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The Hexagonal

United States Defeats Costa Rica, 1-0, in Driving Blizzard

In one of the most bizarre games in memory, the United States overcame snowy conditions and lifted themselves into second place in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
March 23, 2013
12:15 AM
DENVER—The heat was on. The snow came down. And the United States national soccer team responded to the adverse conditions with a crucial 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.

Amid a powerful blizzard that made it nearly impossible to move the ball much less sustain possession, the Americans scored a first-half goal—off a deflection—and held on for the win. The result moves the U.S. past Mexico into second place in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. The U.S. and Mexico square off in Mexico City on Tuesday.

The game had no shape or structure for the first 15 minutes, as both teams struggled with the elements and failed to connect more than a pass or two. At the 15-minute mark, however, newly anointed U.S. captain Clint Dempsey unleashed a long-range shot that seemed to ignite the Americans. It flew wide, but it was encouraging.

One minute later the U.S. got on the scoreboard.

It started when Jozy Altidore took a hard, low shot from about 25 yards out. The ball deflected off Costa Rica defender Roy Miller and fell to Dempsey, who had made a smart run inside the six-yard box. Dempsey tapped the ball into the goal and put the Americans ahead, 1-0.

It was the tough Texan who had come out of the dressing room looking the most adjusted to the snow, wearing short sleeves that looked even shorter because of the armband. But after the match, he admitted that he too was feeling the elements.

"The whole week leading up it hadn’t been that cold. I thought I’d be OK. Then, trying to go into the second half, I couldn’t feel my fingers at all. I had to put on gloves," the normally reserved Dempsey said with a laugh. "I don’t know where that came from. It’s crazy how much snow came down in such a short amount of time, but we were able to get the right result and that’s all that matters."

The 20-plus minutes after Dempsey's tally were messy and disjointed. Neither team managed to accomplish much, and Costa Rica in particular seemed undone by the elements. While the Ticos grew frustrated with their inability to maintain possession, the Americans did better with the ball but repeatedly gave it away in the final third.

A rare opportunity developed in the 42nd minute when DaMarcus Beasley, who filled in admirably at left back, lofted a long pass into the box from the left wing. Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas charged out but the ball ricocheted away and once again found Dempsey. The U.S. captain attempted to set up a shot but was tripped, blatantly, by Costa Rica's Roy Miller, but the referee decided not to call a penalty.

Or perhaps the official couldn't see the play. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann was dismayed his team didn't get a penalty, but regardless the first half ended with the U.S. ahead 1-0.

"When you start off, you score the first goal you want to hit another one, if we get the penalty that we deserved to get, then you don’t want to stop it obviously," the manager said. "You want to keep that advantage and finish it off. Obviously you want to see a second and third goal, but under those conditions you have to play through and it’s tough to do that."

The conditions worsened as snow continued to fall during halftime and showed no signs of letting up.

Shortly after the game restarted, the U.S. nearly took a commanding two-goal lead. Working the right flank, Graham Zusi delivered a speedy cross that found Dempsey in a bit of space in front of goal. With the ball waist-high, Dempsey volleyed the ball with authority but it flew just wide of the goal.

Then, in the 55th minute, something weird happened. The match official walked over to the side of the pitch, called the referee over and suspended play while the two discussed whether to halt the match. Eventually, the action resumed, much to the chagrin of Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto.

"It appears to me the referee doesn’t have knowledge of the rules. Because the rules say clearly that under conditions where the ball doesn’t roll, when you can’t see the lines of the field, automatically almost the first time you have to suspend the match," he said in Spanish after the match during a news conference that opened with Pinto declaring the night a shameful one for the sport.

But no matter his feelings, the teams played on, if you could call it that.

Attackers struggled mightily while defenders tried to keep their footing, punting the ball away with no mind toward building counterattacks. Omar Gonzalez made a strong sliding tackle in a crucial moment. Geoff Cameron gave the ball away multiple times. But it was hard to gauge who was playing well and who wasn't due to the conditions for fans and coaches alike.

"Well, I think they are not big lessons now, definitely because the very positive side is how they bound through. The desire to win is enormous. The feeling has to go through and get those three points," Klinsmann said after the match. "Obviously from a tactical side, from passing, from many, many elements we couldn’t play them out today. It was impossible."

At times the ball moved very little, and protecting a lead in the second half, the American back line played it safe, clearing the ball at the slightest sign of danger.

"You’ve just got to bite down and decide that you’re going to have to play through this and put all the effort there and not risk anything," Omar Gonzalez said. "I think you guys saw all of us just play it really safe and make sure they didn’t get that many chances."

The best chance Costa Rica did get came in the 70th minute. After a long stretch of possession and a few promising half-chances, substitute Joel Campbell headed a long cross past American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, off the far upright, and into the back of the net. But Campbell was called offside—correctly, replays revealed—and the U.S. kept its one-goal lead.

As the game wore on, the snow accumulated at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, making it even more difficult for players to connect passes or mount attacks. It looked as though three to four inches of snow blanketed the field, and groundskeepers ran onto the field during stoppages to shovel snow off the penalty area and sideline stripes. Geoff Cameron even lent a hand to one of the shovelers, pushing him along as the referee's final whistle neared.

After some futile attempts at goal from both teams, time finally ran out.

The U.S. got the home win it desperately needed. Jurgen Klinsmann silenced, or at least distracted, the critics who had called his leadership into question in recent days. And the hardy souls who braved the elements in Commerce City, Colo., could escape from the cold and start discussing one of the most memorable soccer matches in U.S. history.

Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.

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