San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica routed by Mexico in critical World Cup qualifying match

So much for home-field advantage. Saturday night, Mexico routed Costa Rica 3-0 on the Ticos home turf at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José. With the result, Costa Rica falls from first place to a tie for third in the six-team CONCACAF 2010 World Cup qualifying group.

Costa Rica was unbeaten in three previous World Cup qualifying matches at Saprissa.

Mexico, the long-time power in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) region, has won three consecutive World Cup qualifying matches to move into a tie with Costa Rica in third place, only one point behind group leaders Honduras and the United States. In their first four games in qualifying competition, Mexico lost three of four and was close to the bottom of the six-team group. With only three games left in the 2010 World Cup qualifying round, Mexico appears to be heating up at the right time.

On Saturday night, over 20,000 fans jammed into Saprissa Stadium to support La Sele (short for Selección ), the nickname for the Costa Rican national team. The seats at the stadium, which are purple, were filled with raucous, chanting fans wearing the red of the Costa Rican team. Though there were a few pockets of fans wearing the green of Mexico, it appeared that the boisterous pro-Tico crowd would boost the home team.

For the first 45 minutes of the game, it seemed to be working. There was little difference between the teams in the first half, as neither side established significant stretches of possession or mustered any serious threats on goal. Most of the first half was marred by fouls and yellow cards, as the referee from Trinidad and Tobago showed little restraint with the whistle and seemed determine to impose discipline on the teams, handing out five yellow cards in the first 43 minutes of play.

As the teams seemed destined to go into halftime scoreless, Mexico created their first significant opportunity of the game. Thanks to the lethal left foot of forward Giovani Dos Santos, they converted it.

In the waning moments of the first half, veteran Mexican forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco sent a pass from the sideline across the field. The long pass found 20-year-old striker Dos Santos, who was wide open on the back side of the defense. Dos Santos took a touch forward and, from about 22 yards out, unleashed a low, driven left-footed shot that beat goalkeeper Keilor Navas on the far post. The goal silenced the crowd at Saprissa and the Ticos entered the locker room in a 1-0 hole at halftime.

Early in the second half, Costa Rica pushed more players into the attack in an attempt to generate the equalizer. In doing so, they left their defense thin and susceptible to a counter attack. Mexico saw the opportunity and capitalized, twice.

In the 62nd minute, Costa Rica held possession near the Mexican goal but when a crossing attempt was cleared, Mexican forward Efraín Juárez claimed the loose ball and charged forward, carrying the ball deep into the Costa Rican defensive area. As two defenders closed on Juárez, he sent a pass across the field to an open Dos Santos at the top of the penalty area. Dos Santos took a touch towards the goal and, when Costa Rica goalkeeper Navas rushed out to close the angle on a potential shot, Dos Santos sent a lateral pass across the box to a wide open Guillermo Franco, who tapped the ball into the open net for a 2-0 lead.

Eight minutes later, Mexico struck again in almost identical fashion. In the 70th minute, after a Costa Rican corner kick, the ball was cleared to Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado. Guardado rushed at the Costa Rican defense, which had only two players back. As the defenders stepped up to close Guardado, he sent a pass through to Dos Santos, who was again in a one-on-one situation with Navas. As Navas stepped from his line to prepare for a shot, Dos Santos sent a lateral pass across the penalty area to a wide-open Guardado, who slotted the ball into the open net for a 3-0 lead.

After the third goal, deflated fans began exiting Saprissa as the chants from the Mexican faithful grew louder during the final 20 minutes of the game. 

“Obviously, when you lose like this on your home field, it bothers all of us,” said Costa Rica coach Rodrigo Kenton. “It is obvious we have a lot to work on. The players, the coaches, everyone. We are all responsible for what has happened the last two games.”

Costa Rica, which lost to Honduras 4-0 on Aug. 12, has been outscored 7-0 in their last two matches.

On Saturday night, the other four teams in the CONCACAF group were in action, with the United States beating El Salvador 2-1 and Honduras beating Trinidad and Tobago 4-1. With the wins, Honduras and the U.S. move into a tie for first place with 13 points.

The top three teams in the CONCACAF region qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The fourth place team will play a two-game, home-and-home playoff with the fifth place team from the South America CONMEBOL qualifying group.

All teams in the CONCACAF group play again on Wednesday, with Costa Rica playing in El Salvador, Mexico playing at home against Honduras and the United States at Trinidad and Tobago. 

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