HARRISON, N.J. — Over the past 14 months, the U.S. national team and Costa Rica have met four times: Two World Cup qualifiers, a Copa America Centenario group stage clash and a CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal.
Backup goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton started two of those matches for the Ticos. The goal differential? A whopping 6-0 in favor of the U.S.
Real Madrid star Keylor Navas got the nod for the other two — a pair of Costa Rica wins by, you guessed it, a combined 6-0 margin.
That's not a coincidence.
As Costa Rica earned a 2-0 triumph Friday, marking its first World Cup qualifying win on American soil since 1985, Navas made it clear: He's the most influential X-factor CONCACAF has to offer.
Sure, the U.S. boasts the electrifying quality of 18-year-old Christian Pulisic. Mexico striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez has shown he can poach goals with the best of them. But no player transforms a team quite like Navas.
While U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard — a proven game-changer in his own right — conceded a Marco Urena brace on Costa Rica's only two shots on goal, Navas rose to the occasion at the other end.
"He made some big saves tonight," U.S. striker Jozy Altidore said. "He's a top goalie. He made some big plays. We're used to that with Tim bailing us out with some big saves, but unfortunately you can't always have that luck."
Navas' first save of the night didn't come until the 67th minute, but it was worth the wait. As Pulisic's effort took a healthy deflection off Cristian Gamboa, Navas used a sprawling arm and foot to somehow intervene. Like many a stunning stop, it was a play that saw technique eschewed in favor of instinct and improvisation.
Arena alluded to Navas' heroics on a day Howard couldn't follow suit, noting that the U.S. "didn't come up with any big saves" while listing off the Americans' shortcomings at Red Bull Arena. Although center backs Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron drew criticism for their leisurely spacing in the buildup to Urena's 30th-minute opener, Arena wasn't overly impressed by the final touch either.
"It didn't look like he got much on the shot," Arena said. "Tim [Howard] perhaps lost his angle in the goal a little bit, and he was able to roll it in."
That, it turned out, was the difference on the night. With Navas in goal, Costa Rica could afford to suffocate the U.S. attack in a 5-4-1 formation and lean on their captain to step up when called upon.
"When you play a big game against a good team — especially the way they're set up — if they get the first goal, you know it's going to take a big effort to get back in the game," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.
Indeed, the prospect of besting Navas is a daunting one. He may be underappreciated at Madrid, where rumors of a high-profile replacement perpetually linger, but this is a player capable of heaving a team on his back. We learned that three years ago, of course, as he steered Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals.
The Ticos, at 4-1-2 in the final stage of qualifying, find themselves closing in on the showpiece event once more. After sitting out each of Costa Rica's past three summer tournaments — the 2015 and '17 Gold Cups and 2016 Copa America — Navas surely will be between the posts come next summer in Russia.
At that point, the world will remember what the U.S. and CONCACAF never forgot: With Navas in goal, Costa Rica is a team no one wants to face.