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Smarting United States must start well against Costa Rica

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- When the United States last played in Costa Rica just over three years ago, the match was over almost before it began.

Michael Bradley, the Americans' beating heart in central midfield then and now, turned his ankle in the warm-up and had to be helped off the soggy Estadio Nacional field. Goals by Johnny Acosta and Celso Borges left the reeling Americans down 2-0 less than 10 minutes in. And when the final whistle blew a little less than two hours later, the visitors had suffered a 3-1 defeat, their eighth consecutive World Cup qualifying loss in San Jose.

Getting off to a better start -- or at the very least, avoiding another terrible one -- will be imperative if Jurgen Klinsmann's team is to break that losing streak on Tuesday, when they will meet the Ticos in the rivals' latest qualifier here.

After last week's home loss to Mexico, anything less than a perfect performance could leave the U.S. 0-2 to start CONCACAF's 10-match Hexagonal round, which will determine whether the Yanks advance to Russia 2018.

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"This is a very, very difficult place to play," Bradley said Monday before the U.S. held their only training in the Costa Rican capital.

"You can't afford bad starts. You can't afford to give away goals before the game has really settled in."

Yet despite their inglorious history in Costa Rica, the visitors don't seem especially burdened by the past. And perhaps they shouldn't be, not if Matchday 1 of the Hex was anything to go by. Away teams won all three games last Friday, including the Ticos' 2-0 triumph in Trinidad and Tobago.

It's also worth noting that the Americans trounced Costa Rica just five months ago, during the group stage of June's Copa America Centenario. That match was played in Chicago, though, and it wasn't the quite the stroll the 4-0 score line might suggest.

"The game in Chicago, they had the upper hand the first 20 minutes," said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who reviewed film of that game as part of his preparation for this one.

"They were the better team until we got the first goal. Just watching that, you have to be really alert. You have to be awake."

With a roster that includes UEFA Champions League regulars like goalkeeper Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) and forwards Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz (both Sporting Lisbon), the Ticos boast genuine quality. The core of the squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup -- where they lost on penalties to the Netherlands -- remains mostly intact. And they tend to be at their best at home.

Based on appearances, the gorgeous $110 million Estadio Nacional, built in 2011, is nothing like the house of horrors that was the old Saprissa Stadium, which featured rock-hard artificial turf and fans close enough to be dangerous (the U.S. filed a formal protest after a player was hit by a coin in 2000).

As a practical matter, however, the challenge remains the same.

"It's a very different stadium than Saprissa, but the atmosphere, it doesn't change," Bradley said.

Still, the mood on the ground is decidedly more relaxed than when the U.S. last visited in September of 2013. The Ticos were still smarting from their 1-0 loss in a Colorado snowstorm earlier that year, and the Costa Rican federation went out of its way to make life difficult for the Americans by denying them training sites and practice balls.

A huge throng of fans greeted the U.S. with jeers upon their arrival at Juan Santamaria international airport. Eggs smashed against the side of the team bus.

The reception was much tamer when Klinsmann and Co. returned Sunday night.

"It was pretty calm, just a few fans and photographers," keeper Brad Guzan said. "It wasn't nearly like last time."

Perhaps it's a good omen. After Friday's loss, the Yanks are desperate to make up ground. Keeping the hosts from jumping all over them early will go a long way toward achieving that end. The first 20 minutes are important in any match, and they'll be even more critical than usual on Tuesday.

"At times, we will have to absorb some pressure," Guzan said. "We know we're going to have to defend for certain periods of the game. But when we have the ball we have to try to keep it, make them defend and create chances.

"And if we can steal a goal, it becomes that much better for us in terms of opening things up. That will give us a real opportunity to get a result."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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