With a win at Costa Rica tonight, the US can all but book their tickets to next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
Winning in San Jose is a consistent challenge for US, who have never won a qualifier there. But Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been a man of firsts for the US. Under his guide, the Yanks earned their first every victories against Italy and in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca.
Klinsmann and his squad have now set their sights on Costa Rica.
“This is probably the biggest game in the year 2013 coming up in Costa Rica," explained Klinsmann. "We want to win there for the first time ever in World Cup Qualifying, and we want to get as close as possible to Brazil."
"I think everybody’s optimistic. Everybody is confident but also very anxious about getting down to San Jose and getting started, so we’re looking forward to it."
Costa Rica are second in CONCACAF's six-team table, just two points behind the US. The top three teams qualify automatically for Brazil. The fourth place team goes into a home-and-away playoff with New Zealand for a spot at the World Cup.
The US have played well both at home and away in recent months and are riding a 12-game winning streak and a five-game unbeaten streak in World Cup qualification. But with four games remaining against the likes of Costa Rica, Mexico, Jamaica, and Panama, anything can still happen.
A win tonight wouldn't confirm the US' place in Brazil, but it would distance them by five points from the rest of the pack. A win would also almost certainly prevent them from missing the World Cup or having to enter the playoff with New Zealand, which would be embarrassing.
"The beauty of it is that it’s all in our hands," added Landon Donovan, is was called up for a World Cup qualifier for the first time in over a year. "The last thing you want to do in these situations is come down to games nine or 10 having to qualify.
"Nothing is guaranteed in World Cup Qualifying. It happens every time where big teams don’t qualify for the World Cup. We’ve put ourselves in a fantastic position and now we need to really smell the blood and go for it and finish it off.”
Donovan scored off a penalty kick in the US' last trip to Costa Rica, a 3-1 loss during the last World Cup qualifying cycle on June 3, 2009. He also assisted on Brek Shea's game-winning goal in a group stage win over the Ticos at the Gold Cup this past June.
Donovan has plenty of experience performing well against hostile away crowds. His contributions to helping the US win the Gold Cup allowed his stock to rise considerably in the eyes of Klinsmann, who wanted Donovan to prove himself after he took a leave of absence from soccer last winter and spring.
But Donovan appears to be finding his form with the national team again and will be one of the US' key players tonight.
“He got himself back into the team during the Gold Cup and he did a wonderful job there," acknowledged Klinsmann. "Now it’s all about putting pieces together. We’ll find the best way possible for everyone involved. The key element is to get results down in Costa Rica Having Landon back in the picture is another really good option for us, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Stopping Donovan, the US' all-time scoring leader, will definitely be part of Costa Rica's game plan. But fans have taken additional steps to derail the US' performance. Taxi drives have reportedly agreed to slow traffic to delay the US' route to the stadium. Multiple training sites in Costa Rica did not agree to schedule the US for practice. The Costa Rican Federation also failed to provide the US with game balls to practice with.
This treatment is believed to stem from the US' 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in blizzard-like conditions in Denver on March 22. In that game, referee Joel Aguilar did not stop the game for inclement weather. The Costa Rican FA filed an appeal to FIFA, but it was struck down. The Ticos, who still feel cheated, will now try to even the score tonight.
Klinsmann and the US won't get distracted, however.
"From our end nobody looks back to the snow game," Klinsmann said.
"It’s going to be a totally different situation and environment and we expect a really difficult challenge, but we’re ready for it. We’re looking forward to that game, we are ready for it, we’re confident and we badly want those three points."
Today's Other Important Qualifiers
Mexico vs Honduras- Both teams need a win. A loss or tie would almost be catastrophic.
Ghana vs Zambia- Ghana can be knocked out of qualification with a loss.
Ireland vs Sweden- Both teams are tied for second place with 11 points behind Germany. The Germans will win the group, but Sweden and Ireland are battling for a playoff place.
Poland vs Montenegro- With a win, Montenegro will keep England in second place and retain their surprise lead in their group.
Switzerland vs Iceland- A win would give Switzerland a good hold of their group, while a loss would allow Iceland and second place Albania a shot at sabotaging their World Cup hopes.
Uruguay vs Peru- They're within two points of each other and they both need wins to keep their World Cup hopes alive in an incredibly competitive South American single table.
France vs Georgia- Anything less than a win could end France's World Cup hopes.
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