this case, the United States walked away with nothing. The Americans continued to apply pressure, outshooting the Costa Ricans, 13-8, but they could not score before Meachem ended the game.
And so did the United States’ chances of playing in Mexico, as another nail was hammered into outdoor soccer’s coffin.
“I don’t know where we go from there,” Davis said. “There was our best chance to make it to the World Cup. We won’t have another chance until 1990. Who knows where soccer in American will be by then? I do know this: Unless we develop a professional league for outdoors, we won’t go anyplace. We can’t do it with indoor soccer.
“We’re playing for U.S. soccer — for its reputation and recognition in our own country. It’s another setback. We just missed a golden opportunity.”
Honduras 3, United States 2 (Sept. 1, 2001)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On one hand, it was a fun game to watch: lots of goals, much drama and heroes and goats.
On the other hand, it was a difficult setback for the U.S. national team, which incurred a 3-2 loss to Honduras at RFK Stadium on Sept. 1, 2001.
The match was to start at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. in the morning — a Saturday morning at RFK Stadium. A morning kickoff may sound like gamesmanship to try to get the upper hand. But with ESPN owing the TV contract, it was the only time the game could be televised on the first college football Saturday of the season.
At times the Americans played as though they did not get a wake-up call, sleep walking on defense and missing a key penalty kick as well in a devastating 3-2 loss.
The two flank defenders — Steve Cherundolo (right) and David Regis (left) — were the culprits defensively, allowing Honduran attackers loads of space and room to run down the wings as Guevara controlled the attack from the middle.
“The breakdowns defensively were atrocious,” U.S. head coach Bruce Arena said. “What an atrocious last 20 minutes of the first half and first 15 minutes of the second half.”
Earnie Stewart, who performed well as the playmaker in Claudio Reyna’s absence and had both American scores and missed out on a hat-trick. His penalty kick was saved in the 43rd minute, which dramatically switched the game’s momentum.
Instead of enjoying a 2-1 halftime lead, the U.S. saw its fortunes sink early in the second half when Carlos Pavon converted a penalty of his own for the visitors before 54,032 at RFK Stadium.
“It’s not so much missing a penalty kick,” Stewart said. “It’s when you look at your teammates and see that you’ve let them down.”
Stewart gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute after putting in a 15-yard rebound of a save by goalkeeper Noel Valladares. But Milton Nunez, a 5-5 speedster with a nose for the goal and who gave the defense headaches all game, equalized with the first of his two goals in the 28th minute.
Stewart had his big chance in the 43rd minute, after Milton Reyes took down Jovan Kirovski. Stewart, who recently had missed a PK for his Dutch club, NAC Breda, aimed for the lower right corner but a diving Valladares knocked it away.
“I made a choice at the last moment to hit it to the right. Stupid,” he said. “The first thought they say is the best thought. At that moment we had some momentum going. Right after that we made a couple of mistakes in midfield, losing a couple of balls and they went on the run.”
The U.S. was never the same as the Hondurans converted a penalty referee Mauricio Navarro of Canada ruled after Jeff Agoos tripped Reyes. Pavon beat goalkeeper Brad Friedel to the lower left for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd minute.
“The penalty kick was a questionable call,” Arena said. “It looked like a shoulder charge. It’s just classic the referee is going to have a make-up call.”
The Honduran attackers didn’t need any help, making the defense look as though it was playing in slow motion before Nunez struck from 12 yards in the 77th minute.
“Regis broke down on a bunch of plays,” Arena said. “He probably had some breakdowns that led to every goal. That needs to be addressed.”
Several qualifying streaks were snapped with the U.S.’s second consecutive loss, the first time they had happened since 1980. The Americans also saw their 19-game home qualifying unbeaten streak go down the drain, losing for the first time in 16 years since May, 1985. They also allowed three goals in a home match for the first time since 1960.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Preki, who replaced Cherundolo in the 67th minute. “We have to regroup and try to get a result in Costa Rica. We can’t panic. We just have to play good soccer and win one or two more games.”
