With an opening Hex loss against Mexico on Friday night, the U.S. men’s national team has their backs against the wall as they head to San Jose, Costa Rica for Tuesday’s match. The overall record between these teams is even with each team winning fourteen times and drawing five times.
Costa Rica has historically done their damage against the U.S. at home, first at the famed Estadio Saprissa and now at the Estadio Nacional. In World Cup qualifiers played between these two teams in Costa Rica, the home side has never lost. It is the longest active away losing streak for the U.S. with eight straight losses.
Their first World Cup qualifier meeting in Costa Rica was actually played in Alajuela in 1985. A USMNT featuring four college players earned the last point ever acquired in Costa Rica. Duke’s John Kerr, Jr. scored the equalizing goal for the U.S. Mike Windischmann, who went on to captain the USMNT in the 1990 World Cup, told Big Apple Soccer in 2013:
"It was really exciting and like a lot of times on the road, it’s 1-1, you try to keep the score at 1-1. Costa Rica was trying to put pressure on. We did a pretty decent job of trying to stop their attack. The whistle blew and we had a 1-1 tie and we snuck a point out. It was the first time anybody ever got a point down in Costa Rica."
John Kerr, Jr. told the USA Today in 2009:
"They overlooked us, which was naturally because we were very inexperienced. They were unlucky. They hit the post. They had most of the play, and we hit them on the counterattack."
The Ticos got their revenge five days later as they beat the U.S. 1-0 in California to eliminate the Americans from the 1986 World Cup.
Four years later, a loss in Costa Rica opened the final round of World Cup qualifying for the U.S. This time, the game was played at the old National Stadium in San Jose.
The U.S. turned the tables in this cycle, getting revenge on American soil as Tab Ramos’ goal two weeks later in St. Louis righted the ship. Both teams qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
With the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994 and not taking part in qualifying, it would be seven years before the teams would meet in Costa Rica again. They were drawn together in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying which started in late 1996. Three straight wins had the U.S. in a comfortable position in the table heading to Costa Rica, while the Ticos were coming into the game off a loss to Guatemala. Paolo Wanchope and Wilmer Lopez gave the hosts a lead, and Cobi Jones’ 89th minute goal was not enough to rescue a point. This was the first time the teams met at the famed Estadio Saprissa in San Jose.
The USMNT clinched their spot in the first ever Hex with a 2-1 win over the Ticos at Stanford Stadium two weeks later. Costa Rica secured their spot with a final win over Trinidad and Tobago.
The final round did not start well for the U.S. as they drew 0-0 away to Jamaica. They followed that up with a solid 3-0 win over Canada before heading to Costa Rica for their third game. Costa Rica came in off of a scoreless draw against Mexico.
In one of the best games played in the series, the Ticos prevailed 3-2. Eric Wynalda leveled the score in the 25th minute after an early goal from Hernan Medford. Mauricio Solis restored the home side’s lead in the 32nd minute. Roy Lassiter, who started his professional career in Costa Rica, equalized for the U.S. in the 67th minute. It was Ronald Gomez’s 76th minute goal that earned Costa Rica the full three points.
After two draws, the USMNT hopes were not looking great as they prepared to host Costa Rica in Portland. Tab Ramos’ 79th minute goal was enough for the three point and got the campaign back on track as the U.S. headed to its third straight World Cup. Costa Rica followed up that loss with another one the following week in Jamaica which kept them from qualifying for the 1998 World Cup.
The U.S. and Costa Rica were drawn together in the semifinal round again in 2002 World Cup qualifying. The road started in July 2000 as a Carlos Ruiz goal in the 88th minute kept the U.S. from winning in Guatemala and they had to settle for a point. Barbados shocked Costa Rica in Bridgetown, setting the table for a critical game at the Estadio Saprissa the following week.
Rolando Fonseca put the hosts up early in the 10th minute, but Earnie Stewart equalized for the U.S. in the 65th minute. A controversial call gave Costa Rica a penalty in the 92nd minute that Hernan Medford converted to give the hosts the win. Claudio Reyna told Soccer America after the game:
“There were a lot of emotions, and it’s hard to control yourself after you think you’ve been robbed of points. We played a good game and we feel we deserve more. With the chances we had at the end we should’ve had at least a point, if not the win.”
The Estadio Saprissa was considered one of the toughest places for visiting teams in the world. The fans were so close to the field, according to USMNT legend Jeff Agoos:
"They're literally on top of you. It feels that they're coming from all sides. There's this mass of humanity that surrounds the field."
They were also not shy about throwing things according to Agoos:
"Coins are a favorite. Tim Howard probably picked up a couple of extra dollars by being in goal."
The U.S. rebounded to win three of their last four games to qualify. Costa Rica had to defeat Guatemala in a playoff to move to the Hex.
They played late in the Hex in 2001 and the USMNT hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in South Korea and Japan were on the ropes. The U.S. came into the game after a shocking 3-2 loss at RFK Stadium to Honduras. Costa Rica could clinch qualification for their second ever World Cup with a win over the U.S., and two goals from Rolando Fonseca made that a reality.
The loss pushed the U.S. into a must-win game against Jamaica in the penultimate game of qualifying to stay alive. Joe-Max Moore scored twice at the old Foxboro Stadium, with his 81st minute penalty the difference in a 2-1 win.
By the time the teams faced each other at the Saprissa in 2005, the U.S. had already clinched qualification for Germany. Bruce Arena was experimenting with his team in the remaining qualifiers. Costa Rica was one win away from clinching their second straight World Cup appearance and took care of business in an emphatic 3-0 win.
In 2009, the two teams met in Costa Rica in the fourth game of the Hex. The U.S. was in good shape with two wins and a draw, while Costa Rica had two wins and a loss. Two early goals for the hosts put the game out of reach for the USMNT and it finished 3-1 after a late penalty by Landon Donovan.
The U.S. did get a measure of revenge in the home game to close out the Hex. Jonathan Bornstein’s 95th minute goal pushed Costa Rica out of an automatic qualification spot, and they eventually lost the continental playoff against Uruguay.
2013 saw the teams first meet in the U.S. in the SnowClasico. Costa Rica vowed revenge in the return leg in September and got it in a comprehensive 3-1 win. At one point, they even discussed moving the match to the Estadio Saprissa instead of the new Estadio Nacional. In the end, they did not need the extra fear that the Saprissa induced. Both teams qualified comfortably for the World Cup in Brazil.
This is the backdrop that the U.S. will be facing in Costa Rica on Tuesday night. A hostile environment will be quite the test after Friday’s loss, although luckily the fans are further away from the field now at the Estadio Nacional. The U.S. has scored seven goals in Costa Rica in nine games, while giving up seventeen.
If Jurgen Klinsmann has tamed the challenge of the Azteca with a friendly win and a World Cup qualifying draw, Costa Rica has proven to be toughest place for the U.S. to play and get a result. It desperately needs one to prevent panic to set in on the Road to Russia.