You never know what you'll see at a soccer match in Costa Rica.
Last year, after losing a preliminary World Cup qualifier, U.S.
coach Bruce Arena addressed the media while flanked onstage by a
man in a chicken suit. The scene was equally surreal following
the Americans' 2-0 defeat in the final round of qualifying on
Sept. 5 at San Jose's Saprissa Stadium. As Arena glumly answered
questions in a dank corner outside the locker rooms, Costa Rican
president Miguel angel Rodriguez waltzed by, resplendent in a red
national team jersey, declaring a holiday in honor of his
country's first World Cup berth in 12 years.
Yet the weirdest sight in San Jose last week wasn't a supersized
fowl or a victory-intoxicated pol, but rather the Greg
Norman-esque collapse of the U.S. team. Once considered a lock to
reach next year's World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the
Americans (4-3-1) have dropped three straight qualifiers, their
longest such losing streak in 44 years, and will most likely have
to win their final two games to avoid missing soccer's marquee
event for the first time since 1986. "We know what the challenge
is ahead," said Arena, a white baseball cap tugged tightly over
his eyes. "Hopefully we'll get a couple of players back to help
us for the next set of games."
Granted, the Americans played without four injured
attackers--Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Josh
Wolff--during their Black September, which began with a stunning
3-2 loss to Honduras in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1. If
anything, though, the three-game skid has engendered skepticism
about the team's supposed depth, which had been touted as Arena's
signal accomplishment since he took over in November 1998. Hadn't
the U.S. placed third at the '99 Confederations Cup, its best
finish in a global tournament, without Reyna and defensive
midfielder Chris Armas? Hadn't the Americans beaten Germany with
their C team? No player was indispensable, Arena kept saying, not
even Reyna, the light-footed, 28-year-old playmaker who has been
repeatedly sidelined by groin ailments.
In truth, however, the U.S. is still painfully thin when it comes
to inventive players who possess subtlety or chutzpah on the
ball. The loss to Costa Rica was a throwback to the bad old days
of the early 1990s, when the Americans would retreat into a
defensive shell, hoping to eke out nil-nil draws or penalty-kick
"victories" against admittedly stronger opponents. Arena started
seven defensive-minded players in addition to goalkeeper Brad
Friedel, and strikers Cobi Jones and Jovan Kirovski were asked to
employ ball-holding and one-on-one skills that neither player
has. Although midfielder Earnie Stewart has become a reliable
goal poacher--his five goals are tied for the lead in the
six-team, 10-game final qualifying round--he lacks Reyna's vision
and playmaking instincts in the middle. Strangely, the most
creative attackers available, striker Landon Donovan, 19, and
midfielder Preki Radosavljevic, 38, sat on the bench until the
game's final desperate minutes against Costa Rica.
The inescapable conclusion? Some players may be indispensable
after all. "The one guy we need to get back is Reyna," Arena said
afterward, pointing to the U.S.'s critical qualifier against
Jamaica in Foxboro, Mass., on Oct. 7. "We hope he'll be healthy."
He'll have to be, for Mathis (right ACL tear), McBride
(blood-clot disorder) and Wolff (broken left foot) won't be
Arena can only hope that his suddenly porous back line shows up
as well. After giving up two goals in the opening six games of
the final qualifying round, the U.S. permitted five in two games
over a five-day span. Breakdowns in Defense 101 have been all too
frequent. In July's 1-0 loss in Mexico City, defender Carlos
Llamosa left his man, Jared Borgetti, wide open on a free kick,
giving the Mexicans a gift goal. Against Honduras the back line
allowed three goals in a home qualifier for the first time since
1960. In Costa Rica the Americans' "prevent" defense succumbed to
the near constant pressure late in the first half, when Eddie
Pope lost Ronald Gomez and Llamosa scythed Gomez down in the box.
Rolando Fonseca netted the penalty kick. One-nil, game over.
So much for the U.S.'s ballyhooed emergence as the preeminent
soccer power in North and Central America and the Caribbean. In
fact the three-game skid has spawned a credible revisionist
history of this round of World Cup qualifying, which argues that
the Americans have convincingly outplayed only one team,
last-place Trinidad and Tobago, in eight games. As the U.S. team
bus plodded through the thronged streets of San Jose last week,
the thousands of upraised middle digits the Yanks encountered
adequately summed up the regional standings: We're Number 1, and
Only the top three sides will go to the World Cup. The best news
for the fourth-place Americans is that they have the easiest
remaining schedule of the three teams (Honduras and Mexico are
the others) battling for the region's last two spots. The
arithmetic is simple: Win at home against all-but-eliminated
Jamaica and on the road against lowly Trinidad and Tobago on Nov.
11, and the U.S. is in; anything less, and pray to the soccer
gods. It's an unexpected challenge for a team that had hoped to
qualify by Labor Day. "We still control our own destiny, so I
guess that's a positive," Stewart said with less-than-ringing
confidence in San Jose. "We can get six points out of two games.
That's not the problem. It's that you never know how people are
going to react when it's crunch time."
If five days in September were any indication, Stewart, Arena and
U.S. soccer fans have plenty of reasons to worry.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Jones (13) has been asked to employ ball-holding and one-on-one skills he doesn't have.