If there’s one thing the USMNT knows following a late 2-1 loss to Mexico in Columbus to start the Hex, it’s that only a win on Tuesday will ease up on the pressure.
Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done.
Winning in Costa Rica has been literally impossible for the United States – they have lost eight World Cup qualifiers in a row in Costa Rica, earning just a single point which came back in 1985. Add in that Los Ticos are on a five-match winning streak including a win over Columbia to finish their Copa America this summer and a friendly triumph over Russia, and the task is daunting.
Now, the Stars & Stripes travel to the Central American nation needing victory in the worst way. All three matches in round one of the Hex finished with a winner, leaving the United States three points adrift of anyone else above them in the group. The most devastating result was Panama’s win over Honduras, and while Panama isn’t expected to be a favorite in any other match except the reverse of that fixture, the U.S. still has ground to make up.
According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, the loss to Mexico alone slammed the U.S. chances of qualifying for Russia 2018 by over 20%, dropping them from 86% favorites down to an uneasy 69%. A loss Tuesday would likely compound that into a full on free-fall, unless both other fixtures ended in a draw.
Despite all this pressure, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t afraid. In fact, quite the opposite: he guaranteed the USMNT would come away from San Jose with points. “The message is very simple, we’ve got to go down there and get a result, which we will do.”
They better. While making up a four or six-point deficit with eight matches to go is hardly unheard of, it’s most definitely a position the United States does not wish to see itself in by any stretch. While next international break serves up a relative respite with games against Honduras and Panama, nothing is for certain in the Hexagonal, and any unnecessary pressure during those matches would be counter-productive to otherwise straightforward games.
But they’ve been here before. Just in the last Hexagonal, they suffered a significantly more damaging defeat to Honduras to begin the round. A home win over Costa Rica just days later – the famous snow game in Denver – righted the ship.
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With Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago both clear favorites in their matches against Honduras and Panama, the United States could fall significantly behind if they drop points in San Jose, and hand any points to the opponents in the process, as Los Ticos already sit on three after an impressive first-match victory over the Soca Warriors.
Right now, the wound from a last-second loss to a bitter rival is surely fresh, but the actual danger is still relatively minimal. However, the bottom line for Tuesday is clear: a loss against Costa Rica – or even a draw – would add legitimate pressure to the already building uneasiness among fans. Only three points can appease the masses.