SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — When the U.S. national soccer team shuffled out of National Stadium late Friday night, stuck with yet another defeat to the Ticos, one player was on crutches and three others carried yellow-card suspensions.
The back line was reeling from its lousiest performance of the World Cup qualifying campaign, and the goalkeeper was in subpar form.
The coach, so confident about winning in Costa Rica for the first time and extending the team’s overall unbeaten streak to 13, could not hide his disappointment.
But the Americans also took comfort. Despite an assortment of shortcomings in the 3-1 defeat, passage to next summer’s extravaganza in Brazil remains near: They could wrap up a berth Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio.
Juergen Klinsmann’s crew needed three results to fall in its favor Friday. It will require two Tuesday: a victory over sputtering Mexico coupled with a Honduras triumph or draw at home against fading Panama.
“There are a lot of ups and downs” in qualifying, veteran attacker Landon Donovan said. “We’ve been on ups recently, and this is a down. [Now] we’ll see what we’re made of.”
There was a silver lining in Friday’s setback: The clincher could come at home against an arch-nemesis on a raucous stage where the Americans have defeated the Mexicans three consecutive times in the four-year qualifying cycles, all by 2-0 scores.
Worst-case scenario: The campaign extends into October against the two weakest teams, Jamaica and Panama.
In a six-team regional group that promises three automatic berths, the United States (4-2-1, 13 points) is second behind Costa Rica (4-1-2, 14), which would clinch Tuesday by winning at Jamaica (0-4-3, three).
Honduras (3-3-1, 10) is third after a 2-1, comeback victory at Mexico (1-1-5, eight), which lost a home qualifier for only the second time in its storied history. The Mexican federation promptly fired Coach Jose Manuel De la Torre, who failed to win any of his four final-round matches at Azteca Stadium.
The group favorite when play began in February, Mexico is facing the unthinkable prospect of fourth place and a November playoff against the Oceania champion (probably New Zealand).
“They are now absolutely with their back against the wall,” Klinsmann said.
The Americans are not, but they do have issues to address in the brief pause between matches.
Michael Bradley, Klinsmann’s most important midfielder, has been ruled out after spraining his left ankle during warmups Friday. He is scheduled to have an MRI exam Sunday.
Klinsmann is sure to go without Bradley’s last-minute replacement, Geoff Cameron; starting center back Matt Besler; and striker Jozy Altidore. All three will serve one-game suspensions after collecting a second yellow card in qualifying.
Altidore, in top form with the U.S. team all summer, did not start Friday after recovering from a hamstring injury and entered in the 71st minute. In the dying moments, with the outcome decided, he rammed his shoulder into an opponent.
“We knew about the risks of yellow cards,” said Klinsmann, who had eight players carrying them into Friday. “It is always upsetting when [a suspension] happens, especially with Jozy’s card at the end, which was absolutely not necessary.”
Klinsmann added defender Clarence Goodson and midfielders Jose Torres, Joe Corona and Brad Davis.
With Bradley down and Cameron out, Crofton native Kyle Beckerman — who did not play Friday — became the top candidate to partner with Jermaine Jones in defensive midfield.
“We are going to have to have guys step up, there’s no question,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had a shaky outing and could begin to feel the heat from backup Brad Guzan, a fellow starter in the English Premier League. “We have talked about it over the last three years: We build toward this, so a guy can step in and not miss a beat and get the cohesion right.”