The United States men’s national team arrived at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica on Wednesday having all but qualified for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Seated in second place with 25 points with a comfortable advantage on goal difference, a win, draw or loss by anything fewer than six goals would have been enough to get them over the line. Had lightning struck, the worst-case scenario was an intercontinental playoff with New Zealand in June.
Redemption for 2017’s failed World Cup qualification felt imminent, but focus on the task at hand never waned in camp. “We still have a job to do” was the refrain echoing from head coach Gregg Berhalter to key players Tyler Adams, Tim Weah and Deandre Yedlin throughout the run-up to Tuesday’s Concacaf qualifying finale. And despite the math that weighed heavily in their favor, Berhalter and co on Wednesday put to rest speculation the team would rotate players or be happy with a draw. The task was qualification, but the manner of qualification mattered. The players conveyed a desire to win, to make a point, to leave a mark, to do what every US team before them had failed to do: win a World Cup qualifying match away in Costa Rica.
As for the hosts, the atmosphere was celebratory and hopeful. The 35,062-seat bandbox was packed and cheering. After a remarkable run of five wins and one draw in their final six matches, Los Ticos had elbowed their way into qualifying contention. They entered Wednesday’s match poised to snag the fourth-place playoff spot and, no doubt looking forward strategically toward that match, they sat a number of key players, including Joel Campbell and Bryan Oviedo, to guard against potential yellow card accumulation that would sit them out of that one-off in June.
The United States out-possessed the Costa Ricans ever so slightly during a scoreless first half. They eclipsed them in free kick and corner accrual, winning seven corners but converting none. They looked threatening in places and did good work getting the ball forward, especially from the right side. They held Costa Rica well defensively and were setting the pace of the match.
The opening minutes of the second half saw the United States’ best chance on goal. It felt like the moment the Americans would take the lead, capitalizing on the momentum built in the first half and sending the US on their way to make history in qualifying. Miles Robinson was well positioned in front of net looking threatening, where he received a cross and sent it toward net with a header that felt assured to slot in were it not for an incredible save from Keylor Navas.
And with that save, the lights went out. Moments later, Costa Rica won a corner on the opposite end of the pitch. Brandon Aguilera took the attempt, sending it to Juan Pablo Vargas who catapulted it past US goalkeeper Zack Steffen, putting Costa Rica ahead in the 51st. In a match that ultimately came down to capitalizing and defending on set pieces, the United States had taken seven corners by then and came away with nothing – and Costa Rica had just converted its third corner into a goal.
The momentum shift on the pitch and in the stands was immediate. Eight minutes later, Anthony Contreras snuck in behind Antonee Robinson to tap in Costa Rica’s second goal off another cross before a delirious crowd.
Still fighting, still hoping, Berhalter sent in three subs immediately. Jesus Ferreira, Giovanni Reyna and Shaq Moore entered, joining Luca de la Torre who had gone in at the half as substitutions. But the USA would never quite regain the momentum or control the pace of the match. They won a handful more corners, but again failed to make anything out of them. They pushed the ball forward and kept on the attack, but were slowed by fouls and tight defending.
The crowd roared behind the home team, sending the momentum their way. The Los Ticos looked goal-dangerous until the last whistle.
The match ended 2-0 in favor of the hosts. Despite the outcome, despite failure to grasp hold of history with their first ever qualifying win in Costa Rica, the United States completed the essential task before them, the one they set out to achieve eight months ago in El Salvador: officially punching their ticket to Qatar 2022.
Canada, who secured their first World Cup trip since 1986 with a win on Sunday, finished top of the group with 28 points after a 1-0 loss at Panama. Mexico won 2-0 against El Salvador to move ahead of the US into second place and clinch their eighth straight World Cup appearance.