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THE SINGLE moment that most influenced the U.S.'s failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 came in the second half of Costa Rica's stunning 2--0 victory over the Yanks in Harrison, N.J., last September. With Los Ticos leading the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifier 1--0, U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic unspooled a low shot from 12 yards out that seemed destined for the net, especially when it took a wicked deflection off a defender. But in a blink goalkeeper Keylor Navas reacted to the sudden change of direction, jabbing his right hand upward as he lay prone on the ground, pawing away the impending equalizer. It was one of the greatest saves ever by a U.S. opponent, and it changed the course of American soccer history.

Such feats have become commonplace for Navas, 31, who over the last three seasons has climbed to the summit of the sport as the starter at Real Madrid, reaching the Champions League final each time. At 6'1", Navas isn't tall for a keeper, but he has a veteran's sense of positioning, breathtaking explosiveness and the reflexes to catch flies with chopsticks. When he jets from Madrid to join his national team, he moves from one of the sport's greatest heavyweights to one of its biggest underdogs—and still that hasn't kept him from achieving with Costa Rica. The surprise of World Cup 2014, Los Ticos won a group that included three former champions (Uruguay, England and Italy) and made a stirring run to the quarterfinals.

Costa Rica's group challenge is almost as large this time around—Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia—and, once again, few pundits are picking Los Ticos to advance. But we've seen enough of Navas by now to know that with him in goal, what might seem at first to be a sure thing can turn out to be a stunner.