HARRISON, N.J. — Costa Rica stunned the United States with a 2-0 victory at Red Bull Arena on Friday night that put the Americans’ hopes of reaching next summer’s World Cup in serious jeopardy.
A goal in each half from Marco Urena condemned the U.S. to its first defeat since Bruce Arena took over as head coach for the second time, and left the national team in urgent need of a revival.
Three rounds of games remain in CONCACAF’s final qualifying stage. Heading into Friday Arena’s men were feeling positive about their chances, sitting in third spot and with three teams due to qualify automatically. Now, there is an almighty amount of work to do.
Costa Rica has been historically bad on its travels, but was perhaps buoyed by the curious decision to stage the game in a location where crowd support would be evenly split.
In any case, the U.S. knew what its opponent was capable of, with Costa Rica having racked up a 4-0 victory at home last November, a result that led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal as American head coach.
The hosts looked to establish control early on Friday, but could not convert. Christian Pulisic posed problems with his pace and trickery, but the 18-year-old rising star was unable to finish a solid move in the 15th minute and Jozy Altidore was frustrated to be denied a penalty soon after.
With 30 minutes gone, Costa Rica made its telling move. Some indecision allowed Urena to turn U.S. defender Tim Ream, before beating Tim Howard with a well-placed strike into the far corner of the net.
Suddenly anticipation had turned into nervousness, and so it continued.
Clint Dempsey was brought on after the break to try to reverse the momentum, and his free kick on 67 minutes found Pulisic free. Pulisic fired through traffic but Keylor Navas, Costa Rica’s world-class goalkeeper from Real Madrid, pawed it away with a strong right hand.
With eight minutes to go, Urena struck again, calmly stroking the ball home after Geoff Cameron gave it away while trying to press things forward.
The U.S. was losing the game, and its cool, in equal measure. Altidore took a cynical kick on the ankle from Johan Venegas, wheeled around furiously to confront his aggressor, but earned a yellow card for his trouble and will now miss Tuesday’s visit to Honduras. That clash now looms large, and vital, for the U.S. No U.S. team ever lost two home games in qualifying and still reached the World Cup.
This group now has two home defeats on its record, this one preceded by a loss to Mexico — under Klinsmann — to kick off qualifying.
As things wound down Dempsey also saw yellow, moments before the final whistle sparked mass Costa Rican celebrations, and Arena will know he has much to ponder.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT