U.S. faces a difficult test on the road in Costa Rica

Landon Donovan is hoping that the U.S. national soccer team’s erratic performance on the road against El Salvador earlier this year will help it tonight when it plays Costa Rica in an equally difficult environment.

“El Salvador opened our eyes,” the Galaxy forward said during a news conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifier at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN and Galavision).

“We have the advantage of having played in El Salvador, and I think that was our biggest test,” Donovan said of the March 28 game in which the Americans, inspired by defender Frankie Hejduk, scored twice in the final 13 minutes to salvage a 2-2 tie.

A passionate sellout crowd, a ramshackle stadium lacking in many modern facilities, an artificial playing surface, the weather and a very good Costa Rica team combine to make the match a stiff test for the U.S.


Donovan said the first road qualifier he played in was at Saprissa, and he said he was unprepared for the experience.

“You watch the games on TV and you hear about it, but that was a massive wake-up call for me,” he said. “It’s exciting. At that time it was intimidating, but now I really look forward to these games. It’s a lot of fun for us.”

The statistics paint a bleak picture, however.

The U.S. might be 11-10-5 all time against the Ticos, but it has never won a qualifying game in Costa Rica, going 0-6-1. Similarly, it has never won at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, where the U.S. plays Mexico on Aug. 12.

Coach Bob Bradley has called winning at either venue “a good challenge,” telling his players they have the chance to make history.

But Donovan said the emphasis lies elsewhere.

“First and foremost, it’s about qualifying for the World Cup,” he said. “Clearly, there is part of me that thinks we are more prepared now than we have ever been to win a game here or to win a game at Azteca.

“The possibility is exciting for us, but at the end of the day it’s about qualifying and if, knock on wood, we don’t win here or at Azteca, and we still qualify, that’s the goal.”

The U.S. and Costa Rica sport 9-1-1 records in their march toward the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The key for the American team tonight, Bradley said, would be to impose itself on the Ticos.

“This is a game where our ability to control the game, to try to keep the crowd out of it by putting Costa Rica under pressure, by moving the ball well, by dealing with the moments in the game when maybe things do get going a little quickly and we now need to reestablish our control,” are crucial, he said.

“It requires a lot of things over 90 minutes. The leadership on the field is very important.”

The field itself might be a problem, however. Bradley is not a fan of fake surfaces.

“I think for the most part the players will tell you that the game is not the same on artificial turf,” he said during a conference call last week. “The game on artificial turf depends on a few things, one is the quality of that turf. Is it old? Is it new? How hard is it? The second factor is, is the turf dry? Has it been wet down? Is it raining?

“These are all things that affect the speed of the game, the bounces, it affects how much give there is in terms of players, when they’re cutting or going to the ground.”