WASHINGTON -- It was a game that originally wasn't supposed to mean much, but for the U.S. men's team, Wednesday's World Cup qualifying finale meant more than most could have imagined.
Having already qualified for the 2010 World Cup on Saturday, the Americans were expected to treat the game against Costa Rica as a celebration of their accomplishment. However, teammate Charlie Davies was seriously injured in a deadly car accident Tuesday, and that changed everything. Duly inspired, the U.S. team pulled off a stirring comeback to tie Costa Rica 2-2, leaving the pro-American crowd at RFK Stadium roaring as if the U.S. had just qualified for the World Cup.
The Americans almost got off to a dream start when the ninth minute of the match came and a preplanned tribute to Davies kicked off in the stands. U.S. fans held up signs with Davies' No. 9 and cheered loudly. The display seemed to inspire the Americans, particularly Jozy Altidore, who played with unbridled passion in a clear effort to honor his close friend. Altidore delivered a perfect pass to Conor Casey as the final seconds of the ninth minute ticked off, but Casey sent his shot wide.
Costa Rica took advantage of that miss as star striker Bryan Ruiz put on a show. The Costa Ricans came into the match needing a win to ensure an automatic berth in the World Cup and looked to have that ticket to South Africa in hand after Ruiz danced past the U.S. defense to make the score 1-0 in the 21st minute. Just three minutes later, Ruiz blasted a left-footed shot from 18 yards out past Tim Howard to make the score 2-0.
Rather than fold, the U.S. team responded by clawing its way toward its first two-goal comeback in 24 years, producing countless missed chances in the process. Costa Rica began falling into a shell of itself in the second half, which allowed the U.S. team to create more chances and control possession.
"We did finish the first half pushing hard and had a number of really good chances in the first half," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We talked about needing to continue in that regard. The biggest thing I was unhappy with was at times we weren't playing the ball fast enough. I got on the team for that and the fact they need to move the ball quicker and push the game harder, and making sure that we understood that we came to win the game and win the group."
Even after losing defender Oguchi Onyewu to a serious knee injury in the 83rd minute and going down to 10 men because they were out of substitutes, the Americans didn't give up. In fact, the Costa Ricans made a mistake by continuing to bunker and failing to capitalize on the one-man advantage. With mere seconds left in the match, the Americans were rewarded for their perseverance when defender Jonathan Bornstein skied for a header and delivered a 95th-minute goal that gave the U.S. a 2-2 tie, first place in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group and a fitting end to an emotional evening.
"The whole team wanted to go out there and put a good effort out there for Charlie, for his whole family and for everybody that was involved in this situation," Bornstein said. "To get the tie to go on to the World Cup in first in the group, I think it shows a lot about our team and what we're all about."
The comeback also helped shed light on some of the young players who could have key roles for the U.S. team in the coming months and years.
Consider Altidore's performance. The 19-year-old was clearly emotional about Davies' situation, and the talented young striker used that as fuel to spark a fearless 90 minutes. He missed his share of chances, but the determination and effort he showed gave us a glimpse of a player eager to not only improve, but also pick up the slack left by a teammate who won't be back for a long time.
"Charlie's really close to all of us, and I just realized that at any single second, you might not be able to play like you would, so you have to make sure you take every opportunity," Altidore said. "I realized that, and I realized that the hard way, by my friend not being able to play for five or six months. I'm going to try and make sure that from now on, when I step on the field, I will play like it's my last because you never know."
Bornstein was another who delivered on the night. Regarded in some circles as the poster child for the U.S. team's woes at left back, all Bornstein has done is put together a string of solid performances capped by his effort Wednesday. The 24-year-old defender battled for balls in the air, bravely ran into 50/50 challenges and streaked into the penalty area for the unlikeliest of game-tying headers.
"I know there's a lot said about the position being a weak point for the national team, and I'm hoping to be the player to change that," Bornstein said. "It's a matter of trying to play well every day consistently."
The contributions of young midfielders Jose Francisco Torres and Robbie Rogers also were invaluable. With the U.S. team needing not only a spark Wednesday night, but also more options in the overall pool, Torres and Rogers entered the match and made good cases for more playing time heading into 2010. Torres hadn't played significant minutes for the national team since starting and being pulled at halftime of the U.S. team's 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in June. The 21-year-old faced Costa Rica again Wednesday, and looked much more confident and comfortable as a crafty midfield anchor, his performance made all the more impressive when compared to Benny Feilhaber's less-than-stellar effort as a starter.
As for Rogers, a little-used winger who showed glimpses at this summer's Gold Cup, he had been considered still a bit too raw to contribute. However, Wednesday night, Rogers put on Davies' familiar No. 9 and played a hand in both of the U.S. team's goals, providing energy and effective service from the wing. If he can build on this performance, he could give Bradley a natural winger who can contribute, something in short supply in the U.S. pool.
Wednesday's result provided the latest evidence that the U.S. team is a team with more than just heart, but also an ability to push itself to a different level amid adversity. On a night when emotion could have distracted the U.S. players, it instead motivated them, and while Davies' lengthy absence and Onyewu's injury are painful blows, the U.S. team heads toward 2010 looking like a team capable of producing more of the magic we saw in this summer's Confederations Cup.
Player ratings (scale of 1 to 10)
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Made a clutch save in the first half, didn't have much to do in the second half.
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D, Jonathan Bornstein, 7 -- Improving defensively by the game, and his clutch header clinched the tie.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Steady in the middle once again, will need to be the rock in the back now that Onyewu will be sidelined.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 5 -- Beaten badly on first Costa Rica goal, didn't look as sharp as usual.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- Struggled with Costa Rica's speed at first, but eventually settled in and was solid in the second half, pushing forward more and keeping the pressure on.
M, Landon Donovan, 6 -- Was one of the two most active Americans in the first half (along with Altidore), and took the shot that led to the rebound that set up the first U.S. goal. However, he faded in the second half.
M, Michael Bradley, 6.5 -- Involved in U.S. team's creation of chances throughout, and turned on defensive intensity late, while also sparking comeback with his goal.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 4.5 -- Started well with some sharp passes, but slowly disappeared and chased the game too much. Spent far too much time deep in midfield to show his creative qualities.
M, Stuart Holden, 5.5 -- Struggled with the speed of play at times, but also got into the attack well and continues to gain valuable experience.
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F, Jozy Altidore, 7 -- An inspired performance, and while he missed too many chances, he also drew several free kicks and should have earned an assist on Casey's fluffed chance. Looks ready to step up in Davies' absence.
F, Conor Casey, 4 -- Missed an easy early chance and never got that involved after that.
M, Jose Francisco Torres, 7 -- Looked extremely sharp playing in deep midfield role. Made himself available for passes and kept the ball moving. Also delivered a crucial tackle to halt a late Costa Rican attack.
M, Robbie Rogers, 7 -- Provided instant energy and had a hand in both goals.
F, Kenny Cooper (NR) -- Didn't play enough for a grade.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.