"This one is tough to swallow," U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said Sunday after a questionable call resulted in a penalty kick that gave Costa Rica a 2-1 victory.
The decisive play came when Gregg Berhalter was called for using his hands inside the penalty box, a ruling strongly argued against by the Americans, especially by Reyna who had to be restrained several times by teammates.
The loss ended the U.S. team's eight-game World Cup qualifying stretch without a loss, which dates to 1997. The streak was just two games short of the team's all-time mark.
"It was a case where the referee was under pressure to do something and he made a bad call," Berhalter said. "My hands were by my side."
Hernan Medford beat goalkeeper Kasey Keller with the penalty kick and the game ended shortly after that with U.S. players shouting at Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast.
Reyna went at Prendergast with such anger that the referee took several steps backward. Reyna said Prendergast was in a bad position to see whether Berhalter used his hands.
"It's a terrible decision at that time of the game, but there's nothing we can do about it now," he said.
Coach Bruce Arena also criticized the call which came just minutes after Prendergast ruled there was no foul when Frankie Hejduk of the United States knocked down Medford in the box with what appeared to be a sliding tackle.
"We just have to win the next four games, that's all," Arena said.
The United States is winless in six straight matches in Costa Rica, which handed the Americans their only two losses during qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. In its opening game for the 2002 World Cup semifinal round, the United States tied Guatemala a week ago.
On Sunday, the United States, playing without defender Eddie Pope and forward Brian McBride, who are injured, fell behind Costa Rica in the ninth minute on a goal by Rolando Fonseca. The score came after Medford intercepted a U.S. corner kick and passed to Fonseca.
The United States came back in the second half, with Earnie Stewart scoring in the 65th minute on a rebound of a shot by Ante Razov.
The win gave Costa Rica a much-needed three points. The team qualified for the 1990 World Cup but has not returned since.
"Sometimes we play good and lose, and they criticize us," Costa Rica's Paulo Wanchope said. "Today we won, and they continue criticizing us."
Costa Rica was upset 2-1 at Barbados a week ago, angering many fans who shouted insults at the national team's players during practices this week. The abuse became so bad that Wanchope's family hired bodyguards.
But Costa Ricans fans were supportive Sunday, throwing so many white streames on the field, some of the areas around the goals looked snow-covered. Players from both teams were affected by the thick layer of paper, which nearly tripped both goaltenders.
The crowd also threw objects, including a bottle that landed well onto the field at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, at the Americans and shouted obscenities from the stands. The stadium is infamous for rowdy fans who are just yards from the playing field.
Guatemala leads the regional group, with Costa Rica and Barbados sharing second and the United States fourth. Each team plays each other home and away. A team must finish first or second to advance to the final qualifying round.
After two games in Central America, the United States will play Barbados on Aug. 16 in Foxboro, Mass.
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