KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Timing is everything.
Just before teammate Jeff Agoos was to take a corner kick Wednesday night, Josh Wolff looked to the sideline and saw Ante Razov readying to enter the game. Wolff figured he had one more chance to do something special before heading to the bench.
Wolff the opportunist then struck for the only goal as the United States beat Costa Rica 1-0 Wednesday night in a World Cup qualifier.
''I knew it was me coming off when I saw it was a forward coming in,'' Wolff said after his goal in the 70th minute -- helped greatly by a deflection off teammate Clint Mathis' arm that was not called -- gave the Americans a 3-0 record in regional qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. ''But you're still on the field and you have to do your job.''
''I thought Clint and I played well together,'' added Wolff, who scored the first goal in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in February and set up the other score in that game. ''Any time the ball is whipped in and it is not coming to you, you have to get in the right spot. Clint nodded it to me and I did what I had to do.''
Actually, Mathis did more than nod the long ball from Agoos. His arm clearly touched it as he leaped.
''I don't think it hit my hand,'' Mathis said with a smile.
Costa Rica coach Alexander Guimaraes didn't protest the non-call.
''I could not tell,'' he said. ''I didn't see anything.''
Wolff's goal and the steadfast goalkeeping of Kasey Keller gave the Americans a stranglehold on qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region. The Americans have victories over Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica, considered their staunchest competition in the race for three spots in South Korea and Japan next spring.
''In the big picture, we have not qualified,'' coach Bruce Arena said. ''We're still far from the World Cup, but we couldn't have laid it out better than to have a 3-0 record.''
Before a crowd of 37,319, the largest ever for soccer at Arrowhead Stadium, the United States played without injured forwards Brian McBride and Joe-Max Moore and still extended its home unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifying to 18. The last loss was in 1985 to Costa Rica, which still holds a 5-4-2 edge over the Americans in qualifying matches.
Costa Rica is 1-1-1 in this round, tied for second with Mexico, which played a 1-1 tie Wednesday at Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica, which played a 1-1 tie at home against Honduras.
''There's still seven games and that's 21 points a team can get,'' Mathis said. ''We definitely need to keep going and get as many as we can, get as close as we can to that magic number. If we get 30 points, I guarantee we're going to the World Cup.''
After Wolff connected, it was Keller's job to protect the lead. He did it with several terrific hand saves, including one on a dangerous header by Paolo Wanchope with eight minutes left.
''His command in the goal was outstanding,'' Arena said. ''He played a great game.''
With fireworks exploding behind the stadium, the U.S. players saluted the crowd by taking a lap around the field. The Costa Ricans didn't linger to watch.
''I thought we played well in a very important match,'' Guimaraes said. ''This is a very tight competition.''
After a lackluster first half, play immediately picked up as both sides threatened. In a span of four minutes, Mathis sent a header wide on a gorgeous cross from David Regis; Earnie Stewart's 25-yard shot was stopped by goalie Erick Lonnis; Wolff shot just wide from close-range after a giveaway; and Wolff's sliding shot was stopped by a prone Lonnis.
Costa Rica also had a dangerous chance in that flurry, but Keller caught a close-in header by Steve Bryce.
Although the Americans carried the play for most of the first half, they had trouble when they got near the Costa Rican penalty area. But the United States got one excellent opportunity in the 16th minute.
Claudio Reyna broke free in midfield and sent a pass wide on the left to Wolff. Wolff's soft, high shot got over Lonnis, but was brilliantly cleared off the line by Reynaldo Parks' bicycle kick.
Television replays were inconclusive, but linesman Fernando Cresci of Uruguay was right on the end line and did not signal a goal.
Parks made several other strong plays and was Costa Rica's best player all night.
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