COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The U.S. national soccer team’s road to the 2014 World Cup will pass through several distinctive locations, but none as surreal and farcical as the snow-blasted setting in suburban Denver on Friday night.
Fourteen months from now, if the Americans are avoiding sunburn in Brazil, they will surely look back at a March blizzard that turned DSG Park into Aspen. In swirling snow, difficult footing and poor visibility, Clint Dempsey drove a yellow ball into the net in the 16th minute for a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
A qualifying match that began in inconvenient — and quite pretty — conditions crumbled into an extraordinary scene.
Soccer games are rarely stopped or postponed but the snow continued to fall. And in the 55th minute, Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar halted the action. During a brief interruption, however, players on both teams seemed to persuade him to resume play.
With more snow expected Saturday, Aguilar and the match commissioner, who is from the Caribbean island of Grenada, set out to finish the match in its entirety. At one point, U.S. defender Geoff Cameron placed his hand on the back of a grounds crew member armed with a shovel and guided him along a line marking.
"It was an embarrassment for soccer tonight," Costa Rica Coach Jorge Luis Pinto said.
The Americans (1-1-0, three points) survived several scares in the second of their 10 final-round regional qualifiers to move into second place behind Honduras (1-0-1, four) in the six-nation standings.
They extended their home unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifiers to 23 games (21-0-2) dating from 2001, and gained valuable points after losing the opener at Honduras last month and enduring weeks of injuries and off-field distractions.
"It was a nice snow battle — the most important part is you get the three points," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said.
The settings for the U.S. team’s first four qualifiers: sweltering heat in Honduras’ lowlands, freezing weather in Colorado’s high plains, oxygen deprivation in Mexico City next Tuesday and summer sizzle in Jamaica in June.
For many countries, venue selection is strategic in providing a clear advantage. In the U.S. Soccer Federation’s case, both climate and demographics in a diverse country come into play. The Mexico home match in September, for instance, will be held in Columbus, Ohio — a location that has hosted the Mexicans in the dead of winter.
Denver, the Mile High City, was also selected for altitude ahead of the trip to Mexico City (7,350 feet).
Spring welcomed the U.S. team early in the week, but conditions turned badly late Friday afternoon with strong winds and bursts of sideways snow.
Costa Rica is a tropical country but eight starters are employed by northern European or MLS clubs. So the weather advantage wasn’t as pronounced as one would expect.
Maintenance crews shoveled and mini-plows ran laps. The surface was marginally playable at the start and only got worse. During stoppages, the shovel brigade scurried out to re-expose the sidelines.
The breakthrough came in the 16th minute when Jozy Altidore ripped a low shot from beyond the penalty area. His target was the near corner, but as goalkeeper Keilor Navas slid over, the ball caromed off defender Roy Miller’s leg and spun into Dempsey’s path in the middle of the box for a simple finish – his 32nd goal in 93 appearances.
It continued a miserable month for Miller, who was recently benched by the New York Red Bulls after intentionally encroaching on a San Jose penalty kick. He said afterward he thought, incorrectly, such a violation would negate a possible goal. The shot was saved, but Miller’s actions led to a retake, which was converted.
The Americans had a case for a penalty kick in the 42nd minute when Dempsey was tripped, but Aguilar, positioned a few yards away, allowed play to continue.
When the half ended, the grounds crew rushed back to work, bringing only temporary relief. Aguilar had the power to stop the match but declined to intervene.
Costa Rica threatened several times in the second half, most notably in the 70th minute when an offside call wiped out an apparent goal.
When it ended, the Americans thanked the fans and played in the snow.