On the night the heavens dumped snow, the U.S. men's national team may have rediscovered its mojo. In a game that will forever be known as The SnowClásico, the U.S. fought and gritted out a 1-0 win against Costa Rica in the kind of polar conditions that made playing real soccer almost impossible. And in the blink of an eye, the U.S. leaped from sixth place to second in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal.
Afterward, the talking points were manifold. There was Clint Dempsey's ironman performance, playing 90 minutes at altitude after being injured for the past three weeks -- and scoring the game's only goal in the 16th minute. There was the punishing weather, gale-force winds combined with driving snow that piled up so high "it was coming up to your ankles," Dempsey said. And there was the question itself of whether the game should have been suspended, with the Costa Rican FA vice president telling me an official protest will be filed to FIFA.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had a slightly different opinion.
"I would have done anything possible not to stop it," he said of the moment in the 55th minute when referee Joel Aguilar of El Salvador stopped play, and it appeared the game might not continue. "That's why I went a little bit on the field as well and with my bad Spanish told the referee: 'We are not stopping that game! If you clean up the lines we can play.'"
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Play might have been a hopeful term, at least by that point. A field that was somewhat playable in the first half turned into a snow pit in the second. As Dempsey noted, it was important that the U.S. got an advantage early, long before the conditions descended into near chaos.
"It's difficult to play in those conditions," Dempsey said. "The key tonight was getting the early goal. Then they were forced to try to chase the game and got even more frustrated because of the conditions. I don't think any team could really play, but the fact we got the goal, we could sit back a bit more, be a bit more compact and not really take risks and open ourselves up."
Midfielder Michael Bradley felt the same way.
"In the first half, as much as it was snowy, the field was still good," he said. "A little bit of snow made the field slick, but the ball still rolled well. We dealt with the wind [in their faces] in the first half, so it was hard to see. In the second half, especially as the game goes on, the snow accumulates, and it's almost impossible to play. But still the willingness to play in certain situations, and then make sure the movement is right at times so you get guys still moving into space and you're not getting stuck with balls in bad spots, that stuff was really good tonight."
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Remember what I said a few days ago: There was a decent chance that the U.S. would have more points than Mexico heading into their rivalry game on Tuesday at Estadio Azteca. And sure enough, the U.S. heads to much warmer southern climes with three points to El Tri's two. After a week in which the U.S. and Klinsmann were being questioned in heavy doses and a Sporting News exposé cited anonymous players complaining about the coach, the conversation has suddenly changed.
"We have that confidence now," defender Geoff Cameron said. "After what was said this past week, the criticism and the speculation on what's happening, the team stuck together. That's the most important thing. We wear the jersey with pride, and that says it all right there. We all came on the pitch today and played together as one."
For a while, at least, the U.S. was able to play some soccer, albeit under different conditions than the players are used to. As Klinsmann put it, he instructed his team to push the ball forward into the opponent's half, all while avoiding passing through the channels or one- and two-touch moves through the midfield. He asked his players to be smart at halftime and refrain from passes to the back line.
"I kind of grew up in the snow," Klinsmann said. "I played those games when I was little for many years. You adjust to the conditions."
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The Costa Ricans didn't adjust quite so well, though they did create some chances in the second half. After the game, though, coach Jorge Luis Pinto called the decision not to suspend the game "an embarrassment," and Costa Rican FA vice president Jorge Hidalgo was decidedly unhappy.
"You can't play in that," he said. "In these conditions, the referee has to suspend the game. For sure there is going to be a protest [to FIFA]. We hope this referee is going to be suspended for a month at least. Today another game was suspended in Europe [Northern Ireland-Russia] in less conditions than this one."
When I told Hidalgo it appeared on the field that the Costa Rican players wanted to continue in the 55th minute, he said that wasn't the case.
"No, we have to do what the referee says," he said. "If the referee says the game has to continue, we continue. They are professionals."
It seems unlikely that Costa Rica's protest will be successful.
"We're not going to comment on their protest," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who said that FIFA's previous rule on game suspensions (which called for starting the game from scratch) had recently been changed (which means any suspended game would restart from that minute with that score).
"It doesn't surprise me," said Bradley of the Costa Rican complaints. Cameron added: "Both teams have the same conditions, so I don't understand why they would protest. You have to roll with it."
Roll with it. It's an ideal motto for World Cup qualifying, where the unexpected is the rule and you never know when the skies might empty with enough snow to bury a soccer stadium. In the 100-year history of U.S. Soccer, we've never seen anything quite like The SnowClásico. And we may never again.
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