SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Standing on a sideline at Estadio Nacional, where a running track and 20-30 yards separate the field from the stands, Kasey Keller remembered getting hit on the head by a half-eaten hot dog during a World Cup qualifier at nearby Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, where fans were on top of players and the U.S. went 0-7 in World Cup qualifying.
“Crazy” and “war” were some of the words the retired goalkeeper used.
United States’ players were hit with bags of urine, coins and batteries. The result was no different three years ago at the spacious new venue, where Costa Rica scored twice in the first nine minutes of a 3-1 win.
Coming off Friday’s 2-1 home loss to Mexico in the opening match of the final qualifying round for the 2018 tournament, the U.S. players are convinced they will end their skid on Tuesday night.
“History is just that, it’s history,” captain Michael Bradley said Monday. “There’s nothing anybody can do to change that, and quite honestly, we don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about it.”
The U.S. is 0-8-1 in World Cup qualifying at Costa Rica, losing its last eight matches.
For the first time in 15 years, all three home teams were defeated on the same day in the hexagonal, as the final qualifying round in the North and Central and Caribbean region is known. In addition to the Americans’ loss in Columbus, Ohio, Costa Rica won 2-0 at Trinidad and Tobago and Panama won 1-0 at Honduras.
“You want to make sure that you’re not falling behind, so that gives it a little more spice here tomorrow night,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said during a news conference at the 35,175-capacity stadium, which was paid for by the Chinese government and opened in 2011. “We see it in many occasions that once we go a goal down, the dynamic changes and we add another gear to our game. It’s maybe in the characteristics just of our program, of our players. Sometimes they need a wakeup call to get it really going.”
The U.S. struggled for much of the first 30 minutes against Mexico, leaving too much space in a three-center back formation designed around 18-year-old midfield wunderkind Christian Pulisic.
“It actually allowed us to get for Christian a position there where he can really have more freedom to hurt them. And here and there, he had a couple of runs. He couldn’t finish those runs. Maybe the last touch was taken away from him,” Klinsmann said. “The 3-4-1-2 in a certain way is a system that actually plays to strength of our players that we have, because a Fabian Johnson plays more on a wing or even sometimes in the middle high up. And Timmy Chandler plays as a winger.”
The U.S. had more success against El Tri after switching to a conventional 4-4-2, and Klinsmann hinted his tactic Friday “doesn’t mean the next game has to be played that way.”
Still, a marking mix-up allowed Rafa Márquez to score on an 89th-minute header. Klinsmann blamed defender John Brooks.
“He’s angry at himself. He said in front of the team, My bad,’” the coach explained.
“Obviously we took the time to look at a few things and talk about a few things,” Bradley said.
The top three nations in the six-team round qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia, and the No. 4 country meets Asia’s fifth-place nation in a playoff. After this match, qualifiers don’t resume until the U.S. hosts Honduras on March 24.
Even the pre-match news conference displayed how road games are different. Klinsmann removed the products of Costa Rican Football Federation sponsors that had been placed on the podium, so as not to have them in photographs with him.
“It’s a very different stadium than Saprissa, but the atmosphere, it doesn’t change,” said Bradley, who missed the 2013 match after injuring an ankle during warmups. “It’d be easy to look at it and say, ah, there’s a track and it’s not as loud or they’re not as into it, but that’s not the case.”
A 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist, Costa Rica is ranked 18th, one slot behind Mexico and six ahead of the U.S. At the Copa America in June, the U.S. beat the Ticos 4-0.
“I remember the last game we played here. It was definitely loud,” said Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who missed the Copa America with a left Achilles tendon injury. “When they support us like that, it’s incredible. We expect that from them, and they expect a lot from us.”