Costa RicaIllustrated By Alison Cowles
COSTA RICA HAS LIVED UP to its billing as the strongest CONCACAF team not named Mexico or the United States, and it's making the case it might be better than Mexico. Attacking players like Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio, who led CONCACAF in the semifinal round of qualification with six goals, Bryan Ruiz, and Joel Campbell often get the attention, but Jorge Luis Pinto has shifted the focus to defense with fantastic results.Giancarlo Gonzalez, Cristian Gamboa, Jhonny Acosta, and Junior Diaz have stolen the show, and helped goalkeeper Keylor Navas to four-straight clean sheets after losing in the United States thanks to a Clint Dempsey goal in the middle of a blizzard.
While the defense has impressed and the offense still has talent, the country's biggest advantage no longer exists. That would be Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, the former home of the national team that featured rock-hard artificial turf and equally unforgiving fans. In the 2014 cycle, the supporters remain, but La Sele will play home fixtures at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica.
On March 25, 2011, Saborio scored the first goal in the $100-million stadium that was financed by the Chinese government. He will tally more on the clean, green grass, though he's yet to get off the mark in the Hex, but Costa Rica might miss the home field advantage of Saprissa's unfriendly confines. There were rumors and reports the match with the United States would be moved there, but the anger about that snowy night in Colorado subsided a bit and the national stadium stayed the venue for all qualifiers.
The country reached two of the last three World Cups, has won three regional championships–although none since 1989–and reached the quarterfinal of Copa America in 2001 and 2004. La Sele (The Selection) finished second in Group B of the semifinal round, losing twice to Mexico and drawing with El Salvador at home, but defeating Guyana twice and winning in San Salvador. They're eying another second-place spot and early qualification to Brazil.
The CoachJORGE LUIS PINTO is back for his second stint with the Costa Rican national team. His first go-round ended in failure as Costa Rica started qualification for the 2006 World Cup poorly and Alexandre Guimares replaced Pinto. But the man who took Costa Rican club side Alajuelense to first division titles in 2002 and 2003 is back again, having taken over over for Ricardo La Volpe in September 2011. Pinto also previously helmed his home country, failing to lead Colombia to the 2010 World Cup, and won the Venezuelan First Division with Deportivo Tachira during the 2010-2011 season. Costa Rica lost 1-0 to Brazil in the new manager's first match in charge, but he guided the team through the semifinal round of qualification for 2014 and put them in position to reach Brazil. He also has shrewdly taken up a focus on defense during the Hex that has his team on the verge of making it to the big show.
The TacticsIF YOU THINK this Costa Rican team will ease through the Hexagonal on the virtue of past strength in the region, think again. As a footballing power, Costa Rica has been gradually waning since winning the Hexagonal in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup. The Ticos did make the 2006 World Cup in a down year for CONCACAF, but finished fourth last time around and failed to get past Uruguay in a play-in. This version of Costa Rica shouldn’t really be considered a power, even by Central American standards. After winning three straight Copa Centroamericana tournaments, the Ticos have gone without a title since 2007, and have been supplanted by Honduras and, some would argue, Panama, as the power of the region. Colombian Coach Luis Pinto’s side plays an often-scrambled attacking style, relying on individual playmaking to create danger, a plan which all too often has failed completely. There’s talent enough in an aging-but-veteran side to cause problems for any team in the Hex, but Pinto may need to begin to infuse some young talent–especially the likes of Real Betis striker Joel Campbell–for inspiration. As for the matchups with the U.S., the home team tends to dominate, with the Yanks finding it nearly impossible to win in Costa Rica. But that could well change this time around, as the Ticos have forsaken the intimidating grounds at Saprissa for the more luxurious national stadium, where the screaming mobs behind barbed-wire-topped fences are a thing of the past.
The HistoryCOSTA RICA MISSED OUT on the 2010 tournament but reached South Korea/Japan and Germany. In 2002, the team defeated China and drew with Turkey, but a 5-2 loss at the feet of Brazil on the final match day kept them out of the second round. The performance four years later was one to forget, as Costa Rica finished 0-3 and only beat Serbia and Montenegro in the 32-squad field. The country's best performance came in its only other appearance. In Italy 1990, Costa Rica defeated Scotland and Sweden to advance to the Round of 16 where they lost 4-1 to Czechoslovakia.
GOLD CUP RESULTS2013 Quarterfinals
World Cup Results1990:Round of 16
1994: DNQ (Eliminated in the second round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying)
1998: DNQ (Eliminated in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying)
2002: Group Stage
2006: Group Stage
2010: DNQ (Eliminated in play-off against CONMEBOL. Lost 2-1 on aggregate to Uruguay.)