Mexico 2, U.S. 1 (Nov. 11, 2016)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dos a cero is history as Mexico made some history of its own in the CONCACAF hexagonal opener Friday night (Nov. 11, 2016).
Former Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez, who has tormented the United States with some unwarranted physical play in the past, scored the game-winner in the 89th minute to boost El Tri to a 2-1 triumph before a capacity crowd of 24,650 at MAPFRE Stadium.
It was the first time the Mexican defeat the Americans at the stadium. The previous four results were 2-0 victories by the USA — in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013.
It was the first time the Americans dropped a home WC qualifier since a 3-2 loss to Honduras in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 1, 2001, ending a 30-game WCQ home unbeaten streak.
It also was the first time Mexico recorded a qualifying win on U.S. soil since a 2-1 victory in Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 1972.
“It’s disappointing,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said about Friday’s result. “You don’t want to lose this game at all.”
The loss meant the U.S. desperately needs at least a point in Tuesday’s encounter in Costa Rica, a venue in which the Americans have never won a qualifier.
“The message is very simple. We got to go down there and get a result,” Klinsmann said. “I told them we’ll correct it in Costa Rica.
“It gives us a sense of anger, a sense of urgency.”
The USA will have to get that result without starting goalkeeper Tim Howard, who pulled a leg muscle late in the first half. Howard, who will undergo an MRI Saturday, was replaced by Brad Guzan in the 44th minute.
The game was played in the backdrop of Tuesday’s presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump threatened to build a wall along the USA-Mexico border during the campaign, although it did not appear to be any of that rhetoric incited any violence from the supporters.
Marquez, who had tussles with several American players through the years, including Howard and Cobi Jones in qualifiers and World Cup matches and Landon Donovan in the Major League Soccer playoffs, found the range with time running out in regulation. He knocked home a corner kick by Miguel Layun, who had scored earlier in the match.
Defender John Brooks was supposed to cover Marquez.
“We lost him, as simple as that,” Klinsmann said of Marquez, adding that it was an “individual mistake.”
Added midfielder Jermaine Jones: “We were sleeping there.”
For Marquez it was a goal and win of vindication. He had played in three of the four previous losses here.
“Maybe now they have a bad time, a time of intolerance and with this win maybe they can forget now a little bit what happened here in the U.S.,” he said.
“It was a long time that we haven’t had a good game [here]. We are very happy and this is very important for us.”
Both teams played with much intensity as referee Walter Lopez was forced to hand out nine yellow cards, six on Mexico, and a red card to Carlos Salcedo four minutes into second-half stoppage time.
“It kind of confirmed of what we all thought before the game,” Klinsmann said. “It was a nail-biter, very intense, hard-fought game.”
At kickoff, the 44-degree temperature was cold enough that Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, a former Red Bulls coach, kept his team in the warmth of its locker room until a half hour until kickoff.
The strategy seemed to work as El Tri dominated the opening half, forcing Howard to save Layun’s drive to the upper right corner in the 10th minute.
They took a well-deserved lead in the 20th minute when Layun drilled a low, deflected 24-yard shot into the lower right corner, snapping the USA’s 380-minute shutout streak against El Tri here.
Howard suffered that leg injury on a goal kick, forcing Klinsmann to pull him for Guzan in the 44th minute. Guzan stayed out at halftime to warm-up.
The USA equalized in the 49th minute as Jozy Altidore fed an onrushing Bobby Wood, who beat two defenders before slotting the ball past goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera from six yards.
While he was happy with Wood’s score, Klinsmann rued some opportunities that the USA failed to convert.
“We had chances to put it away, but we didn’t,” he said.
Costa Rica 2, U.S. 0 (Sept. 1, 2017)
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 (Sept. 1, 2017).
The Americans lost a home qualifier for only the fourth time in 32 years, dropping a 2-0 loss 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. The Americans’ 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 Nov. 11, 2016.
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.