ORLANDO — American soccer fans have long been accustomed to scoreboard-watching, especially on World Cup qualifying days. On Sunday, they will be at it again in quite a dramatic way.
Right as the U.S. men’s national team kicks off against Panama at Exploria Stadium, Costa Rica’s crucial road game at El Salvador will finish. The Americans, in second place in the standings, lead fourth-place Costa Rica by three points and a plus-seven goal difference. So the first game will have a big impact on the second.
If the fourth-place Ticos fail to beat already-eliminated El Salvador, the Americans will be able to clinch a World Cup berth with a win.
If Costa Rica does beat La Selecta, a U.S. win would put the Americans so close to Qatar that “on the doorstep” might not even describe it. Even if the goal difference margin stays right at plus-seven, the Americans would have to lose Wednesday’s qualifying finale at Costa Rica by four goals to fall from third place to fourth — meaning an inter-continental playoff in June instead of a direct ticket.
Does that sound simple to you? If you’ve followed the U.S. men for a while, you might say it sounds terrifying. Because a four-goal loss at Costa Rica is exactly what happened the last time the Americans played a qualifier in San José: a 4-0 pounding that prompted Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal.
On top of that, the U.S. men have never won a qualifier in Costa Rica. Their record in San José, whether at the old Saprissa bandbox or the new national stadium, is one tie and nine losses in 10 trips. That’s worse than the Americans’ qualifying record at Mexico (0-5-4, with the fourth tie coming this past Thursday).
There are all kinds of other scenarios to go through if the U.S. ties or loses to Panama. No one in either locker room will have forgotten that Los Canaleros beat the Americans, 1-0, in Panama City in October — or that Panama beat the U.S. to a place at the 2018 World Cup on the last night of that qualifying cycle.
But the U.S. has incentive to do more than just win. It has a serious reason to run up the score. The bigger the goal difference is with Costa Rica, the bigger the Americans’ cushion will be when they fly south on Monday.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter wouldn’t say it directly when he was asked about it in a news conference Saturday afternoon. Perhaps that was diplomacy, perhaps superstition. But it’s clear he knows.
“We want to score goals, there’s no question about that, but I don’t think we’re presumptuous enough to think that we’re going to win this game in a blowout,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Panama’s a good team, well-coached team, physical team, and they’re going to put up big resistance. Our goal in the game tomorrow is to win the game.”
He’ll know about the El Salvador-Costa Rica score, too. So will the sellout crowd around him, following the action on their phones from the stands. A helpful result will get fans’ vocal chords warmed up while the players are warming up on the field.
“We’ll certainly be paying attention to it,” Berhalter said. “I’m not sure it will change our game plan much. It could potentially change Panama’s game plan, because if Costa Rica wins and they don’t win, they’d be eliminated. That we have to take into consideration.”
That was a nice bit of poker-playing. Because the other thing Berhalter knows is that his team has done this before, in this World Cup qualifying cycle. Back in September, the U.S. won 4-1 at Honduras with an eruption of three goals in the last 17 minutes.
That result didn’t just deliver the Americans’ first win of the campaign, after starting with two ties. It vaulted from fourth place at kickoff into a tie for second at the end.
The standings didn’t matter as much then as they do now. But those late goals still matter a lot, as they form a big piece of the gap with Costa Rica.
One can note, too, that the history book of U.S. national teams running up the score has many pages. The U.S. women wrote a famous one of their own in a major competition a few years ago: the 2019 World Cup, a year after the men’s tournament that their country missed.
Sunday’s game surely won’t finish 13-0, as that 2019 win over Thailand did. But it’s all a reminder that in international soccer, running up the score is encouraged. And this time, it might just be necessary.
Teams in contention
1. Canada, 7-1-4, 25 points, +13 goal difference
2. United States, 6-2-4, 22 points, +9
3. Mexico, 6-2-4, 22 points, +6
4. Costa Rica, 5-3-4, 19 points, +2
5. Panama, 5-4-3, 18 points, +1
6. El Salvador, 2-4-6, 10 points
7. Jamaica, 1-6-5, 8 points
8. Honduras, 0-8-4, 4 points