SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The United States men are returning to the World Cup after the trauma of missing the 2018 tournament, clinching a berth for this year’s championship in Qatar on Wednesday despite a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica on the final night of qualifying.
Juan Pablo Vargas got behind Walker Zimmerman and headed Brandon Aguilera’s corner kick past goalkeeper Zack Steffen in the 51st minute, and Anthony Contreras knocked in a cross off a scramble in the 59th after Steffen couldn’t hold onto a free kick.
A sellout crowd of about 35,000 in National Stadium came to life, but the Americans’ 5-1 rout of Panama at home last weekend gave them a huge goal-difference margin over Costa Rica. That meant the United States merely had to avoid losing by six goals or more in order to claim an automatic berth by finishing among the top three nations in North and Central America and Caribbean region.
American players on the bench walked onto the field at the final whistle and exchanged handshakes and hugs with their teammates who ended the game, while home fans cheered the Ticos.
Canada, which had clinched its first World Cup trip since 1986 with a win Sunday, finished first in the region with 28 points after a 1-0 loss at Panama, ahead of Mexico on goal difference. El Tri moved ahead of the United States and clinched its eighth straight World Cup appearance, while the United States finished third with 25 points and a plus-11 goal difference.
Costa Rica was fourth with 25 points and plus-five. The Ticos will meet Oceania champion New Zealand in a one-game playoff in June for a berth in the 32-nation field.
While the United States won six of seven home games with one draw, it finished with one victory, three losses and three ties on the road. The Americans have never won a qualifier in Costa Rica, losing 10 and drawing two.
The United States finds out in Friday’s draw which three nations it will face in the group stage, which starts Nov. 21 at a tournament pushed back five months to avoid summer desert heat.
Ticos coach Luis Fernando Suarez didn’t open with six starters from Sunday’s win at El Salvador who carried yellow cards, not wanting to risk a suspension for a playoff.
The U.S. clincher took place on the 1,267th day after a shocking 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances. The defeat led to a shakeup at the U.S. Soccer Federation and Gregg Berhalter’s hiring in December 2018 as the team’s fourth coach in 25 months.
Berhalter has matches in June and September to help evaluate a pool of perhaps four dozen players for the tournament roster and choose what currently is a roster limited to 23.
— By Ronald Blum