World Cup qualifying: 5 takeaways from U.S. men’s win over Costa Rica

The U.S. men’s national soccer team couldn’t afford another loss with the midway point of the World Cup final round approaching. After a disappointing loss to Panama on Sunday, an early deficit Wednesday against Costa Rica didn’t set the tone for redemption, but the Americans were able to rebound in a big way to create some much-needed breathing room in the CONCACAF standings.

Despite conceding a goal 60 seconds into the match, a youngest-ever U.S. squad rallied for an important 2-1 win over Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday in front of a sellouot crowd of 20,165 at Field in Columbus.

By claiming all three points, the U.S. moved into second with 11 points, trailing Mexico by three points ahead of their big matchup Nov. 12 at FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium. The top three teams in the Octagonal qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Canada sits in third with 10 points, Panama is fourth with eight and Costa Rica is fifth with six points.

Here are five takeaways from the win:

1. Responding to early deficit

While the American Outlaws supporters section in the Nordecke was still showing off its “tifo” banner, Costa Rica went down the field on a counter attack and scored one minute into the match. Ticos left back Ronald Matarrita, who plays for FC Cincinnati, delivered a beautiful cross that Keysher Fuller finished on a volley at the back post, across the goal past Zack Steffen, for the 1-0 lead.

Right back Sergino Dest responded with a rocket in the 25th minute after Weston McKennie made a run behind Matarrita to create some space. Receiving a pass from the right flank, Dest took a touch or two to his left and then fired off the left-footed shot to the upper far corner of the goal to equalize.

“I just got put inside and I thought like the only thing I could do at the moment was just shoot it, because we had to score,” Dest said. “We are 1-0 down, so I felt like you know, we needed this point so I was just trying to show it and it was an amazing goal.”

The game winner in the 66th minute came off a Tim Weah hard-hit shot that ricocheted off the post and through the arms of backup goalkeeper Leonel Moreira, who had replaced starter Keylor Navas at halftime due to an adductor injury.

“I thought it was amazing,” Steffen said of the response. “Our motto is ‘we respond’ no matter what happens in the game because we know there’s going to be ebbs and flows and it’s not always going to be perfect. That’s just what happened tonight. I’m very proud of the guys and how we responded. We took the game, made them run and really killed them, got the three points at home.”

2. Lucky breaks

The U.S. looked the better team much of the match but was fortunate Costa Rica didn’t take advantage of some sloppy play on defense.

Early in the second half, defender Miles Robinson sent a lazy pass back to Antonee Robinson and had it intercepted by Ticos midfielder Bryan Ruiz, who then had a clear breakaway to goal. The speedy Robinson somehow managed to catch up to Ruiz just as he approached the penalty box, and Ruiz tried to cut inside on him, but Robinson got a foot on the ball to steal it back and cleared out of danger.

Even the go-ahead goal had a bit of a luck element to it. Weah got a good strike, but Moreira should have been able to handle it better. The shot went through his hands after hitting off the post and slowly rolled into the middle of the goal. It officially was credited as an own goal by Moreira, but Berhalter said it should have been given to Weah.

Weah wasn’t even originally scheduled to start but replaced Paul Arriola after he was scratched with an injury in warmups. Weah was about to be subbed off and knew that to be the case when he scored. He did come off shortly after the goal, and Berhalter joked that he was glad that didn’t happen two minutes earlier.

3. Young lineup got it done

While it didn’t always look pretty Wednesday, the result was all the more impressive considering the U.S. fielded its youngest lineup ever in a World Cup qualifier, averaging 22 years and 61 days.

The youth probably explains some of the struggles, especially on defense, as the Americans were facing a Costa Rica team with six players older than 30 and with its youngest player -- 27-year-old Fuller – still older than the U.S. team’s oldest player, 26-year-old Steffen. Weah, who is 21, helped lower the Americans’ average age after replacing the 26-year-old Arriola.

“For us to be navigating through this CONCACAF qualifying -- which is a bear, a monster -- with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal, and then the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I mean, (19-year-old) Gianluca Busio comes on, and he looks like he’s 30 years old. So, I’m proud of the effort. The guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing. They’re growing as a team.”

The lineup was a complete switch from Sunday against Panama when Berhalter heavily rotated with seven changes from the previous 2-0 win over Jamaica. In that match Sunday, he also used early subs with two changes at the half and three in the 68th minute but Panama won the game on a goal in the 54th minute.

4. Home sweet home

The Americans have played many big games in Columbus, so it was a surprise when U.S. Soccer put the much-anticipated “Dos A Cero” in Cincinnati – the first time a U.S. city other than Columbus will host a World Cup qualifier against Mexico since 1997 when it was played in Foxborough, Mass.

This week, U.S. Soccer billed the Costa Rica game as the more significant match because of the need to bounce back against Panama. Mexico appears almost a lock for the World Cup so Team USA couldn’t afford another defeat before that matchup.

Columbus delivered an electric crowd that even moments after watching the opening goal was still loudly supporting every attacking opportunity. Dest called the crowd “amazing.” Berhalter, who previously coached the Columbus Crew, and Steffen, a former Crew goalkeeper, both said it was “special” being back in front of the fans in Columbus.

“It was so special,” Steffen said. “It was very surreal. The stadium, the fans are so loud. It’s really hard to get communication out to my back four. Great to see the fans again. The city and the fans and the club deserve this stadium and this set-up, so really happy for them. It was a special night for me and we got the three points so it’s an amazing night all and all.”

5. Ending windows on a high

Team USA also ended the September window on a high, but it was important to do so especially after the loss to Panama and with Mexico coming up next.

Losing that match was a surprise because of how poorly the Americans played, but a loss at home to the Ticos would have been especially demoralizing against a team still in transition with a new manager. It was the Ticos who sent the U.S.’s qualifying effort during the 2018 cycle into a tailspin with a 2-0 road victory, and Costa Rica is still finding its way under Luis Fernando Suarez.

Costa Rica fired manager Ronald Gonzalez after a 4-0 loss to the U.S. in June, ahead of the Gold Cup, and the Ticos’ only win so far in the Octagonal was Sunday, a 2-1 decision against El Salvador.

Berhalter was pleased with how his team responded.

“When I look at the window, we got one more point than we did in the first window,” Berhalter said. “We won home games, which you need to do, and we had a disappointing result away from home against a pretty strong Panama team at home. So, all in all, we move on. We start focusing on Mexico, and we go from there.”

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