Commerce City: Soft snow started falling, and then kept getting heavier as the night progressed. From the start of Friday's World Cup qualifier, the lines on the field were covered. As the game wore on, even the Americans in their white home uniforms became hard to see.
And then in the 55th minute, with the U.S. leading Costa Rica 1-0 on Clint Dempsey's early goal, the referee and match commissioner stopped it. Would it continue? For a moment, it was as unclear as the view. But then, after some heated discussions, play went on. On a snowy night more suitable to slaloms than soccer, Dempsey's 16th-minute score in his first start as the American captain held up, giving the U.S. a 1-0 victory in a key qualifier for next year's World Cup.
"It was difficult out here to see anything," Dempsey said. "The second half, the snow coming up past your ankles, it was almost unplayable."
Several U.S. players wore short sleeves. A bare-chested Dempsey applauded fans after the final whistle. Costa Rica's team seemed to have a harder time dealing with the winter wonderland. The Ticos have 24 hours to file a written protest with FIFA.
"You couldn't see the lines. You couldn't see the ball. You couldn't play," Costa Rica midfielder Michael Barrantes said.
Plows and shovels were used to clear the penalty areas, center circle and midfield stripe as snow got heavier, and a yellow-and-purple ball was used. Ten minutes into the second half, Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto wanted referee Joel Aguilar of El Salvador and match commissioner Victor Daniel of Grenada to suspend the game, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made a case for playing on.
"That's why went onto the field with my bad Spanish, to interfere with the referee, 'We're not stopping that game. It's only the lines,'" Klinsmann said. "They cleaned up the lines and they kept playing. The referees were clear, they said it was all about the lines. It's for both teams very difficult to play all the way through. I would have done anything possible to not stop it."
The match will be remembered in American soccer for the elements as much as the 1967 Ice Bowl is in the NFL. As the snow increased, it made the field resemble a cake topped with piles of sugar, and players' hair turned white as snow stuck along their scalps. During injury time, American defender Geoff Cameron even playfully pushed the back of a grounds crew member shoveling the field.
As the conditions deteriorated, the U.S. survived Michael Umana's apparent 70th-minute goal for Costa Rica that was disallowed for offside and came away with a red-very-white-and-blue victory. Brad Guzan, in goal because Tim Howard was injured, slid in the snow after balls like a kid in a park.
"You don't want to stop it. You want to keep that advantage and finish it off," Klinsmann said.
Pinto was angry during and after the game.
"I asked them to stop. They should suspend the ref," he said. "It was an embarrassment. It was an insult to Costa Rica and people coming in here."
After wasting an early lead and losing their final-round opener last month at Honduras, the Americans were under pressure to come up with a win, especially with their next game Tuesday at regional power Mexico. Dempsey's goal lifted them from last place in the six-nation group to second, one point behind Honduras, which rallied from two goals down for a 2-2 tie at home against Mexico. The U.S. extended its home unbeaten streak in qualifying to 23 games over a dozen years (21-0-2).
The gametime temperature of 30 degrees was 54 below the start temperature for the 2-1 loss at Honduras last month, when the Americans withered in the heat and humidity as the match went on. When DaMarcus Beasley slid on his back following a collision, he formed a bit of a snow angel.
"It almost looked like he grew up in the snow," Klinsmann said about the Indiana native.
Criticized earlier in the week over tactics and management in a Sporting News story citing unidentified players and others close to the team, Klinsmann used his 24th lineup in 24 matches since replacing Bob Bradley. With eight players out because of injuries and illness, the 30-year-old Beasley was at left back for the first time since 2009, when he made his previous international competitive start. Cameron was shifted to right back and Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson started in central defense in front of Guzan, who made his first start since November 2010. Landon Donovan remains absent on sabbatical.
"We were able to come together when we needed to," Dempsey said.
Dempsey, a tough Texan who didn't wear gloves in the first half, became captain when Carlos Bocanegra was dropped because of inaction with his club in Spain and Howard broke two bones in his back. Dempsey's only previous experience with the armband was three years ago, during the second half of an exhibition against Colombia.
He scored after Jozy Altidore's 19-yard shot deflected off Roy Miller, the defender who has struggled this season with Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls. The ball bounced toward Dempsey, whose right-footed shot from in front went in for his seventh goal in qualifying for Brazil and his 12th career score in qualifying. Used to wet weather in England's Premier League, Dempsey got his 32nd goal in 92 appearances. The U.S. appealed to Aguilar for a penalty kick after Miller tripped Dempsey in the 42nd but was denied. Turns out one goal was enough.
"It was a lucky deflection," Dempsey said. "If I would have missed it, I would have cried all night."