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U.S. men’s soccer team faces a tough task in Costa Rica

Defender Omar Gonzalez, right, and the U.S. will try to rebound from a loss to Jesus Corona and Mexico when they play Costa Rica on Tuesday.
(Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

Trying to handicap World Cup qualifying can be a little like trying to predict a presidential election: Nothing seems to go the way it’s supposed to go on paper.

In the South American tournament, for example, Argentina, ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA, is sixth in the standings after 11 games. And in European qualifying, Greece has a better record than Portugal and the Netherlands.

By those standards, the predicament in which the U.S. finds itself after one game isn’t dire, but it is noteworthy. Because after failing to win in a place where they had never lost, the Americans landed in Costa Rica on Sunday needing to avoid a loss in a place where they have never won.

Last week’s setback to Mexico in the opening game of the 10-game “hexagonal” round of the CONCACAF tournament was the first for the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, as well as the first qualifying loss on home soil since 2001. As a result, the Americans traveled to Costa Rica, where they are 0-8-1 all-time, needing a win to avoid the worst start to the final round of the CONCACAF tournament since 1986, when they didn’t qualify.

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“It’s very difficult to play in Costa Rica. But we have a lot of confidence we can win there,” former Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said in Spanish. “It’s not going to be easy.

“We just have to move forward. We can’t have our heads down.”

Since the U.S. began its run of seven straight World Cup appearances in 1990, it has never lost the first two games of the final qualifying competition. That would make a loss Tuesday historic, though not necessarily fatal since the CONCACAF tournament can be extremely forgiving.

To qualify directly for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the U.S. needs to only finish among the top three in the six-team tournament, which also includes Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. The fourth-place team wins a spot in an intercontinental playoff, where a final World Cup spot is up for grabs.

That’s the path Mexico followed to the Brazil two years ago after it won just once in its first eight hexagonal games.

“I remember sitting in Honduras a couple of years back: First game, doom and gloom, World Cup’s over,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, recalling the U.S. loss to Honduras in its qualifying opener in 2013. “But it’s a first game. We’ve got a whole bunch more to go.”

The U.S. must now go part of that way without Howard, who came out of the Mexico game in the first half with what an MRI exam showed was a thigh muscle injury. Howard returned to his club team in Colorado for treatment, leaving Brad Guzan to take his place Tuesday.

That’s not the only change the U.S. is likely to make against Costa Rica, which beat Trinidad and Tobago in its first game. The Americans struggled mightily against Mexico after starting the game with an unusual formation that featured three central defenders on the back line, only to dominate the final hour after switching, at Michael Bradley’s suggestion, to a 4-4-2 alignment.

Expect Coach Juergen Klinsmann to go with that from the start Tuesday.

“We’re going to correct it in Costa Rica,” Klinsmann said. “If we … play the way we played the second half, I’m not worried.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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