The United States didn't have an answer. Not for Michael Bradley's pre-game injury and even less so when Costa Rica scored its second goal within 10 minutes of the first kick.
Yes, there was a reply. It was at first nonexistent, then, tepid. Slowly, it grew into something resembling worrying for Costa Rica. In the guts of the second half, the U.S. was downright troublesome.
But inspiring nervousness doesn't win games. And for all 90 minutes of Friday night's World Cup Qualifier in San Jose, Costa Rica, the visitors were without an answer, bound to lose by some score. It just happened to be 3-1.
Clint Dempsey was nothing but himself, picking up the ball, handing it to the referee, waiting out the shouting, then shifting that follows most any call for a penalty, all before belting his shot down the middle, off Ticos goalkeeper Keylor Navas and into the net three minutes before halftime.
But that was it.
There were no more goals from the U.S. There wasn't even a ball that should have been made final by the touch of an American attacker.
The U.S. did take control after halftime. Geoff Cameron came into his own, muscling away with 50-50 balls and the leftovers of battles that Jermaine Jones mostly won. And Costa Rica dropped off to defend its 2-1 advantage.
When Landon Donovan began motoring through markers in either channel, he surely struck fear into the 30,000 Costa Ricans in attendance who an hour prior, gave one of the angriest renditions of a national anthem ever heard.
Yet a goal and a scare were all the U.S. had to offer.
In the minutes just after the 70th -- the ones in which fans cheering on a surging fightback start to entertain doubts about their team's ability to equalize -- the American midfield ran out of ideas.
For all of his hustle and guile, Cameron was not about to knife passes through the nine Costa Ricans behind the ball. American midfielders and defenders could only play side-to-side. They did it too slowly.
So slowly that Jones letting a square ball from Cameron roll to his right in-stride seemed daring.
The confidence he, and in pockets, others displayed tells the bright side of the national team's story in this moment. It's a squad of players that are emotionally just right. They'll claw back at any hole thoroughly believing they can climb out of it.
It's also a team that, without one key player in Bradley and the full health of another in Altidore, lacks the polish to break out of the trap its porous early defending had sprung on itself.
Michael Orozco-Fiscal isn't an international-caliber right back. Jones and Cameron won't break down any side that understands team shape. Eddie Johnson is a touch too slow on the ball to break the kind of defensive pressure Costa Rica brought Friday. There is no replacing Altidore and the back line isn't nearly as good, or deep, as it was four years ago.
Just like Joel Campbell outrunning Matt Besler to a lucky Jose Cubero clearance, these are unavoidable realities. The resulting loss handed to the U.S. is thoroughly justified.
Jozy Altidore, Besler and Cameron will all miss Tuesday's Mexico match with yellow card suspensions. Bradley's left ankle sprain may keep him out too.
But that match is still 0-0. The hole the U.S. dug Friday still pales in comparison to the one Mexico plays in now. Even without Bradley, the U.S. has all that it needs to beat El Tri.
To complete the comeback in Costa Rica, the U.S. needed a cutting combination or a stunning finish, nothing less. The U.S. was less.
- Jacob Klinger