As it turns out, USA keeper Tim Howard isn’t the only starter who can’t play Tuesday in the second Hexagonal game against Costa Rica.
Ruled out of the game at Estadio Nacional are defenders Francisco Calvo and Cristian Gamboa, who set up the first goal in Costa Rica’s 2-0 defeat of Trinidad & Tobago on Friday. They have been replaced by Herediano teammates Leonardo Gonzalez and Allan Miranda.
Calvo left the game Friday with a reported ankle injury and Gamboa, who was cautioned in the match, is suspended. Gonzalez, 35, hasn’t played for Costa Rica since 2009 and Miranda, 29, earned just his second cap in a 3-1 defeat of Panama Sept. 6 in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying.
Heading into Tuesday’s game, Costa Rica shares first place in the Hexagonal with Mexico and Panama, which by beating Honduras, 1-0, in San Pedro Sula gave the road teams a first-round sweep. Costa Rica had marched through its semifinal schedule against Panama, Haiti, and Jamaica with five wins and a tie and in its Hexagonal opener took command after a stodgy first half in Port of Spain.
Costa Rica fielded eight of the same starters from a 4-0 pasting inflicted by the USA last June at the Copa Centenario. In that game, Clint Dempsey converted a penalty kick in the ninth minute and the Costa Ricans managed just seven shots (two on goal) while crumbling under an onslaught led by Dempsey, who also assisted on goals by Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood.
One absentee from the Centenario meeting was starting keeper Keylor Navas, who returned to the lineup Friday in Port of Spain. Neither team generated much offense in the first half, though the Costa Ricans outclassed the host in terms of touch and possession while threatening the T&T goal only sporadically.
“We faced a team with a very strong transition and I believe that ball possession – in which we have grown -- helped us to control, enabling us to take away their momentum,” Costa Rica head coach Oscar Ramirez told concacaf.com. “We tried to have very few problems at the times of transition and it was important to look for the moment to score. We knew well how to manage Trinidad. We took away their strengths and we took advantage of their weaknesses, which was important.”
The entry of substitute Joel Campbell -- who started against the USA in the Centenario encounter and has tormented the Americans a few times in the past -- and more attacking impetus injected by wingbacks Ronald Matarrita and Gamboa eventually led to the breakthrough goal. Campbell replaced forward Marco Urena, who had been isolated up top and seldom received the ball in a dangerous situation.
Against T&T, the Costa Ricans played a three-man back line anchored by Johnny Acosta and buttressed by Matarrita and Gamboa in the wide positions. Further upfield Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolanos worked as wingers who changed sides during the match. Borges and Randall Azofeifa handled the duties in central midfield.
Without a forward to mark, the T&T centerbacks couldn’t decide when to press forward and which spaces to cover. Costa Rica exploited that confusion with some slick interplay to score in the 65th minute.
From central midfield, Campbell played a ball straight upfield to Celso Borges, who knocked it wide right into the path of Gamboa. His dribble to the end line drew a cluster of T&T players; they left Bolanos so open at the back post he had time to trap the ball before banging it into the empty net.
Matarrita scored the second goal in stoppage time on another quick thrust up the field started by Campbell, whose lob over the top bounced for Bolanos to nod forward and dribble to the edge of the penalty area. A square ball for Matarrita presented the NYCFC defender with a chance he couldn’t miss.
“Our play is of combinations and we made it that Trinidad had to retreat a little bit and not have spaces,” said Ramirez. “The boys had to come back more to find the ball. They have to be mobile. It’s not only that they receive, it’s that there are certain movements to create chances and in small spaces you have to know how to move. For that reason, there was a change to Campbell. We no longer needed Marco’s speed, but rather Joel’s combinations.”
All four Costa Ricans currently with MLS teams played in Port of Spain: In addition to Bolanos (Vancouver) and Matarrita (New York City FC), Bolanos’ club teammate Kendall Waston started as one of the three central defenders, and Johan Venegas (Montreal) came on as a sub. Former Timber Rodney Wallace, who plays for Brazilian club Sport Recife, made the game-day roster but didn’t play.
Costa Rica has won the last eight World Cup qualifiers it has hosted against the U.S. and last time out, three years ago, maintained its superiority at a new venue, the Estadio Nacional, with a 3-1 victory. Tickets -- more than 35,000 -- for the match sold out within hours after going on sale.
“It's a very different stadium than Saprissa, but the atmosphere, it doesn't change,” said USA captain Michael Bradley, who suffered an ankle injury during warmups for the 2013 encounter and had to sit out. “It'd be easy to look at it and say, ah, there's a track and it's not as loud or they're not as into it, but that's not the case.”
Costa Rica Roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid/ESP), Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense) Esteban Alvarado (Trabzonspor/TUR).
DEFENDERS: Johnny Acosta (Herediano), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Michael Umana (Alajuelense) Leonardo Gonzalez (Herediano), Ronald Matarrita (New York City FC), Allan Miranda (Herediano), Bryan Oviedo (Everton/ENG), Jose Salvatierra (Alajuelense), Pablo Salazar (Herediano).
MIDFIELDERS: Randall Azofeifa (Herediano), Celso Borges (Deportivo Coruna/ESP), Yeltsin Tejeda (Lausanne/SUI), David Guzman (Saprissa), Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Cristian Bolanos (Vancouver Whitecaps), Johan Venegas (Montreal Impact), Rodney Wallace (Sport Recife/BRA)
FORWARDS: Joel Campbell (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Ariel Rodriguez (Bangkok Glass/THA), Marco Urena (Brondby/DEN).