SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- The top two teams in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal meet here on Friday when the U.S. takes on Costa Rica at the national stadium (10 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport). And while the first-place U.S. and second-place Ticos have some margin for error, you never want to get comfortable in World Cup qualifying. Too much can go wrong too quickly.
Besides, there's plenty at stake here. This week the U.S. can become one of the first few nations to clinch a berth in World Cup 2014, and all Jurgen Klinsmann's bunch has to do to punch a ticket to Brazil is get four points from qualifiers against Costa Rica on Friday and Mexico on Tuesday (no matter what happens elsewhere). There's even an outside chance the U.S. could clinch a World Cup berth here on Friday with a win and a few other Hex results, so you can bet some U.S. staffer is quietly seeking some Champagne bottles just in case.
Then there's the matter of the U.S.'s national-record 12-game winning streak, which is only three behind Spain's all-time international record of 15.
Keep in mind, though, that the U.S. has never won in Costa Rica, and the Ticos will have plenty of their own motivation. Costa Rica was just two minutes from an automatic berth in World Cup 2010 in a qualifier against the U.S., only to have Jonathan Bornstein's last-minute goal send the Ticos to a playoff against Uruguay that they eventually lost.
What's more, Costa Rica still feels that it got jobbed in its 1-0 WCQ loss to the U.S. in the now-famous SnowClásico near Denver in March. The Costa Rican federation thought the game should have been postponed instead of being played in its entirety in a blizzard, but FIFA denied the protest, citing bureaucratic mistakes by the Costa Ricans.
Still peeved, Costa Rica has turned on the gamesmanship for the return encounter here. The president of the country, Laura Chinchilla, noted the U.S. players would not get any special treatment in customs on arrival and have to stand in line with everyone else, just as the Costa Ricans did during their U.S. visit. The Costa Rican federation gave the U.S. contact info for three different training sites here, but all of them said no to the U.S., which found a practice location on its own at a local dairy factory. And when the U.S. requested game balls from the Costa Ricans for practice sessions, as per the usual protocol, none of the balls showed up. (The U.S. practiced Wednesday with its own Nike balls instead.)
When the U.S. finally did arrive here at the airport on Tuesday night, the Americans were met by a group of middle-finger-waving Costa Ricans (see below) who later tossed a couple of eggs at the U.S. bus. (The closest U.S. player to the eggs was newcomer Aron Jóhannsson, who presumably never got such a welcome when he was playing for Iceland.) There's also talk here that Costa Rican cab drivers are organizing a traffic jam to make the U.S.'s route to the stadium on Friday as difficult as possible. The usual protocol is for local police to provide visiting teams a police escort to the stadium; we'll see if that takes place or not.
Is any of this that important in the big picture of what happens on the field Friday? Probably not. The crowd at the airport wasn't that big, and it certainly wasn't any worse than it usually is for the U.S. on away qualifiers. (Going through the main customs line wasn't a big deal either.) It's annoying not being able to train with game balls until Thursday -- the day FIFA requires it -- but hardly a killer. And the U.S.'s practice field here was fine, too, replete with a giant cow mascot representing the dairy who blew a horn two feet behind Omar González as he was doing media interviews. (Let the record show that González laughed it off.)
(While we're on the topic of bizarre mascots in Costa Rica, one of my favorite all-time photographs involving U.S. Soccer came from a press conference here following a Costa Rica victory. A giant chicken mascot was standing the whole time behind a glum Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach, and the absurdity of it all captured CONCACAF World Cup qualifying quite nicely. If anyone can track down that photo please let me know!)
Anyway, when it comes to gamesmanship, there seems to be a lot less of the old-school tactics we'd see a decade ago in Central America, where fans would blast music and pull fire alarms at the U.S. team hotel. I'd also argue the U.S. caught a break here by not having to play this game in rickety old Estadio Saprissa, aka The Monster's Cave, where the crowd is right on top of the field and the visiting team's locker room looks like something from a Turkish prison. Instead we'll be at the Chinese-built national stadium, where the fans are a long way from the field and most Costa Ricans don't like the staid atmosphere.
From Michael Bradley's perspective, the national stadium is a better venue for the U.S. because it has natural grass and not the artificial turf of Saprissa. "If you want to talk about the field, I think we're all happy not to play [at Saprissa]," Bradley said Wednesday. "The turf there is terrible, there's no two ways about it. So to be able to play at the national stadium, by all accounts a good field, that part I think is going to suit us."
What else was newsworthy on Wednesday? Well, U.S. forward Jozy Altidore doesn't appear to be in full training as of yet. Altidore, who has scored in his last five international games, a U.S. record, missed last weekend's Premier League game with Sunderland due to a hamstring issue. Altidore warmed up with his U.S. teammates here on Wednesday, but he was wearing running shoes -- not soccer cleats, as his teammates were -- and he was jogging off to the side as the rest of the team started practice. If Altidore is unable to go on Friday, potential center-forward replacements include Jóhannsson, Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan.
On the ground here
It's kind of a shame that the gamesmanship storyline is dominating here heading into Friday's qualifier, because the people I've met in Costa Rica are extremely welcoming. This is a gorgeous country, with lush green hills, good food and people who have a ready smile, a quick wit and an appetite for conversation.
On our way into the city today, my Costa Rican driver, José, talked about all sorts of things with me: Costa Rica's chances of making the World Cup; the U.S.'s Amtrak train system; the influx of Nicaraguan workers into Costa Rica; President Obama's stance on Syria; and his unhappiness over the Costa Rican government cutting off relations with Taiwan to get close to China. The Chinese built Costa Rica's national stadium at a cost of $105 million, covered by China and using Chinese workers. They also constructed a superhighway connecting San Jose and Limón. I told him the last time I attended a game in a Chinese-built stadium was in Angola, of all places, and he shook his head. "I have read a lot about the Chinese," he said in Spanish. "Taiwan cares about human rights. We should have stayed with Taiwan."
I wasn't expecting to have a discussion on human rights, but José was eloquent in his opinions, and as I've often noticed on these CONCACAF trips -- including to Cuba in 2008 -- he knew more about U.S. current events and politics than most Americans. Some of my best memories covering this sport come from trips to World Cup qualifiers throughout CONCACAF, from the hills of Central America to the beaches of the Caribbean to the historic soccer shrine of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The reception inside the stadiums hasn't always been friendly -- this is sports, after all -- but the people everywhere else have been terrific.