The United States U-23 national team recorded a critical victory in its bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, defeating Costa Rica 1-0 in its opening match of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara.
FC Dallas attacker Jesus Ferreira scored the game's only goal in the 35th minute, and the U.S. defense made it stand up, with keeper David Ochoa making a total of eight saves in a Man-of-the-Match performance.
With Mexico and the Dominican Republic also in Group A, the victory puts the U.S. in excellent position to advance to its first Olympics since 2008.
Group B is composed of Canada, El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras. The top two teams from the groups move on to the semifinals, with both finalists securing berths to the 16-team tournament held in various sites in Japan from July 21 to Aug. 7.
The U.S. struggled to maintain possession as the game went on amid difficult conditions at Estadio Jalisco that included game-time temperatures approaching 90 degrees as well as altitude of over 5,000 feet. Given that the Major League Soccer season has yet to start while the Costa Rican league is in the middle of its own, the fact that Los Ticos had the better of play wasn't that surprising.
But the U.S. made the plays that mattered, and rode the saves of Ochoa to claim all three points.
"It wasn't great," said U.S. manager Jason Kreis about his team's attempts to take care of the ball. "It was an important result for us but I would say that we would have hoped to have gotten that result in a little bit of a better fashion.
"I think we would have hoped that we could have been better on the ball and make better decisions and maintain the tempo of the game better. But unfortunately, part of guys not playing matches is that it's not just about fitness, it's also about their touch on the ball.
"And so I felt that the majority of what Costa Rica did to hurt us was in transition, when we gave the ball away very cheaply."
Both teams showed nerves in the early going. Ferreira robbed Costa Rica defender Fernan Faerron in the second minute, advanced on goal unimpeded, but could only hit the post with the shot.
Ochoa was then twice called on to deliver two big saves, smothering Adrian Martinez's shot in the seventh minute, and then another close-range Martinez effort 10 minutes later following a giveaway from U.S. defender Mauricio Pineda.
That Ochoa was given the nod to start was something of a surprise given that JT Marcinkowski was thought to have the inside track heading into training camp. But Kreis' decision was vindicated throughout the match.
"I thought Ochoa was excellent," said Kreis. "And the decision was based upon performance in this camp. Both of the goalkeepers that we would have thought to give the first chance to with JT and David both came in here with a slight injury. And so it was kind of interesting to watch them in the first 10 days, as they built back to a place where they were 100%.
"I really made the decision very, very late, but it seemed pretty clear to me that at this moment right now Ochoa is in a little bit better form. And so we knew that we were going to need him to make some saves tonight and he came through in a very big way for us."
With Costa Rica man-marking Jackson Yueill in a bid to deny him the ball, the U.S. needed to find some alternate paths to goal. With 10 minutes before halftime, Pineda found Sam Vines free on the left wing. The defense didn't clear the ensuing cross, and Ferreira was first to pounce, firing home from 10 yards.
The U.S. continued to find space down the wing, and Aaron Herrera had a teasing pass across goal in first-half stoppage time, but no U.S. attacker was there to take advantage.
Intent on getting an equalizer, Costa Rica started the second half with the greater level of intensity. The U.S. didn't help itself with some giveaways deep in its own half, but Ochoa was on hand again, diving to his right to deny Randall Leal's effort in the 48th minute and then saving from Luis Diaz three minutes later.
In a bid to stem the tide, Kreis brought on Sebastian Saucedo and Andres Perea for Benji Michel and Djordje Mihailovic in the 60th minute. While Costa Rica continued to control the tempo, the U.S. did begin to find opportunities on the counter. Hassani Dotson put Ferreira in the clear in the 66th minute, but U.S. forward's first touch got away from him, and Costa Rica keeper Kevin Chamorro was able to save his weak shot.
Costa Rica continued to apply most of the pressure, and Diaz fired just wide of goal in the 67th minute. The U.S. then survived a scare with just six minutes left when Jurguens Montenegro's free header from a corner was chested off the post by Faerron, though he looked offside on the play.
But that was as close as they got, and the U.S. claimed the win. A victory by the U.S. over the Dominican Republic in three days time should clinch passage to the semifinals.
Kreis was intent on savoring this result, though he is expecting improvement from his side going forward.
"It is one thing that you're looking for from your players, to be able to gut out a result, when things maybe aren't going their way and when they're super super-fatigued," said Kreis. "You saw at the end of the game how difficult it was for some of our players to get through that match. And so now we say yes, we've got the three points in our pocket, and we're going to be a team that will improve over the course of this tournament."
In the second game of the Group A doubleheader, host Mexico beat the Dominican Republic 4-1 as Carlos Rodriguez scored in the 22nd minute and Sebastian Cordova added goals in the 51st, 69th and the fourth minute of stoppage time. Edison Azcona converted a penalty kick for the Dominican Republic in the 75th.