U.S. Soccer Attempts to Break Through in Costa Rica

The pitch is ready as a worker prepares the stands in advance of the qualifier in Costa Rica.
The pitch is ready as a worker prepares the stands in advance of the qualifier in Costa Rica. (By Javier Galeano -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, June 2 -- La Cueva del Monstruo, or the Monster's Cave, is a purple purgatory that has chewed up and spit out every version of the U.S. men's national soccer team for a dozen years. The streets of the hilly Tibas neighborhood on the northern edge of this lively capital offer scant warning of what awaits inside Saprissa Stadium. A modern electronics store, a printing business, a small school and a corner tavern are among the commonplace establishments.

If you are looking for an international soccer cathedral, a majestic edifice like London's Wembley, Mexico City's Azteca or Berlin's Olympiastadion, you've taken a very wrong turn.

The Ticos, as the hosts are known, play their home matches in a tall, rectangular, 23,000-seat venue known to generate structural tremors that rival a mild earthquake in this geologically unstable land. Without a running track to serve as a buffer, spectators are about 10 yards from the sidelines, separated from the players by wire fence that tilts inward at the top to prevent pitch invasions.

"It's an intimidating atmosphere with the fans climbing the fence, singing for hours before the game, the smoke bombs and flares," veteran U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni said. "The first few times here, it was a bit overwhelming. There are no words to describe it or prepare you for it. You have to go through it yourself to gain the whole experience."

The experience will resume Wednesday night, when the Americans face Costa Rica in a 2010 World Cup qualifier. The fourth of 10 games in CONCACAF's six-nation final round, it's hardly a must-win. The United States is in first place in a group that offers three automatic berths in next summer's 32-team tournament in South Africa, and given its history here, a tie would be just swell.

But the Americans are eager to prove they can win in the most daunting regional venues: at Saprissa, where they've lost five straight, and at 110,000-seat, smog-choked, oxygen-deprived Azteca, where, in August, they will attempt to win for the first time.

"There is a real atmosphere, one that is exciting but challenging," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said of the Costa Rican venue.

The challenges have come, for the most part, in the form of the always formidable Ticos, who, despite a population of just 4.2 million, have qualified for three of the past five World Cups to become the most successful program among the small Central American countries. However, the Americans have also confronted unruly fans and controversial officiating -- issues that, according to former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, make Saprissa "the most difficult in CONCACAF, even more so than Azteca. The crowd is right on top of you, they influence the officiating and it's borderline dangerous at times."

In a 1996 qualifier, U.S. players were pelted with batteries, coins, chemical substances and bags of urine -- acts that belied the character of a country that does not have a standing military, boasts a Nobel Peace Prize winner (President Oscar Arias) and boasts numerous yoga and spiritual retreats amid its natural wonders.

Threatened with sanctions, Costa Rica's soccer federation improved security and the fans responded accordingly. Yet the sound and fury remain the same. Saprissa is home to the country's most popular and successful club (of the same name) and the game-day feel is closer to an Argentine or English league match than an international showdown. The club's primary color (purple) decorates every seat and a cartoon monster serves as the mascot.

After the U.S. team's 3-2 loss here in 1997, the misery was magnified three years later, when a Jamaican referee awarded Costa Rica a controversial penalty kick in the waning moments of a tie game. For their comments and actions after the 2-1 defeat, Arena and team captain Claudio Reyna were suspended by FIFA, soccer's world governing body.

In two subsequent visits, the Americans were beaten by a combined 5-0.

Another issue facing the United States is Saprissa's artificial turf, which was installed several years ago to combat deteriorating field conditions caused by the six-month rainy season. (FIFA now allows, though does not encourage, qualifiers to be played on synthetic surfaces.) While the U.S. players from MLS teams compete on fake grass regularly, the foreign-based regulars do not. Saprissa's fast, hard field -- "it's the old-school stuff," U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk said -- is conducive to the Ticos' rapid-attacking style.

Their home-field advantage, however, might not be as pronounced in future World Cup qualifying cycles. With financial assistance from the Chinese government, the national stadium in central San Jose is being rebuilt and scheduled to open next year. Modern amenities and a running track will soften the impact for visiting teams, particularly the Americans.

On Wednesday, though, they must confront Saprissa one last time.

"The odds are against you, the fans are against you, the conditions are against you," Hejduk said. "These are the games you get pumped up for and want to play in. You know it's going to be a huge challenge."

Notes: Hejduk, the starting right back, is not expected to be on the game-day roster because of a groin injury. He might be available Saturday against Honduras in Chicago. Midfielder Maurice Edu (knee) did not report to training camp in Miami this week and will miss both matches. . . . Costa Rica's roster includes defenders Gonzalo Segares, a former Virginia Commonwealth star who plays for the Chicago Fire, and Harold Wallace, cousin of D.C. United midfielder Rodney Wallace.

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