COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Three points is three points, and if the United States does eventually earn its way to Brazil, the points gathered during a snow globe-worthy scene in suburban Denver will count just the same as any others collected in the long qualifying chain.
But what a scene it was, pretty and yet messy and certainly meaningful all at once Friday for the Americans, whose 1-0 win over Costa Rica should help quiet some unrest and put the team in a better place heading into a razor wire-tough match in Mexico City.
As for the soccer game itself, well, it wasn’t much of one.
“It was a real snow battle,” U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said. “By the second half it was a battle for second balls. For both teams it was tough to create a passing game or good chances. … We all just had to adjust to the snow. Battle it out. Finish it out and then move on.”
He was underselling the difficulty of it.
The footing was always treacherous, even in the first half when some green of the grass was still visible. By the second half, as the snow accumulated (against the best efforts of the shovel bearers at DSG Park), dribbling or passing over pretty much any distance was somewhere between difficult and impossible.
Clint Dempsey’s early goal was absolutely essential – perhaps one of his most important yet in U.S. uniform, and he has a bunch of them. (In fact, with his 12th in World Cup qualifying the Texan is now tied with Landon Donovan for the all-time U.S. lead.) It took the pressure off of the United States, not to mention getting something on the scoreboard when worsening conditions was making any offensive maneuvering increasingly tricky.
Every athlete has been in backyard games where elements and obstacles rule; it did look at times in Friday’s fluffy proceedings as if the visitors had been in more of them. They seemed to adjust better.
The Americans seemed destined to get themselves in trouble with their insistence on playing patiently out of the back. The Ticos, by comparison, recognized the danger more quickly of doing so.
At halftime Klinsmann urged his team to get balls into the opposition end faster, and warned off certain balls that should not be messed with on such a night.
Still, there were times in the second half when the United States seemed determined to pass the ball through the midfield. Meanwhile, the Ticos were all about aiming balls to highly stationed Alvaro Saborio.
U.S. center back Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez dealt well with the long stuff, but the danger always seemed present.
“The beginning of the game it wasn’t so difficult,” said Gonzalez, making only his second World Cup qualifier start. “The snow was actually making the ball move pretty nicely. Once the stuff started sticking, it made it difficult to get your footing, to put together some passes or just to dribble.
“At halftime we said, ‘Don’t risk any balls to the sidelines out of the back, any balls to the keeper. If you feel like the heat is on you, just put it up in the channels and let the forwards make a play. Just don’t risk anything.”
Individually, few players really excelled out there; some just managed the elements better than others.
DaMarcus Beasley got the assignment at left back, answering one of the vexing questions of the week. When the game still had some kind of shape, for about 30 minutes, the converted midfielder attempted to play as a very aggressively stationed left back, as the United States attempted to push forward against the visitors.
On the right, Geoff Cameron attempted runs up the right but sometimes was not on the same page as Graham Zusi, who seemed to have particular trouble with his footing.
Jermaine Jones showed everyone a lot, looking quite comfortable, bossing the midfield in the first 45 minutes (to the extend anyone could) and even playing through a nasty gash that required halftime stitching.
“He’s an example in this team,” Klinsmann said. “They look at him and see him go again and go again, it gives a lot of positive energy to the team to see him battle through the way he does. In the end, I took him off because he was just exhausted.”
And then there was goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who handled almost everything better than he could have been expected to.
“In these conditions, you just try to get everything you can behind the ball, to make sure you have a good barrier behind it,” said Guzan, was started in place of the injured Tim Howard. “The guys in front of me did a good job of limiting their chances, and the few opportunities they did have I was able to deal with them.”