The United States men's national team wraps up the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage against Costa Rica in Hartford ( live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday 8 p.m. ET ), having already clinched their spot in the quarterfinals. Strangely, that means their toughest game yet will also be the least consequential.
After steamrolling Belize 6-1 and beating Cuba 4-1, the Americans are assured of passage out of Group C. In Sunday's quarterfinals in Baltimore, they will face either the winner or runner-up of Group B - now led by Honduras, followed by Haiti. Which one depends on how the Yanks fare against the Ticos, who also won both their contests, albeit in much more fraught fashion. If they win or tie the game, they will win the group on goal difference and play a third-place finisher from Group A or B. If they lose, they face Group B winner Honduras.
Since the potential opponents are all quite beatable, the biggest thing to play for is the record for the longest winning streak in U.S. Soccer's history. Martinique and Honduras are obviously not equivalent opponents. Since beating Germany in a friendly in early June, the Americans have reeled off six more wins, coming in three World Cup qualifiers, another friendly with Guatemala and the aforementioned Gold Cup wins - winning the last three games by a cumulative margin of 16-2.
That's how they equaled the standing record of seven, set in 2007, when the USA beat China in a friendly and won all six of its Gold Cup games, lifting the region's trophy for the last time.
Beat Costa Rica, and they set the record. These are the stakes.
Oh, and decent hotel rooms are on the line, too. Since the group winner will be assigned the slightly better of the reserved hotels in Baltimore.
Yet for its lack of relevance to the tournament in the short term, this game means a great deal in the more ethereal realms of progress and form. Having jelled as a disparate and unfamiliar B-team - 2014 World Cup hopefuls consisting primarily of prospects and re-treads - these Americans have beaten up on some weak and wary teams but faced no serious challenge yet, save for the scare Cuba put into them for ten or so minutes after they went ahead.
The USA mixed up its lineup for its last game but is expected to appear at war strength on Tuesday. "Everybody knows and has respect for Belize and Cuba," U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, rather generously. "But the benchmark for us now starts with Costa Rica. We're looking forward to that match. We need now games where we are eye to eye to the opponents, where we know it's going to go down to the wire."
Costa Rica isn't necessarily a team to sacrifice the result for stylistic aspirations. But they won't huddle in their own half and hope for the best the way Belize and Cuba did either. They will try to control the ball, clog American traffic and play through its lines. "They're a tough team," said U.S. midfielder Joe Corona after the win over Cuba. "We've got to come out like we did today in the second half, with that mentality. Try to move the ball fast and try to score the chances we have up top."
The Americans will take some comfort in Costa Rica's form thus far in the tournament, which has hardly been impressive. Cuba fairly well outplayed the Ticos in the first half, before running out of steam and going down 3-0. Belize hung tough as well and Costa Rica owed its Spartan 1-0 win to an own-goal and a last-gasp save off its goal line. More disconcerting to them: their squad is pretty close to full strength. Key attackers Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell are absent, but the rest of the squad is more or less the same as the World Cup qualifying team.
Manager Jorge Luis Pinto has come under fire. "International soccer is difficult. It's not that easy," he defended himself after barely beating little Belize. "We do our best. Maybe we weren't thrilled with the game; maybe we didn't play at the top of our game. But I didn't think we played bad."
The last time these two sides faced off back in March, Costa Rica fell to the American A-team 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier taking place amid a Denver snow blizzard. They protested that game - it was denied for failing to follow proper procedure - and remain incensed that it was allowed to be played in the first place. "We've probably been on their list since that last qualifier," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "We've got to be ready. They're not going to come out and bunker in so we're going to have to play a little football now."
Pinto confirmed that intent. "We're going to go strong, we're going to be aggressive," he said. "We're going to go with everything we've got."
So while this game may not matter much officially, Costa Rica has vengeance on the mind, and the Americans hope to glean a much better sense of where they stand for the games that do. And perhaps break a record while they're at it.