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U.S.' World Cup qualifier vs. Costa Rica 'critically important' - Bruce Arena

HARRISON, N.J. -- U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena said Friday's World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica is "critically important" if the Americans have any hopes of qualifying for next summer's World Cup in Russia.

The U.S. currently finds itself in third place in the final round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF, which at present is good enough to claim the third and final automatic qualification spot. The Americans sit three points behind the Ticos, who are in second place, but just one point ahead of fourth place Panama.

The U.S. started out the final round Hexagonal with two straight losses, including a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Costa Rica back in November. Arena was hired shortly thereafter and has led a U.S. recovery that has seen it earn eight points from four matches.

"Starting the campaign with [two losses] certainly put the team a little bit behind," he said in Thursday's news conference. "We've gained ground since then, but there are four games left and they're very important."

Despite the U.S. improvement during 2017, Arena added that he doesn't feel that much more comfortable with his squad given the stakes involved.

"Every game has been do or die for us," he said. "I'm not sure there's been a whole lot of comfort. Every game we've played in the competition has been a 'must' game, so I'm not sure it's been a heck of a lot easier. I think just having our group together for a long period of time in 2017 makes it easier to prepare. We understand each other. The week is a lot smoother than it may have been in March when we started in the games against Honduras and Panama, but they were all difficult."

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While the U.S. matchup with Costa Rica might not rise to the same level of intensity when compared to games with Mexico, the two teams have engaged in some epic battles throughout the years, including the infamous "Snow Clasico" four years ago when the U.S. prevailed 1-0 over the Ticos in blizzard conditions.

"Rivalries are whatever you want to make them to be," said Arena. "Obviously the most natural one for the U.S. has been Mexico for variety of reasons. In my early days, Costa Rica was the team to beat in this competition. They had some absolutely great teams. I can't recall the exact standings when we qualified for 2002 and 2006, but I remember those great Costa Rica teams with [Hernan] Medford and [Paulo] Wanchope, and it's continued obviously over the years. And clearly the showing that Costa Rica had at the 2014 World Cup has to convince people that they are one of the top teams in our competition every four years with Mexico. It's a challenging rivalry, we respect their football, and this is going to be a big game."

Arena was once again asked about his decision to leave Eintracht Frankfurt defender Timmy Chandler off the roster, especially in light of the hamstring injury to right-back DeAndre Yedlin that has forced the Newcastle United defender off the roster. Arena reiterated that he's going with players he's seen in 2017.

"Every decision here is based on what we think gives us our strongest team right now," he said. "All the players that are on our roster for this competition have been with us this year, so I think it makes it easier to transition the team into these two games. One of the reasons Tim Chandler isn't here is because he hasn't been with us 2017. He's a very good player."

In terms of Friday's match, Arena said he's not concerned about the repercussions should the U.S. lose.

"We don't worry about that," he said of the possibility of not winning. "You've got to go out and play. We know we have to win. We know that all hell breaks loose when you lose a game and then all the critics come out and that's all part of it. That's why we compete, and we understand that when we sign up for this stuff. You never discuss losing or planning on losing. That's not in our nature, that's not the way we go about doing our business."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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