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A brief history of the USMNT versus Costa Rica

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It’s a closer rivalry than you might think

Costa Rica v United States - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The storyline goes this way: CONCACAF is led by two powers, the United States and Mexico. Costa Rica is the tough, small nation that has been recently making the case for a triumvirate, buoyed by a quarterfinal run in the last World Cup. The headlines of this story are that the U.S. and Mexico combined have nearly 100 times the population of Costa Rica, they dominate the Gold Cup and consistently appear in the World Cup. Sound about right?

This story might not be as simple as all that. The record between the U.S. and Costa Rica starts to deconstruct the concept that the U.S. is that far ahead. The teams are locked at 15-15-6 since they started play in 1975. The U.S. lost that game 3-1 and then the two sides didn’t meet for another decade until a qualifier for the 1986 World Cup. The USMNT tied that match 1-1, getting one of the two draws they’ve ever earned in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has led the series in goal differential for all but two games in the early 2000s, and given that less than a third of the games have been played in Costa Rica, the edge definitely goes to the Ticos.

Home field advantage has been critical in the series. The U.S. has never beaten the Ticos in Central America, losing every game there since 1992. Over that stretch of eight games the U.S. has been outscored 22-6. When Jurgen Klinsmann lost 4-0 there last year, there weren’t any references to Bruce Arena’s 0-3-0 record in San Jose, where his team scored just one goal and conceded seven. It has never been an easy place for the U.S. to play.

The U.S. sports a respectable 15-5-4 (W-L-D) record on home soil. However, the most famous game of the series didn’t really take place on soil at all. The controversial “Snow Classico” was a key World Cup qualifier that took place in March 2013 in Denver. Played in several inches of snow, the away team from near the equator didn’t stand much of a chance. Clint Dempsey’s goal in the 16th minute was the difference and set the U.S. up for a relatively easy run through the Hex. That was the biggest of four goals Dempsey has scored against the Ticos, the most by any U.S. player.

This chart of the history of the two teams shows just how critical the home field advantage has been, and how evenly matched the two team really are.

Whether or not the Ticos belong as a CONCACAF power on par with the U.S. and Mexico is a question for another time, but Costa Rica has had it slightly better than the Americans head to head. Based on Costa Rica’s surge over the past two cycles, it doesn’t appear that’s going to change any time soon.

This concludes the series of histories of the United States men against the other teams in the Hex. To further explore the past here are the previous articles:

Honduras

Trinidad & Tobago

Mexico

Panama