After the U.S. Men’s National Team took care of its business with a 4-0 shutout against Panama on Friday night, attention in camp was focused on San Jose, Costa Rica the following night. There, the hosts took on Central American rival Honduras in a match that had huge implications for both teams as well as the two sides who met the previous night in Orlando.
A Costa Rica side that needed only a draw to qualify for the World Cup looked sluggish at times, more than willing to absorb and keep things scoreless for 90 minutes. Needing as many points as it can get, Honduras was on the front foot most of the match and found the go-ahead goal when Eddie Hernández rose to head home Rommel Quioto’s cross in the 77th minute.
The goal pulled Costa Rica out of its shell, but most of its attacks were stifled. Just as Honduras looked like it would pull off one of the big results of the Hex, Ticos captain Kendall Waston similarly rose in a crowd to power in the equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time, sending the stadium into pandemonium. Not long after, the referee blew the full time whistle and Costa Rica had booked its ticket and helped out both the USA and Panama in the process.
Having watched the game with his coaching staff in the hotel restaurant, MNT head coach Bruce Arena said Sunday, “I think we’re in a pretty good position. I believe unless something completely bizarre occurs, one point secures us third place in the group.”
Though both rivals for that third and final automatic World Cup berth could equal the USA on points with wins in their final games, the MNT’s huge edge in goal differential above Panama (7 goals) and Honduras (12 goals), mean a draw in the Matchday 10 qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago almost certainly punches a ticket to Russia for Arena’s side.
Though one point is all it will take, after watching Costa Rica nearly lose playing that way – and knowing that a loss could bring the U.S. team down to fifth place -- Arena didn’t mince words when it came to the desired result Tuesday night.
“We need to get on the field Tuesday and win the game,” he said. “In the closing minutes, if we have a point wrapped up, we just need to be smart, but certainly our mentality is going to be to go to Trinidad and win.”
With the home side out of World Cup contention following September’s matches, head coach Dennis Lawrence elected to summon a younger, less-tested squad as he looks to build the national team for the future. Without much in the way of expectations, the greener group of Soca Warriors showed well in their visit to Mexico on Friday, leading 1-0 before surrendering two goals in the final two minutes and eventually succumbing 3-1.
Playing to prove a point, Arena expects the young side will be fearless at home and unlikely to care much that the U.S. holds a 13-1-3 edge in the qualifying series.
“They have no pressure on them,” he said. “They’ve been playing some new players and I think they’re going to be playing with a lot of freedom. They can be very aggressive – no one from Trinidad is going to be suspended for the first game of the World Cup, so they can have an aggressive mentality, they can have a loose spirit and they’re going to be a real difficult team to play against, so we have to be at our best.”