September 4, 2013
GAME'S THE THING, NOT GAMESMANSHIP
U.S. is one determined, focused, confident side as it prepares for Costa Rica
By Michael Lewis
|The U.S. did not have a cow practicing at a company's soccer field on Wednesday. This is Vaca, the official mascot of Dos Pintos, Costa Rica's leading diary producer, which hosted the Americans in preparation for their World Cup qualifier.
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- When the U.S. National Team arrived here early Tuesday evening, the squad was greeted by several dozen loud and enthusiastic Costa Rican supporters at Juan Santamaría International Airport. When they weren't chanting "No Fair Play, USA," an obvious reference to the famous -- or infamous (depending on what side you were on) Snow Bowl in March also threw eggs at the team bus when it departed the airport.
According to one U.S. Soccer source, two eggs hit the bus.
For the locals, it was business as usual.
For the United States, it was more like water off a duck's back.
"It's no problem," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "It's just part of the game. Obviously, there's gamesmanship involved. They're excited to see their team win and they're going to try to use that as their advantage. For us, it is no problem. We had a good laugh about it."
Whether the U.S. is laughing come midnight ET on Friday, it remains to be seen.
The Americans are one confident side entering Friday's World Cup qualifying confrontation, which is saying a lot, considering they have never won here in eight previous matches (0-7-1). They have secured but a tie in their first match and qualifier, a 1-1 draw on May 26, 1985.
But they have a lot to be self-assured about. They come into the match atop the CONCACAF hexagonal with a 4-1-1 mark and 13 points, leading a second-place Costa Rican side (3-1-2, 11 points) that has surprised many observers. A win would put the Ticos atop the group heading into Tuesday's next round of qualifiers.
A victory would put the U.S. on the verge of clinching its seventh consecutive World Cup (the U.S. could book a spot, but Mexico would have to tie Honduras and last-place and struggling Jamaica would have to tie or defeat Panama; both of those results are unlikely).
"We've had a good year so far," central defender Omar Gonzalez said. "We're on a good streak right now. Everyone's been playing well with their respective club teams. Jurgen [Klinsmann, coach] and the rest of the coaching staff has done a great job of getting us ready for all of the other games."
The Americans have secured several firsts during the Klinsmann regime, including its first win in Italy on Feb. 29, 2012, its first victory over Mexico at Azteca Stadium on Aug. 15, 2012, and its first qualifying point in Mexico on March 26 earlier this year.
"One of the things that that has been good is that we have a lot of firsts under Jurgen, so it gives us confidence we can do it again," Howard said. "Because we are so close now our sole focus is just getting a win. If it happens to come and it’s a first, that's not really that important."
That confidence, with the team's success and skill can mean the difference between capturing three points or leaving with none.
This is certainly not your father's U.S. National Team, which has won a team-record 12 internationals dating back to a 4-2 home loss to Belgium on May 29. Since then the U.S. has reeled off friendly wins over Germany and Guatemala, three vital World Cup wins (over Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, earning a precious nine points), six CONCACAF Gold Cup victories (including the title) and a rather improbable 4-2 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which included overcoming a two-goal, halftime deficit with four unanswered second-half goals and a remarkable 27-minute hat-trick by Jozy Altidore.
It could very well be the new mentality that was instilled by Klinsmann and the fact that not many players on this team have played in Costa Rica before. They only have history to know, not any first-hand experience, which could work in the team’s favor. In fact, only six players from the USA's 23-man roster performed at the snake-put called Estadio Saprissa, the site of an abysmal 3-1 qualifying loss by the Americans. Friday's game is at the state-of-the-art Estadio Nacional, which has a track surrounding the pitch and is not as intimidating as Saprissa.
Howard added that there is a different vibe around the team.
"Winning creates that no matter what level you're on," he said. "It makes training a little bit lighter, it makes things around the hotel a little bit easier. When it comes down to game time, we're still nervous and all that stuff, but it changes the atmosphere outside of the field. It gives it more of a light-hearted feel. But we're still focused. That's what happens when you have confidence. You know you're capable of winning coming from behind, dominating games, whatever it is."
It certainly wouldn't be a true qualifier if it wasn't for some gamesmanship by the hosts.
In the past, the gamesmanship usually has been reserved for ardent supporters of host teams blaring music outside the visiting team hotel and waking up players with phone calls to their rooms in the middle of the night. Central American crowds, including Costa Ricans, also have been known to throw ojjects such as coins, batteries and plastic bags of urine at the gringos during the national anthem.
Deprived of their usual venue that has made playing down here a chamber of horrors for the U.S., the Ticos have made life as hard as possible for their American rivals.
Some of that was fueled by the Snow Bowl game in Commerce City, Colo. on March 22, when a blizzard almost made the Sport Authority Field unplayable. It was playable enough for Clint Dempsey, who scored the lone goal in a 1-0 U.S. win. The Central Americans protested the match, claiming it should never have been played in the snow, but FIFA rejected their appeal. Still, the U.S. has received the brunt of the public blame by the Costa Ricans, not FIFA.
Usually, competing countries will reciprocate and help out with requests, which the U.S. Soccer Federation says that it has, but the Costa Rican Football Federation appears to have gone out of its way to make life a little extra difficult through some unique gamesmanship.
The Americans experienced trouble finding a training site until Dos Pintos, the country's leading dairy producer, came through and allowed the Americans to train at the company's official headquarters outside of San Jose on Wednesday morning. Amid several buildings, delivery trucks and a flurry of activity and traffic, there was a soccer field smack dab in the middle of the complex.
Vaca, the official mascot of the company (someone in a cow costume), got into the act, dancing and prancing behind the mixed zone and honking its loud and obnoxious horn while several players, including Gonzalez, were being interviewed.
The U.S. wanted to train with official World Cup qualifying game balls, as is the preference for most, if not every team in qualifying. The U.S. team was told that those balls could not be found.
If the U.S. was bothered by the gamesmanship, including the airport greeting, no one showed it.
"It was a good welcome, a good welcome," Howard said. "It's kind of fun when you get it. We don't always have that kind of reception."
Howard and his teammates hope to turn that around and give the Ticos’ fans a proper farewell on Friday night.