SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA – Along the winding and treacherous road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the United States men's national team has come up on the tightest of turns, cut into the steepest of slopes and set amid the most combustible of conditions yet.
Because in Costa Rica, whom the Americans face in their next World Cup qualifier in San Jose ( live, Friday, 10 p.m. ET ), they find unwelcoming hosts who would like very much to make life as hard as possible on the men they feel wronged them last March.
Back then, as you'll recall, a snowstorm unloosed its icy payload at an immovable rate. But the game went ahead anyway, and the Americans bulled their way to a 1-0 win , their first over Costa Rica in eight years. The Ticos contested the outcome, quite reasonably arguing that no game should have been played in such conditions, but failed to follow proper protocol.
They have not forgotten this or the time the USA robbed Costa Rica of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup with a 95th-minute equalizer in their final qualifier the year prior. Nor have they ceased to be angry about it. A simmering rancor lives inside the Costa Ricans, most plainly demonstrated in their reception of the Americans on Tuesday.
The USA's charter plane is typically ushered to a private area of the airport, but they were made to stand in line at immigration with everybody else this time around, a measure even proudly trumpeted by the country's president Laura Chinchilla.
As the Americans passed through the arrivals gate at the airport, they were met with a throng of locals doing much insulting, gesturing and chanting, "No fair play, USA." Some eggs were thrown at the team bus. Of the three practice venues the Costa Rican federation recommended, none would have the Americans, who had to make their own arrangements. And after they did, the practice balls Costa Rica is supposed to supply didn't arrive until after the session.
Video: USA facing payback in Costa Rica?
Local cabbies are reportedly planning to conspire to block up traffic on game day, slowing the USA's team bus on its way to the game.
"I love it," said forward Landon Donovan. "You'd much rather play in front of a lot of people that care than a few people that don't."
Be that as it may, the Americans are 0-7-2 all-time on Costa Rican soil -- 0-7-1 in World Cup qualifying -- and have lost their last six here while being outscored 8-1 in their last three. The only time they came away with a point was 1985.
But the equation is somewhat different this time around through a strange and unexpected courtesy of FIFA and China. These games were historically held at decrepit Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. Nicknamed "The Monster's Cave," its artificial turf field was in wretched shape, bunching up in places and worn down to the concrete in others. So tight was the field that the raucous fans could just about touch the players - and certainly hit them with whatever they hurled.
In 2011, the new and much less daunting National Stadium opened, paid for and built by China in exchange for a free trade agreement and Costa Rica's suspension of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Ticos had hoped to bring the Americans back to Saprissa as revenge for the snow game, but FIFA wouldn't allow it, with a gleaming new stadium available just down the road.
"For sure, I was excited," said midfielder Michael Bradley, "the main reason being that the surface [at Saprissa] is so poor. But we enjoy playing in games where the atmosphere is against us. On that end, it's to be seen how the new National Stadium compares to Saprissa."
The announced confiscation of coins and other metal objects at the door and heavy police presence do offer up a hint.
USA's World Cup qualifying victory over Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in March came under heavy protests (Image: Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports).
And as if all that history and bad blood isn't enough, there is much at stake. The Americans come into this game with a world-leading 12-game winning streak. What's more, the Americans could clinch a direct berth for the World Cup with a first-ever win here, provided Mexico and Honduras tie their head-to-head game and Panama doesn't beat Jamaica. The Ticos, meanwhile, could leapfrog the Americans into first place with a win, and all but assure their own passage to Brazil.
"It's the biggest game in 2013," said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "We want to give it a try. We want to win here. But we know it's going to be very difficult, it's going to be very physical, it's going to be hot-tempered all over the place."
Costa Rica has bunkered in against the United States in their last two matchups, preying on the efficiency of forwards Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz on the counter. But that might not fly. "My guess is they're not going to play that way at home in front of their crowd," said Donovan. "If they do they'll probably get booed off the pitch."
"We expect them to play off the emotion in all ways," said Bradley. "To play off the emotion of the crowd, the emotions left over from March, their emotions of us knocking them out of the World Cup the last go-around."
The Americans, for their part, are practically at war strength. Donovan has returned to the A-team for the first time in over a year after a glittering Gold Cup with the second string. Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard have made strong starts to their European seasons. The only concerns, really, are the hamstring of striker Jozy Altidore, who has scored seven goals in his last five US games but hasn't practiced fully in more than a week; and the right back position, where the top three options -- Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler and Brad Evans -- are all unavailable.
But then these are years of firsts. The Americans won in Mexico and Italy for the first time last year. This year, they won their first ever qualifier in Jamaica. On Friday, through all the taunting and gamesmanship and shenanigans, they hope to mark another first.