Costa Rica Puts Away the U.S. in World Cup Qualifier

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, June 3 -- By the 13th minute of its 2010 World Cup qualifier here Wednesday night, the U.S. men's national soccer team was once again hopelessly lost inside the Monster's Cave. Roars of approval echoed throughout Saprissa Stadium, also known as La Cueva del Monstruo, as Costa Rica tore through the Americans' weak resistance en route to an early two-goal lead and an eventual 3-1 rout.

For all practical matters, the U.S. team's hopes were extinguished just 85 seconds into the match when Alvaro Saborio struck from long distance.

"He hit a fantastic shot," said Carlos Bocanegra. "That's exactly how we didn't want to start the game."

Celso Borges added another goal shortly thereafter, and the Americans (2-1-1) appeared headed for their third straight shutout loss and sixth consecutive defeat at this raucous venue.

Pablo Herrera scored in the second half for the Ticos before Landon Donovan converted a late penalty kick for the U.S. team, which relinquished first place to the Ticos (3-1) in the six-team final round of qualifying for North and Central America and the Caribbean.

"As a group tonight, we came up short in every way," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said.

Although the Americans remain heavily favored to secure one of the three automatic berths to next year's World Cup in South Africa, this embarrassing result left the squad in an uneasy situation heading into Saturday's match against a dangerous Honduras side at Chicago's Soldier Field. Then later this summer, the Americans must visit Mexico's Azteca Stadium, where, like Saprissa, they have never won.

As the day dawned, residents of the Central Valley unfurled national flags of blue, white and red stripe. The sport might not consume this city as much as other capitals, but with each passing hour, futbol fever intensified. Four hours before kickoff, activity around Saprissa began to grow.

Security was heavy but not overbearing, and although Costa Rican supporters had gained notoriety for their poor behavior in previous World Cup cycles, they are a sophisticated and deeply passionate audience that welcomes visiting fans.

A few hundred U.S. backers, mostly young and mostly dressed in colorful, patriotic garb, made their way into the steep upper deck and seemed to mix nicely with their hosts.

When the lineups were unveiled, Bradley offered few surprises. With Brian Ching out with a hamstring injury, Donovan and Jozy Altidore -- a three-goal scorer in the previous qualifier -- were paired on the frontline. Michael Bradley and Pablo Mastroeni manned central midfield, flanked by José Francisco Torres and Clint Dempsey.

DaMarcus Beasley, a midfielder who had performed so well in the back against Trinidad and Tobago in April, returned to that role, and Oguchi Onyewu and Bocanegra filled the middle. With veterans Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hedjuk unavailable because of injuries, the big issue was at right back. Bob Bradley chose Marvell Wynne, whose only appearance this year was in a friendly against Sweden in January.

Wynne's attributes are his speed and experience on artificial turf as a member of MLS's Toronto FC, which plays on a synthetic surface.

From the start of this game, however, he was targeted by the Ticos, whose interplay put the Americans on the defensive. In the second minute, with the U.S. backline offering minimal resistance, Saborio launched a 22-yard shot that curled well out of goalkeeper Tim Howard's reach and settled into the far upper corner. Saprissa erupted.

Eleven minutes later, Bryan Ruiz and Esteban Sirias worked a sleek and stylish give-and-go on the left flank. Sirias carved space on the left side of the penalty area and centered to Borges for a sharp stab past the overwhelmed Howard.

"This isn't the place to roll over," said Howard. "We're down 2-0 before the game gets started -- you can't do that here and hope to have a prayer. It couldn't have started worse."

The shellshocked Americans were as messy on the attack as they were defensively. Donovan missed badly from 20 yards, but the bigger problem was the team's failure to adapt to the rock-hard artificial turf. Gentle passes that would reach their destination on grass skipped harmlessly away here.

Howard was the least of the U.S. problems on the goals, but in the 18th minute, he nearly extended the deficit by fumbling Saborio's header at the near post. Saborio threatened again in the 38th with a powerful drive that streaked over the crossbar.

A goal before the half would have left the Americans in decent shape, but they barely tested goalkeeper Keilor Navas.

Bradley made a change at the start of the second half, replacing Torres with Sacha Kljestan, and although the energy level was sufficient, the attack remained tame against a Costa Rican backline that made few mistakes and seemed to anticipate every American idea. Pass attempts in tight space faltered repeatedly and scoring opportunities never materialized.

"We didn't play the way we should have in this environment, in this situation, playing on [artificial] turf, playing away," lamented Donovan. "We just didn't play the way we wanted to and that's disappointing because we have a lot of players who know better."

As bad as things were here, they suddenly got worse for Saturday as well. Michael Bradley received his second yellow card of the final round, leaving him ineligible for the Honduras game.

The next U.S. move was to bolster the attack as Freddy Adu, the onetime D.C. United prodigy, replaced Mastroeni in the 63rd. But seven minutes later, the result was put to rest when Herrera, who had entered early in the half, dribbled circles around the Americans in the penalty area before unleashing a low shot into the right corner.

The Monster's Cave roared into the night.

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