2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017, USMNT

Underappreciated USA-Costa Rica Rivalry Finally Gets Grand Stage

US fans celebrate at the Snowclasico in 2013. The win helped settle a US locker room filled with doubt.

Neil W. Blackmon

The United States Men’s National Team will look to finally put together a complete performance at the 2017 Gold Cup when they take on Costa Rica tonight at AT&T Stadium in a semifinal (10 PM, FS1). To do it, they’ll have to vanquish some recent demons against the 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist Ticos in the process. They’ll get that opportunity on one of American sport’s grandest stages.

Jerry’s World, an ostentatious monument to cultural and sporting excess built a few miles from an old Texas oil field, is perhaps the perfect venue for a Gold Cup semifinal, the modern tournament itself largely a byproduct of the Chuck Blazer/Jack Warner money-printing braintrust. But it’s fitting a venue Jerry Jones promised would make “any event feel bigger” when it was being constructed hosts the United States and Costa Rica as well.

This game may not move the television ratings needle or stir emotions the way USA-Mexico does, but it’s unquestionably a rivalry.

USA-Costa Rica is an intensifying CONCACAF series that deserves a bigger stage, a more critical gaze, a bit more respect. The only two CONCACAF nations to reach a World Cup quarterfinal this century, the two teams have played some wonderfully memorable- and ignominious- matches, especially in the last ten years, as the Ticos have ascended the ladder of international soccer from small, stubborn and valiant curiosity to respected footballing culture.

A few of the more memorable tilts?

RFK, 2009: In the final game of the Hex, Jon Bornstein’s header (video) in stoppage time levels the game and knocks the Ticos out of an automatic qualification spot for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Costa Rica would lose an intercontinental playoff 3-1 to Uruguay. The draw capped an emotional four day period for the US, who had already qualified. Charlie Davies was seriously injured in a car accident that took the life of Ashley Roberta, and Oguchi Onyewu, then with AC Milan, was hurt in the 85th minute, prompting Milan to threaten to sue the US Soccer Federation for damages after playing Gooch in a game that didn’t matter (Cooler heads prevailed…eventually).

The Snowclasico, played in a blizzard and in the aftermath of the shocking Brian Straus article about the US under Jurgen Klinsmann, won by the US. The Ticos were so furious the game was played in those conditions they filed a formal protest, and threatened to the move the return leg back to the astroturf cauldron of Saprissa. Cooler heads prevailed there too, and FIFA denied the Tico protest.

Copa America Centenario 2016- Facing elimination, the Yanks were thoroughly outclassed by the Ticos for the opening half hour. Jurgen Klinsmann switched back to a 4-4-2, and aided by an early penalty, the US turned constant Costa Rica pressure into a handful of chances on the break, and converted those chances. The end result? A 4-0 US win and a steam release for the pressure cooker that was Jurgen Klinsmann’s job security at the time.  The Ticos would have their revenge- however…

Christian Bolanos celebrates after a goal against the United States in November 2016. The 4-0 Ticos win ultimately sealed Jurgen Klinsmann’s fate as he was fired shortly after.

November 2016- The end of the Klinsmann Revolution: Coming off the program’s first home loss to Mexico in Columbus, the United States traveled to Costa Rica saying all the right things, promising to make history and become the first US team to win in the land of Pura Vida. Instead, the US were overrun, with a brilliant Brad Guzan save on a Bryan Ruiz bicycle kick in the fifteenth minute the only highlight. Joel Campbell fired home a second half brace for the hosts, and when Cristian Bolanos torched Timothy Chandler down a flank, cutting in for another Ticos goal, you could see the US spirit break. Heads down, shoulders slooped, the US left San Jose with 0 points, a negative five goal differential, and certain to have a new manager.

These are but a few of the memorable games between the two nations over the past ten years. There have been scrappy friendlies as well, including a Ticos win at Red Bull Arena in a bizarrely scheduled friendly only two days after the US heartbreaking loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup in 2015.

Tonight’s tilt is the first of two vital games between the two nations this summer. While the US would love to win the Gold Cup, the more vital match comes Labor Day weekend, when the US host Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena.

Asked whether two games against Costa Rica in a short span is a good or bad thing, Arena wasn’t positive. “I imagine that the teams we see in September will look different than the teams we see tomorrow.”

And there’s merit to that, especially with both teams missing several key players, including both team’s stars. It’s safe to assume that barring injury, for example, the Labor Day weekend meeting will feature the US’s Christian Pulisic and the Ticos will have the services of Champions League winning Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Still, there’s plenty for the sides to play for Saturday night. Familiarity breeds contempt, especially when there’s as much history and biography between the two footballing sides as there is with the US and Costa Rica.

Costa Rica star Bryan Ruiz wasn’t shy Friday in suggesting what any game with the US means to the Ticos. “You play the best teams in CONCACAF and you want to show you are the best in CONCACAF,” Ruiz said. “We always want to beat the United States. We’ve done it with success. But to do it in a Gold Cup, in their country, that’s the kind of game you get excited to play.”

Arena said the US will be motivated as well, telling the media he “hoped his team remembered” what happened in San Jose. He’s clearly using revenge, even with a substantially different team, as a motivator.

If that sounds like something you do in a rivalry game, that’s because it is.

Neil W. Blackmon Co-Founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon