Wow. That was a game unlike any I’ve ever seen. In near-whiteout conditions, with snow piling up into the inches on the field, it was all the groundskeepers could do to keep the lines visible. It was the kind of game that, were the stakes not so high, actually wouldn’t get played—and almost didn’t.
The temperature at kick-off was below thirty degrees, and between the low quality of my Internet stream and the snow in the air, it was difficult to follow the ball. And I wasn’t the only one having problems. From the first whistle, it was clear that the contest was going to be more a mental one than one of skill.
Four men who seemed just fine were the members of the U.S.’s back line. Geoff Cameron was pushed out to right back, and Clarence Goodson came in. Out left, DaMarcus Beasley was deputized. For all its makeshift nature, the defense immediately felt more assured than it had in Honduras. Clearly, there was better communication and concentration, and with Michael Bradley tasked with sitting deep and protecting them, the defense felt secure. What a feeling.
Up the other end, the front five of the U.S., ably assisted by Cameron and Beasley, were doing their all to retain possession, something that the conditions were making very difficult. But the conditions play the same for both teams, and the U.S. handled it better than the Costa Ricans, keeping the ball as best they could and swiftly closing down the Costa Ricans when it was lost.
In the 16th minute, a darting run from the right side by Graham Zusi brought the ball into U.S. captain Clint Dempsey central, who played it to Jozy Altidore at the left corner of the box. Altidore’s hold-up play was an asset all night, and he turned quickly and lashed in a shot. Replays showed the shot was likely squirting wide, but the Costa Rican defense had all drawn toward the ball. The shot deflected off the heel of the advancing left back and straight into the path of Dempsey, who’d continued his run, to poke home into an empty net.
The U.S. began to assert control after the goal and, barring the occasional turnover, was on top, but neither team created many chances. That is, until the 42nd minute, when the U.S. should have had a penalty kick. Dempsey picked up a ball poked at him from midfield and turned in the box, only to be taken down. It looked a stone-cold PK, but the refs gave nothing.
Let it snow
At halftime, as the snow continued to fall, the possibility that the game might be abandoned became serious. The groundskeepers did a good job of clearing the field, but the snow fell almost as fast as it could be shoveled. If the game was stopped, there were conflicting reports about what would happen. Some said the game would be rescheduled and started from scratch, while others said the game would resume where it had left off. Neither option seemed ideal, but the conditions were becoming unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
Worse than that, in the early minutes of the second half, Costa Rica was on top. The U.S., for the first time all game, was under sustained pressure, and it looked as if Costa Rica had an equalizer in them.
But in the 55th minute, something I’ve never seen before happened: the clock stopped. It’s unclear who called the game, but the referee picked up the ball and motioned for the players to walk off the field.
Neither team wanted the game stopped. The U.S., of course, was leading, and the Costa Ricans felt they were finally getting into the game. The referee appeared to consult with players and coaches on both sides, and after several minutes, motioned everybody back onto the field!
Keep what you have
With the game resumed, Costa Rica tried to reassert itself, but the U.S. had other plans, and proceeded to play some very composed, disciplined soccer. Well, as composed as anyone could be under conditions that, somehow, were deteriorating even further.
Costa Rica had several chances to equalize, mainly from free kicks around the U.S. area. The referee, for his part, had done well in difficult circumstances, but gave Costa Rica several questionable free kicks on what seemed like fairly won challenges by U.S. defenders.
In the 68th minute, however, Jermaine Jones gave the ref little choice. Trying to shield the ball deep in the U.S.’s right corner, he lifted his arm and his elbow connected with the face and neck of Bryan Ruiz. On another day, he could have been sent off. The ref, though, gave only a foul.
Costa Rica took advantage. After the free kick was scrambled away for a corner, the resulting kick into the U.S. box wasn’t properly cleared. The ball was put back in, and Costa Rica banged the ball off the far post and it then rolled across the face of the goal along the goal line. Luckily, several Costa Rica players were offside.
The rest of the game played out with the U.S. trying to hold the ball and deny Costa Rica many chances. Costa Rica managed a few shots and crosses, but Brad Guzan held everything. After five minutes of extra time, the U.S. walked off with a famous victory.
Playing with pride
I have to say, I am very proud of this team. After the week that was, dealing with the controversy and the injuries, and in historically bad weather conditions, the U.S. played smart, with composure, and with absolute commitment. They truly deserved to win, and did the jersey proud.
Tuesday’s game in Mexico will be difficult, and with the conditions like they were, it’s hard to know how well this lineup may play under normal circumstances. But they should go into the game with heads held high, and with the knowledge that they absolutely can get something out of the game. They head into Azteca having scored in a world-record 26 consecutive World Cup Qualifying matches, and with more points than Mexico has so far in this round. What a difference a game makes.
Feel free to call me biased and over-generous, but this game was too important, the conditions too poor, and the team performance too good, not to feel positive about every player that took the field for the U.S. today.
Brad Guzan: 7.5. Guzan did miss one ball, which luckily found no Costa Rican player. Otherwise, he was a rock, and considering the conditions, did exceptionally well to hold the ball and give up no rebounds. Made every save he needed to.
DaMarcus Beasley: 8. Beasley’s inclusion at left back was a gamble, but it paid off handsomely. With his renowned engine, he was able to keep the Costa Rican attackers ahead of him all game long, his tracking back on turnovers was key, and he contributed as much as anyone to holding the ball and making what offense could be had.
Clarence Goodson: 7.5. Didn’t put a foot wrong. Cleared every ball that came his way. Was calm and assured. Seemed to partner Omar Gonzalez better than Cameron did in Honduras.
Omar Gonzalez: 7. A much improved performance from what he showed in Honduras.
Geoff Cameron: 5.5. Played decently, but his passing was too careless, and put the team under pressure through turnovers. Still, played his part in the defensive effort, and won some key fouls late. His long throws were also useful.
Michael Bradley: 7.5. Quiet game, but tenacious. Costa Rica had almost no joy through the middle, and Bradley was a huge part of that.
Jermaine Jones: 6. Played well, but his physical play was again a detriment to the U.S. at an important time. Still, we must recognize his contribution to the team’s ability to keep and retake the ball.
Herculez Gomez: 6.5. Ran, ran, ran, and ran some more. On a day when offense was almost impossible, he worked his tail off for the team, as he always does.
Graham Zusi: 7. See Gomez, above, and also put in some dangerous crosses, and fed Altidore for the chance that led to the goal.
Jozy Altidore: 7.5. His best game for the U.S. in a long time. His hold-up play has improved a lot, and should have received several foul calls but the ref swallowed the whistle. He seems to be maturing and developing this season, and I’m excited to see what he can do moving forward.
Clint Dempsey: 8. What can you say? Played like a captain. Scored. Should have earned a penalty. Almost scored the second goal more than once. Statement game for him.
Eddie Johnson (sub): 6. Ran at Costa Rica trying to make things happen, but keeping possession might have been a better choice.
Maurice Edu (sub): 7. Helped keep what the U.S. had earned.
Kyle Beckerman (sub): N/A. Had little time, but did manage some clearances, all the same.