Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
COMMERCE CITY, Colo.– The snow started falling in the afternoon, but few could have imagined the sort of blizzard-like conditions that would develop and help make Friday night’s World Cup qualifier at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park a match for the ages.
Playing on a snow-blanketed field, the U.S. Men’s National Team turned in a strong group performance in conditions most players admitted were some of the worst they had ever played in. The heavy snow didn’t stop the U.S. from putting passes together, and defending well and turning in the kind of complete effort they needed after their forgettable showing against Honduras last month.
Clint Dempsey once again stepped up to deliver a goal when the U.S. needed it the most, finishing off a 16th-minute strike that held up as the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica that helped catapult the Americans from last place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying to second place. An ideal position heading into Tuesday’s vital clash against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
The snow didn’t stop the U.S. from controlling much of the play in the first place. The snow-covered field made it easier for the Americans to pass the ball and they combined passes better than they had in recent memory. They broke through in the 16th minute when Dempsey took a ball deflected off Costa Rica defender Roy Miller and buried it for the early lead.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and the U.S. defense made that lead stand up on a night when they were able to deal with a Costa Rica side that never quite adapted to the snow-covered field. Guzan made five saves and dealt with every threat that came his way. U.S. centerbacks Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson were stout in the air, clearing away most aerial threats.
On a night when so many players stepped up, veteran DaMarcus Beasley was a popular pick as Man of the Match. Deployed in the unfamiliar role of left back, a spot he hadn’t started at for the U.S. since an awful showing there against Costa Rica in 2009 World Cup qualifying, Beasley was outstanding all night. He broke up countless plays and covered the entire left side of the field, helping keep Costa Rican star Bryan Ruiz quiet and limiting Costa Rica’s attacking options.
The match looked like it might be halted early in the second half, as several inches of snow collected on the field, but when the referee stopped the match in the 56th minutes, he did so in order to allow field crews to clear the end lines, sidelines and penalty area lines of snow.
The delay led to the packed house at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to start chanting “Let Them Play” as players from both teams urged the referee to let the match continue. Referee Joel Aguilar eventually restarted play.
Costa Rica pressed hard for an equalizer, throwing as many as five players into the attack, but their close chances all went begging, and none seriously tested Guzan.
After the match, Costa Rican head coach Jorge Luis Pinto was irate at the playing conditions and called it a travesty that the match was allowed to continue. Most of Costa Rica’s players echoed those sentiments, with many saying the match should have been postponed early on.
“What is there to say? We know that under normal conditions they don’t beat us,” said Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio.
“The game should have been suspended from the 15th minute,” Costa Rican star Bryan Ruiz said. “It was a joke. I’ve never played in those kind of conditions.”
The U.S. now sit in second place in the Hexagonal standings with three points, and will travel to Mexico City on Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Mexico at Estadio Azteca. The match will be vital for a Mexico side sitting on just two points from two matches (Mexico tied Honduras, 2-2, in San Pedro Sula on Friday).
“We’ve got to get our points at home and we’ve got to make sure on the road we get some points,” Klinsmann said after Friday’s match. “We’re going to start with that Tuesday night at Azteca Stadium.
“We have, obviously, a lot of respect for Mexico. That respect is always there, because it’s a very big soccer nation. We went there last August and came back with a win and that’s what we’re trying to do on Tuesday. But it was crucial to start this doubleheader with three points.”