It wasn't that long ago that the United States' upcoming World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica had all the makings of an ulcer-inducing finale. In fact, late in Saturday's match against Honduras, that very scenario seemed destined to play out.
But with the U.S. clinging to a one-goal lead, Honduran striker Carlos Pavon skied his penalty kick over the bar, and a few minutes later the North Americans had clinched their passage to South Africa with a 3-2 win. Now the pressure is off heading into Wednesday's match against the Ticos at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Of course, this absence of tension shouldn't be confused with not caring about the result. This team is coached by Bob Bradley, after all -- a man who, prior to a friendly early in his tenure, opined, "The result always matters." In this instance, the U.S. currently leads the pack in CONCACAF's final-round hexagonal, one point ahead of Mexico. And while it's unlikely that finishing first will help them in terms of World Cup seeding, Bradley made it clear he's intent on keeping his team in first place.
"We take a great amount of pride in trying to be the best team in CONCACAF," said Bradley after Saturday's victory. "The competition in the final round [of qualifying] has been very strong and that's the reason everything has been very close. With this win today, we're in position going into the Costa Rica game to finish first in the group, and that's the goal."
That means Bradley likely won't resort to the kind of wholesale changes one might expect in a game where qualification has already been assured. No players have been sent back to their clubs, meaning any personnel alterations will be more of the tactical variety.
Yet while the U.S. will be playing mostly for pride, Wednesday's match means everything to Costa Rica. The Ticos' 4-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on Saturday enabled them to vault over Honduras into third place, which represents the last automatic spot in CONCACAF qualifying. Their two-point cushion means that Costa Rica will miss out on qualification only if the Ticos tie or lose, coupled with a Honduras win at El Salvador on Wednesday.
So, much like the U.S. on Saturday, Costa Rica wants to leave nothing to chance, and a victory -- which would be its first road qualifying win against the Yanks in 24 years -- would guarantee that they join the U.S. in South Africa next summer.
Reaching that goal would mean that coach Rene Simoes could add "raising the dead" to his already impressive résumé. Saturday's win over T&T was the Brazilian's first game in charge since a three-match losing streak cost Rodrigo Kenton his job and imperiled the Ticos' qualifying effort. In the process, Simoes recalled some of Costa Rica's old guard, and a pair of 35-year-olds -- defender Luis Marin and attacker Rolando Fonseca -- took part in Saturday's win.
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U.S. vs. Costa Rica
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
8 p.m. ET
Yet midfielder Michael Barrantes was the player who made the most of his international recall. Not only did he and Randall Azofeifa provide an effective shield in front of the back line, but his late runs -- along with those of Bryan Ruiz and Walter Centeno -- caused the Soca Warriors all kinds of problems. His performance also helped soften the blow of losing rising star Celso Borges to an ankle injury prior to the match.
"Change is always a chance at a new beginning, and you want to bring in people who didn't go through those negative experiences, like with the past three losses," said veteran U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo. "The experienced [Costa Rica players], they've seen these qualification games before, and they know what they're getting into."
Striker Alvaro Saborio also appears to be returning to form, scoring twice against the Soca Warriors as well as setting one up for Centeno. And Esteban Sirias, who did plenty to torment the U.S. during a 3-1 loss to the Ticos earlier in qualifying, was also effective getting down the left flank.
But the U.S. players know what they're up against, and playing at home should allow them to impose their will on the visitors.
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"For the most part, we have our game plan, and we want to stick by that," said Cherundolo. "We believe in ourselves, and if we do the things right that we need to do, we should come out on top."
Among those items will be attacking the flanks, the better to exploit the spaces left by Costa Rica's three-man back line. The opportunity to take advantage of Marin's lack of foot speed also will be an aim of the U.S. attack.
But another goal for the North Americans will be making their matches less of a roller-coaster ride. The U.S. did plenty right on Saturday, not only showing the mental fortitude to come back from a second-half deficit, but also displaying more composure and intelligence by emphasizing possession in a bid to kill the match off. Landon Donovan also continues to look more comfortable in assuming the attacking responsibility, even without injured teammate Clint Dempsey, who won't take part in Wednesday's match.
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Yet the reality is that the U.S. nearly contrived to throw away two critical points. Honduras' second goal was scored after the U.S. appeared to stop playing in expectation of an offside call that never came. And the penalty conceded could very easily have made a nightmare out of a historic night.
The U.S. did enough, however, and now can look to achieve a greater level of consistency and concentration without the anvil of World Cup qualification hanging overhead. And a win against the Ticos will allow the Americans to bask even more in their qualifying success.
"We not only want to play well, but we want to continue progressing as a team going into the World Cup," said Cherundolo. "We'll have a little more time to celebrate after Wednesday's game."
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Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.