“My initial thought was: ‘Here we go. We’ve got to respond,’ ” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We challenged the guys to respond after a poor performance [in Panama], and this was going to be another element we had to respond to.”
Amid a strange and nervy match, the Americans responded, getting even before halftime and scoring midway through the second half for a 2-1 victory before a sellout crowd of 20,165.
“We needed the points, and we can’t lose again,” said defender Sergiño Dest, who scored the tying goal and helped create the winner. “We needed it really bad.”
The go-ahead goal, scored in the 66th minute against Costa Rica’s substitute goalkeeper, was ruled an own goal, although Tim Weah, a last-minute starter after Paul Arriola injured his right groin before kickoff, made it happen.
Keysher Fuller, Costa Rica’s early goal scorer, had the ball deflect off him to Dest, who led Weah into the box for a tight-angled shot that Leonel Moreira appeared to have covered at the near post.
The keeper failed to get his hands on the ball. It struck him in the rib cage, caromed off the post and spun into the far side of the net.
“We’ve got to get that changed. I think it’s Tim’s goal,” Berhalter said, smiling. “We’ll talk to FIFA about that or whoever we have to talk to to get that reversed.”
With or without credit to Weah, the goal helped ease the sting of the 1-0 defeat in Panama and, with one other game pending, left the United States (3-1-2) in no worse than second place in Concacaf’s eight-team competition. Three will advance to the 2022 tournament in Qatar, and a fourth will advance to a playoff.
After winning two of three matches in this week-long window, the Americans will resume the 14-game schedule Nov. 12 against Mexico in Cincinnati, then visit Jamaica four days later.
“Mentally we were always there, even after we [allowed] the goal,” Weah said. “We just had to stay focused and keep playing our game. We dominated the first half; we dominated the second half and got the reward for it.”
The U.S. team continued its tradition of playing in this state capital every qualifying cycle since the 2002 campaign, though this was its first visit to the new downtown MLS stadium.
Four consecutive 2-0 victories over Mexico in World Cup qualifiers at the old arena brought mystique, but after the streak against the archrivals ended in defeat in late 2016, the U.S. Soccer Federation turned elsewhere for that showdown.
As consolation, the USSF placed the Costa Rica game in Columbus, where the team posted a 7-1-2 record in all visits to the old grounds.
Berhalter, a former Columbus Crew coach, offered two lineup surprises: Goalkeeper Zack Steffen made his first qualifying start after yielding to Matt Turner for the first five matches, while center back Chris Richards started a national team game of any kind for the first time.
There was some risk involved, especially involving Steffen, who hasn’t played much this season for Manchester City, but Berhalter said of his player pool, “The guys aren’t here to be passengers.”
There were eight new starters, and the lineup was the youngest in the program’s qualifying history, averaging 22 years. Costa Rica Coach Luis Fernando Suárez took the opposite approach, recalling nine starters from the 2-1 victory over El Salvador on Sunday. The average age of his starters was just over 30.
Disaster struck for the U.S. team before the fans’ giant banner was even lowered behind the north goal. Steffen came out of the box to head the ball, and with the United States unsettled, Costa Rica took advantage.
Ronald Matarrita beat Dest to the end line and crossed to Fuller unmarked on the back side for a 10-yard volley. Jonathan Moya created a distraction in front of Steffen but was kept onside by Dest. Steffen was frozen, allowing the ball to bound into the far corner.
The Americans responded with vigor and urgency but failed to test goalkeeper Keylor Navas until Dest’s 25th-minute gem.
Weah swung the ball from one flank to the other. Yunus Musah settled it, then squared to Dest at the top of the penalty area. Matarrita failed to close Dest’s time and space, so the FC Barcelona player touched the ball to his left and tagged an 18-yarder that took flight and swerved beyond the leaping Navas’s reach before splashing into the top far corner for his second U.S. goal.
“I got it inside and the only thing I could do in that moment was just shoot it,” said Dest, who had at least one shoelace untied when he scored. “We had to score. We were 1-0 down, so I felt like we needed it.”
The strike snapped a string of eight consecutive matches across all competitions without a first-half U.S. goal.
Navas, one of the region’s outstanding keepers for many years, was lost to an apparent adductor injury.
The Americans averted another disaster in the 56th minute when, after a miscommunication between the center backs, Miles Robinson scrambled back to interrupt Bryan Ruiz’s breakaway.
U.S. possession was abundant, but clear chances were not. Then in the 66th minute, the United States went ahead.
Moreira then made a fine save on Weah, prevented another own goal and endured steady U.S. pressure for the rest of the match. Costa Rica tried creating chances with high balls into the box, but Steffen was unmoved, and Berhalter and his crew were able to exhale.
“Our motto is ‘we respond’ no matter what happens in the game,” Steffen said, “because we know there’s going to be ebbs and flows and it’s not always going to be perfect.”
Dest added: “Football doesn’t always have to be like a nice possession game and stuff. The points are the most important.”
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