The U.S. World Cup outlook grew darker Tuesday night with a 4-0 away defeat against Costa Rica, the second setback in five days and the worst loss in a qualifier since 1980.
With the Americans sitting in last place in the six-team, final-round group, Jurgen Klinsmann’s job might now hang in the balance following this catastrophic performance. It wasn’t just that his team didn’t play well: In the second half, it didn’t play hard either.
The Americans embarked on the qualifying odyssey with high hopes of snatching four points from the first two matches. Instead, they were left with none. On Friday, they had conceded a late goal in falling to group favorite Mexico, 2-1, in Columbus, Ohio.
Eight games remain and, in a CONCACAF competition that rewards three berths in the 2018 tournament in Russia and sends a fourth team to a two-leg playoff against an Asian side, the United States is still very much in contention. But the two defeats narrow the margin of error and raise concerns about the personnel and game plan formulated by Klinsmann, who was widely criticized for tactical decisions against Mexico.
The Americans, who have appeared in every World Cup since 1990, will resume the qualifying schedule in March against Honduras at home (venue to be announced) and Panama away.
Tuesday’s game was never going to be easy: Costa Rica (six points) was a 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist and had not lost a home qualifier to the United States over 31 years of meetings.
A goal late in the first half cracked open the match, and the Ticos scored three in a 10-minute span of the second half.
“A very, very bitter moment for us — there’s no doubt about it,” Klinsmann said. “We didn’t imagine to go into the hexagonal with two defeats right in the beginning. We knew it was going to be very difficult playing Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two games, but obviously you want some points. So definitely this is a moment to reflect about what happened the last 10 days and open up a lot of discussions with the players.”
“I said to the team, ‘This won’t be the last four-nil defeat in their career,’ ” added Klinsmann, whose squad lost to top-ranked Argentina by that count in the Copa America Centenario semifinals last summer. “They’ll get some lessons. But definitely it’s a bitter moment because we wanted to do far, far better than what we did.”
Aside from goalkeeper Brad Guzan replacing the injured Tim Howard, Klinsmann stuck with the starting lineup from the Mexico match and retained the 4-4-2 formation that he had switched to late in the first half after an ominous start Friday.
Johan Venegas got the best of John Brooks in the seventh minute, pushing the ball between the defender’s legs and forcing Guzan into a sterling leg save. Seven minutes later, Bryan Ruiz chested down Christian Bolaños’s pass and tagged a close-range, overhead kick off Guzan’s face.
U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic, 18, exerted his influence from a wide position, dashing past defenders to draw a free kick on the edge of the penalty area and serving a dangerous cross from the end line to the near post.
Yellow cards began to pile up for the Americans, leaving defender Timmy Chandler and midfielder Jermaine Jones suspended from the next qualifier.
Bobby Wood created a golden chance in the 41st minute, bursting to the end line and crossing past goalkeeper Keylor Navas. No one, however, was on the back side.
Just as the Americans thought they would get to intermission on level terms, sloppy and lazy play led to the first goal.
In the 44th minute, Jones’s hard back pass left Brooks with no hope of controlling the ball. Costa Rica took possession in midfield. Chandler was out of position on the right side, and on a floated ball toward the corner, center back Omar Gonzalez was slow to track Bolaños and close down space.
The Ticos midfielder had ample time to look up and survey his options. Venegas made a near-post run and gained inside position on the late-reacting Brooks. Bolaños’s service was true, and Venegas snapped a six-yard header into the far corner.
“They gave us a psychological knock with that goal right before halftime,” Klinsmann said. “But still you cannot give away three more. … Too flat, not enough alertness there, not enough tempo and determination in many one-on-one battles.”
Guzan bailed out Chandler in the 57th minute by thwarting Venegas, but the defensive problems resurfaced again and again.
In the 68th minute, Ruiz dashed down the right wing and crossed to Bolaños, who had gained inside position on Chandler for a six-yard header.
Six minutes passed. Brooks misplayed a long ball, conceding possession to substitute Joel Campbell, who touched the ball between Brooks’s legs and went in alone on Guzan for a composed finish. In the 78th minute, Campbell latched onto a long ball over the top of the defense and beat Guzan again.
In other CONCACAF matches, Honduras (three points) earned a 3-1 home victory over Trinidad and Tobago (none) and Mexico (four) settled for a 0-0 draw with host Panama (four).
U.S. lineup: Guzan; Chandler, Gonzalez, Brooks, Besler; Johnson (Zusi 77th), Jones (Kljestan 71st), Bradley, Pulisic (Gooch 70th); Wood, Altidore.
Did not play: Yarbrough, Horvath, Carter-Vickers, Yedlin, Birnbaum, Orozco, Green, Johannsson, Gordon.
Not in uniform: Howard (injured), Bedoya (injured), Stanko.