You never know what you'll see at a soccer match in Costa Rica. Last year, after losing a preliminary World Cup qualifier, U.S. coach Bruce Arena addressed the media while flanked onstage by a man in a chicken suit. The scene was equally surreal following the Americans' 2-0 defeat in the final round of qualifying on Sept. 5 at San Jos�'s Saprissa Stadium. As Arena glumly answered questions in a dank corner outside the locker rooms, Costa Rican president Miguel Angel Rodr�guez waltzed by, resplendent in a red national team jersey, declaring a holiday in honor of his country's first World Cup berth in 12 years.
Yet the weirdest sight in San Jos� last week wasn't a supersized fowl or a victory-intoxicated pol, but rather the Greg Norman-esque collapse of the U.S. team. Once considered a lock to reach next year's World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the Americans (4-3-1) have dropped three straight qualifiers, their longest such losing streak in 44 years, and will most likely have to win their final two games to avoid missing soccer's marquee event for the first time since 1986. "We know what the challenge is ahead," said Arena, a white baseball cap tugged tightly over his eyes. "Hopefully we'll get a couple of players back to help us for the next set of games."
Granted, the Americans played without four injured attackers—Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Josh Wolff—during their Black September, which began with a stunning 3-2 loss to Honduras in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1. If anything, though, the three-game skid has engendered skepticism about the team's supposed depth, which had been touted as Arena's signal accomplishment since he took over in November 1998. Hadn't the U.S. placed third at the '99 Confederations Cup, its best finish in a global tournament, without Reyna and defensive midfielder Chris Armas? Hadn't the Americans beaten Germany with their C team? No player was indispensable, Arena kept saying, not even Reyna, the light-footed, 28-year-old playmaker who has been repeatedly sidelined by groin ailments.
In truth, however, the U.S. is still painfully thin when it comes to inventive players who possess subtlety or chutzpah on the ball. The loss to Costa Rica was a throwback to the bad old days of the early 1990s, when the Americans would retreat into a defensive shell, hoping to eke out nil-nil draws or penalty-kick "victories" against admittedly stronger opponents. Arena started seven defensive-minded players in addition to goalkeeper Brad Friedel, and strikers Cobi Jones and Jovan Kirovski were asked to employ ball-holding and one-on-one skills that neither player has. Although midfielder Earnie Stewart has become a reliable goal poacher—his five goals are tied for the lead in the six-team, 10-game final qualifying round—he lacks Reyna's vision and playmaMng instincts in the middle. Strangely, the most creative attackers available, striker Landon Donovan, 19, and midfielder Preki Radosavljevic, 38, sat on the bench until the game's final desperate minutes against Costa Rica.
The inescapable conclusion? Some players may be indispensable after all. "The one guy we need to get back is Reyna," Arena said afterward, pointing to the U.S.'s critical qualifier against Jamaica in Foxboro, Mass., on Oct. 7. "We hope he'll be healthy." He'll have to be, for Mathis (right ACL tear), McBride (blood-clot disorder) and Wolff (broken left foot) won't be available.
Arena can only hope that his suddenly porous back line shows up as well. After giving up two goals in the opening six games of the final qualifying round, the U.S. permitted five in two games over a five-day span. Breakdowns in Defense 101 have been all too frequent. In July's 1-0 loss in Mexico City, defender Carlos Iiamosa left his man, Jared Borgetti, wide open on a free kick, giving the Mexicans a gift goal. Against Honduras the back line allowed three goals in a home qualifier for the first time since 1960. In Costa Rica the Americans' "prevent" defense succumbed to the near constant pressure late in the first half, when Eddie Pope lost Ronald G�mez and Llamosa scythed G�mez down in the box. Rolando Fonseca netted the penalty kick. One-nil, game over.
So much for the U.S.'s ballyhooed emergence as the preeminent soccer power in North and Central America and the Caribbean. In fact the three-game skid has spawned a credible revisionist history of this round of World Cup qualifying, which argues that the Americans have convincingly outplayed only one team, last-place Trinidad and Tobago, in eight games. As the U.S. team bus plodded through the thronged streets of San Jose last week, the thousands of upraised middle digits the Yanks encountered adequately summed up the regional standings: We're Number 1, and you're screwed.
Only the top three sides will go to the World Cup. The best news for the fourth-place Americans is that they have the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams ( Honduras and Mexico are the others) battling for the region's last two spots. The arithmetic is simple: Win at home against all-but-eliminated Jamaica and on the road against lowly Trinidad and Tobago on Nov. 11, and the U.S. is in; anything less, and pray to the soccer gods. It's an unexpected challenge for a team that had hoped to qualify by Labor Day. "We still control our own destiny, so I guess that's a positive," Stewart said with less-than-ringing confidence in San Jose. "We can get six points out of two games. That's not the problem. It's that you never know how people are going to react when it's crunch time."
If five days in September were any indication, Stewart, Arena and U.S. soccer fans have plenty of reasons to worry.