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Soccer: U.S. men clinch World Cup spot in loss to Costa Rica

Soccer: U.S. men clinch World Cup spot in loss to Costa Rica
Christian Pulisic (L) and the Americans out-possessed and outshot Costa Rica, but could not find the net in a 2-0 loss Wednesday in San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo by Jeffrey Arguedas/EPA-EFE

March 31 (UPI) -- The United States Men's National Team clinched a World Cup spot for the first time since 2014 through a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in its final qualifying competition for the spring tournament.

Costa Rica picked up the shutout win Wednesday at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica in San Jose. Striker Anthony Contreras and defender Juan Pablo Vargas scored in the CONCACAF qualifying victory.

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The Americans posted seven wins, four draws and three losses in 14 qualifiers. The starting lineups' average age of 23 years and 302 days was an American-record low.

"Being the youngest team in the world to qualify for the World Cup is no easy task," U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter told reporters. "But what we saw was the resilience of the team, the strong mentality of the team and absolute focus to reach our goals."

The Americans needed a win, draw or a loss by fewer than six goals to qualify for the World Cup, which runs from Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 in Qatar. They finished in third place in their qualifying region, behind Canada and Mexico.

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The Top 3 teams in the standings automatically qualified for the World Cup. Fourth-place Costa Rica will enter a one-leg playoff against New Zealand, the winner of the Oceania region, for another World Cup spot.

The Americans controlled 65% of the possession in Wednesday's match. They also outshot Costa Rica 15-12 in total attempts and 6-5 in shots on goal. The teams played a scoreless first half.

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Vargas drew first blood in the 51st minute. Midfielder Brandon Aguilera started the sequence with a corner kick from the left side. He sent the in-swinging feed from left the right. The ball then dropped in the middle of the box. Vargas ran into the area and used the right side of his to send a shot into the right side of the net, past American goalie Zack Steffen.

The Costa Ricans doubled their lead about eight minutes later. That score came off a free kick. Steffen jumped up and deflected the initial service and blocked a follow-up shot. Midfielder Jewison Bennette then fired in another shot toward the right post.

Contreras ran into the area and tapped a point-blank range shot into the center of the goal in the 59th minute. The American defense held up down the stretch to secure the World Cup ticket.

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Only three spots remain in the 32-team field for the 2022 World Cup. Costa Rica will battle New Zealand in June for one of those spots. Peru will face Australia or the United Arab Emirates for another spot. The final slot will go to the winner of the Wales vs. Scotland or Ukraine game.

The Americans will be placed into Pot 2 to decide their group stage foes for the World Cup. The World Cup draw will be held at noon EDT Friday in Doha, Qatar.

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