[COSTA RICA-USA]The Colorado snowstorm in March is getting all the attention heading into the Costa Rica-USA qualifier Friday night, but the June monsoon played its role as well.
Costa Rica hosted Panama in round six of the Hexagonal June 18 as rain inundated the National Stadium, and a soggy first half ended 0-0. The fortunes of the home team seemed poised to tip either way, depending on the result. A loss could be crushing, a tie disappointing, a victory uplifting.
“The mentality of the Costa Rican player, when things are going well, they feel great about themselves,” says Steve Sampson, who during his long coaching career has managed both national teams that meet at the National Stadium Friday night. “And it doesn’t take much to take them from being an average team to one playing with a lot of confidence.”
Early in the second half, a rather dubious foul call in the Panama defensive third proffered Costa Rica a free kick from the right side. Bryan Ruiz struck a low drive that nicked a Panamanian in the wall and slid inside the far post. But that goal, while a welcome relief to the home team and its crowd, paled in comparison to what transpired a few minutes later.
Following a Panamanian corner kick, Costa Rica countered. Ruiz knocked a ball from the left side into the middle, where Celso Borges touched it once and then let fly. That ball sailed through the rain past keeper Jamie Penedo and stung the net behind the top corner. A great goal had been scored, but it meant much more: pride and confidence had been restored. At least for the time being.
“Right now, they feel good about themselves,” said Sampson. “But if the United States comes in and beats Costa Rica, it would literally be taking two steps backwards. And if Mexico beats Honduras, Costa Rica would be back down in third and then all the critics would start coming out and start bashing the team. The players listen to those things and read all the articles and they take a lot of personal pride in what the fans and media think of them, almost to a fault.”
Actually, Mexico and Costa Rica would be tied for second place with 11 points if those results occurred but just as important would be the psychological aspects.
The ramped-up rhetoric about the Commerce City snowstorm is real and in addition to the three points, Costa Rica certainly wants redemption for a perceived injustice. And it has the means by which to beat the USA -- means that were bogged down in snow last March and seldom materialized.
Though he’s been spotty for the national team, RSL forward Alvaro Saborio is a crafty finisher and one of the best headers of the ball among Concacaf strikers. Ruiz, who plays his club ball in England with Fulham, operates in the hole and is the main danger when Costa Rica pushes forward. Both in terms of the role he plays and his club experience, Ruiz is similar to Clint Dempsey, his former teammate at Fulham, but didn’t adapt nearly as well to the piles of snow in March. Dempsey got the only goal.
“Dempsey is a great comparison to Ruiz. They both developed their game in the domestic league, then went overseas and excelled,” says Sampson. “Dempsey, before he went to Seattle, probably had the better of the two careers, but Ruiz continues to demonstrate an incredibly high level of skill and athleticism. Technically, he’s an exceptional player.”
Sampson is also a fan of keeper Keylor Navas, who starred for Costa Rica at the U-17 World Cup during Sampson’s tenure with the senior team (2002-04).
“He really is an exceptional goalkeeper,” says Sampson.
Navas, Saborio and Ruiz are three of many Costa Ricans playing overseas, which complicates the task of Coach Jorge Luis Pinto. Of the 24 players named to Costa Rica’s roster for the USA game, more than half -- 13 -- play outside the Costa Rican league.
“Ruiz almost has to be the goalscorer, because Saborio at the national team level has been inconsistent,” says Sampson. “He’s done well with Real Salt Lake but has had his ups and downs with Pinto. However, I would bet money that he starts against the United States.”
In his previous stint as coach of Costa Rica, Pinto replaced Sampson. At that time, nearly all of the players were based domestically with clubs such as Alajuela or Herediano, though a few like Paulo Wanchope found success overseas. Now, Pinto has much the same problem as U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann: to meld players from disparate environments into a competitive unit on short notice.
“His job is a lot harder because he really doesn’t have time to train a lot of his players,” says Sampson, “but what he has done is use the confidence of those players who have done well overseas. So many times in the past, players would last six or nine months and come back almost in disgrace, and it would affect their play for the national team.
“If they tie or beat the United States, even though mathematically it won’t be a done deal, they’ll qualify for the World Cup,” says Sampson. “With the Costa Ricans seeking revenge for what happened in Denver, to the fact that the game is being played in the National Stadium instead of Saprissa, to the fact that the U.S. has never won in Costa Rica but could clinch if they do, there’s a lot going on. I’m really looking forward to watching it.”
Costa Rica Roster:
GOALKEEPERS:Keylor Navas (Levante, Spain), Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense).
DEFENDERS:Cristian Gamboa (Rosenborg, Norway), Jose Salvatierra (Alajuelense), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Valerenga, Norway), Johnny Acosta (Alajuelense), Michael Umana (Saprissa), Oscar Duarte (Club Brugge, Belgium), Bryan Oviedo (Everton, England), Junior Diaz (Mainz, Germany).
MIDFIELDERS: Cristian Bolanos (FC Copenhagen, Denmark), Jose Miguel Cubero (Herediano), Celso Borges (AIK, Sweden), Yeltsin Tejeda (Saprissa), Esteban Granados (Herediano), Michael Barrantes (Aalesunde, Norway), Diego Calvo (Valarenga, Norway), Mauricio Castillo (Saprissa).
FORWARDS:Bryan Ruiz (Fulham, England), Joel Campbell (Olympiakos, Greece), Randall Brenes (Cartagines), Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Víctor Nunez (Herediano), Yendrick Ruiz (Herediano).
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting KC) John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Edgar Castillo (Tijuana, Mexico), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Michael Orozco (Puebla, Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg, Germany).
MIDFIELDERS:Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Roma, Italy), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04, Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Aron Johannsson (AZ, Netherlands), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)