U.S. geared up for Costa Rica
The last time the United States national team took on Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match, it ended with the Ticos and their home fans dancing in the streets in celebration of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. That 2-0 loss down in San Jose at an overflowing Estadio Ricardo Saprissa was the U.S. side's third straight loss in a qualifier, and knocked them down into fourth place in the six-team group with only two matches to go.
Of course, Bruce Arena's squad was able to bounce back and earn a trip to the Far East with a victory over Jamaica a month later. But it was that loss to Costa Rica that seemingly turned things around for the side and ended up serving as a marker from that start of when the U.S. catapulted from being one of the stronger CONCACAF teams into a regional power.
The Americans reeled off a 31-game unbeaten streak against CONCACAF opponents powered by a 24-0-7 record and a goal-scoring advantage of 69-11 that extended from that disappointing night in San Jose all the way to the 2-1 loss against Mexico this past March.
When Costa Rica takes on the U.S. this Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) in Salt Lake City, Utah, the tables will have turned a bit. The Ticos are now the ones desperately needing points to keep pace in the standings, as they are currently in fourth place behind Mexico, the U.S. and Guatemala with a 1-1-1 record.
Despite a less-than-exhilarating start, Arena knows all too well how dangerous this side can be.
"Our opponent on Saturday is traditionally one of the top three teams in CONCACAF," said the U.S. manager during a national conference call on Wednesday afternoon. "I have the greatest respect for their new coach (Alexandre Guimaraes). It became very clear in his last go-around that he is a proven winner. He did a great job in qualifying Costa Rica and they were a little unlucky not to qualify out of their group at the last World Cup. So we know they are a very formidable opponent."
Arena expects to see several familiar faces such as 30-year-old captain Luis marin, who will organize the side's three-man backline, former New England Revolution standout Mauricio Wright and Gilberto Martinez. Gone from years past is striker Hernan Medford, who was always a handful for U.S. defenders. In fact, Medford is currently the head coach of Costa Rican club Saprissa, which recently won the CONCACAF Champions Cup and includes several members of the National Team.
Yet, when you think of the Ticos, you think of one player: Paulo Wanchope.
And once again, the lanky striker, who currently plays for Spanish side Malaga, will be the main weapon that will have to be dealt with throughout Saturday's match.
"He's a terrific physical specimen," said Arena of the 28-year-old striker, who stands at about 6-foot-3. "I think Wanchope is still going to be a dangerous player. His physical presence and the qualities that he has at getting at goal and beating defenders I believe is still there. He's going to be an important guy to have to stop on Saturday."
Wanchope played in England for nine seasons with Derby County, West Ham United and was a teammate of U.S. captain Claudio Reyna at Manchester City during the 2003-2004 season before he moved on to La Liga this past fall. For a player so tall and powerful, Wanchope possesses a smooth touch on the ball and is very quick to goal.
The U.S. will look to mark him with a backline that will likely include Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs, Eddie Pope and either Steve Cherundolo or Frankie Hejduk at right back. Greg Vanney, who started in the 2-1 loss to England last weekend, could get another look at left back, which is a position that Arena admitted he is having a difficult time finding the right fit for.
The major questions marks for the U.S. surround the health of midfielder DaMarcus Beasley and striker Eddie Johnson. Without both players in the lineup against England, the U.S. didn't have nearly the same type of explosive element that it is used to. Arena is hopeful that both players will be available for the Costa Rica match on Saturday and for the Panama match down in Panama City on June 8.
"Eddie Johnson is day-to-day, and so is DaMarcus," said Arena.
Midfielder John O'Brien will most likely not be available for the Costa Rica match, as the veteran of the 2002 World Cup side experienced tightness in his calf while training with the team last week in Chicago and currently lacks the type of game fitness Arena is looking for.
"We just got him back on the field a couple of days ago and that would be expecting too much," said the U.S. manager. "John was brought into the England game and these qualifying games with the hope that if he could start off on the right foot he may be able to help us at some point, but having lost last week in training, it has been pretty difficult. He looks like the same John O'Brien. He is obviously a very good player and very technical on the ball, however his match fitness and just his simple comfort in games isn't there yet, and he is going to need some time.
"I'm hopeful that each and every day he gets a little bit better, and he has been, and there is a chance he could help us against Panama, but is more likely he would help us in the Gold Cup."
Eddie Lewis will also be missing for, as Arena put it, "a personal matter for his family" that may also keep him out of the Panama match as well.
Without also having the services of Reyna or holding midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who are both nursing injuries suffered with their respective club teams, Arena's midfield will be jumbled in some respects. Landon Donovan will be the key figure in the center of the park, while Clint Dempsey will likely get another look in a holding capacity as he did against England. Kerry Zavagnin was solid against England, and may once again play in front of the back four.
If Beasley cannot play against Costa Rica, Arena could opt to use recent call-up Pat Noonan of the New England Revolution as a left-sided midfielder, which is where he played as a substitute in the loss to Mexico. Bobby Convey could also get the nod, as Arena mentioned that he's been sharp in training despite coming off a disappointing season where he played sparingly for Reading FC in the English First Division.
"Bobby's been slapped in the face pretty hard from his first year with Reading," said Arena. "However, I think he's learned from it. He's been in camp now for a week-and-a-half, and he's played pretty well. So I would not look at the situation at Reading and say that it's destroyed him as a player. I think it's made him step back and evaluate where he is and what he has to do to get on the field on a regular basis for Reading, and what he needs to do to make his mark with the national team.
"He's still a kid that has a lot of talent who I think has a future both with Reading and with the national team."
Attacking the back three of a Costa Rican side that is expected to come out in either a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 formation will be Brian McBride and either Johnson - if he can recover from a turf toe injury he suffered last week - or Josh Wolff, who Arena praised for his play in the match against England.
Whoever takes the field for the U.S., it is critical that the side uses the home-field advantage and puts Costa Rica back on its heels from the get-go, much like they did against Guatemala in the last home qualifier. To ease the burden of the upcoming away match in Panama - where the U.S. struggled in a 1-1 draw last fall - three points is needed.
"It is obviously a big game for both teams and we are positioned fairly close to each other in the standings right now, with the U.S. sitting at six points and Costa Rica on four," said Arena. "So therefore it is a very important game, and we know the significance of trying to win at home, so that certainly is going to be our objective."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.