One year later than expected, the United States kicked off the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica at the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico. The match was a tense affair, as both teams had equal opportunity to win. However, the Americans came away with three points due to a superb solo effort from Jesús Ferreira.
Manager Jason Kreis opted for a 4-3-3 formation, relying on the squad’s more experienced players to secure three points. Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa was named the starter. The center back pairing of Justen Glad and Mauricio Pineda was tasked with stopping Costa Rica’s vaunted attackers and initiating the pass-heavy tactics.
The match got off to a fast start, with the United States almost scoring in the second minute. Ferreira stripped the ball from the defender, but his ensuing shot hit the post. A short time later, Costa Rica had a chance from close range stopped by Ochoa.
The pace was intense, as both teams attempted to set the tone and stick to their conflicting vertical and pass-heavy styles. Los Ticos pressured the United States back line, creating a few opportunities as the American defenders struggled to maintain possession. The back-and-forth, wide open attacking continued, but neither side was able to find the back of the net.
The United States finally found a breakthrough in the 35th minute. Sam Vines received the ball on the left wing and played a cross into the box. The pass took a deflection and fell to a late-trailing Ferreira, who perfectly placed his one-time shot past goalkeeper Kevin Chamorro.
The score remained 1-0 heading into halftime. Costa Rica came out of the break with a purpose, energized and pushing the pace. Play was focused in the American defensive third, as the back line struggled to deal with pressure. Kreis’ 59th minute insertion of Sebastian Saucedo and Andrés Perea appeared to settle proceedings and returned the run of play to a more balanced field.
In the 65th minute, Ferreira had a clean break on goal saved by Chamorro. Despite a lack of contact, he pulled up hobbling and was replaced by Sebastian Soto. The United States will surely be hoping his non-contact injury is mild, as the FC Dallas attacker was the team’s most active player and dangerous scoring threat.
A few more nervy moments followed with Kreis’ side clinging to a narrow lead. Costa Rica continued to push for an equalizer but was unable to find the necessary final quality. The referee signaled an end to the match, allowing the United States to escape with three points.
The first successful step on the road to the Tokyo Games was completed, although it was shaky and left room for improvement. The defensive struggles are concerning, with Costa Rica gifted several opportunities from turnovers. The attack also failed to inspire, unable to consistently trouble the opponents or string together possession. Despite the underwhelming opener, a win is still the deserved result after a traditional “bend but not break” performance, as has come to be expected in international competitions.
The United States returns to action on Sunday, March 21st in the second round of Group A’s fixtures. Jason Kreis’ squad will take on the Dominican Republic in Zapopan at the Estadio Akron. Three points against the lower-rated CONCACAF opponent will not clinch advancement to the knockout stage but would increase the country’s chances of appearing at the Olympics for the first time since 2008. After all, the inevitability of Mexico awaits in the third match.