2017 Gold Cup preview: Costa Rica
By Matthew Gourlie
Despite being amongst CONCACAF’s elite for two decades, Gold Cup success has eluded Costa Rica.
The Ticos failed to advance past the quarter-finals in the previous three Gold Cup tournaments and in the last 11 editions have only reached the semifinals three times. Their lone final appearance came in 2002 where they lost 2-0 to the United States.
Like most competing nations, Costa Rica will be missing some key figures when they open against Honduras on July 7. However, they are as close to full strength as almost any team and there is no reason for their expectations not to be high.
Star keeper Keylor Navas lifted the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid 34 days the tournament and is taking a deserved break. Navas and Deportivo de la Coruña central midfielder Celso Borges are key losses.
The Vancouver Whitecap duo of Kendall Waston and Christian Bolaños plus New York City FC left back Ronald Matarrita will also be missed, but are more easily replaced.
The Ticos have a squad full of veteran campaigners who look to match-up with any other squad in the tournament on paper.
Serie A veteran Giancarlo Gonzalez anchors a back three with depth and experience.
Wingbacks Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gaboa both have experience in the English Premier League.
Defence may win championships, but if Costa Rica want to win the Gold Cup, they will depend on the play of stars Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell.
At Brazil 2014, Campbell got the Ticos going in their 3-1 win over Uruguay and Ruiz was the match-winner against Italy as Costa Rica stunned the world by advancing from a group that featured three of the eight nations who have lifted the World Cup.
Goals have been harder to come by at the Gold Cup. Ruiz has scored twice in 11 career tournament matches and Campbell has one goal in seven matches.
Marco Ureña could help shoulder the scoring load. The San Jose striker scored three goals at the 2011 tournament, the only Costa Rican player to score more than two at a Gold Cup since 2007.
Not as deep as they could be, Costa Rica has most of the big pieces in place and look like the favourite outsider to break up Mexico and the United States’ hold on the trophy for the past 17 years.
Costa Rica played with three in the back long before it was back in vogue. During qualifying, manager Oscar Ramirez has played with two holding midfielders and then an attacking trio. When the Ticos want to be adventurous they play three men (typically Bolaños, Ruiz and Campbell) behind a target forward, with one holding midfielder (Borges) behind them. With five across the back and a front trio not known for defensive dirty work, central midfielders like Guzman, Azofeifa and Tejada are asked to do a lot. Campbell and Ruiz will drift all over the field to take up attacking positions. Ramirez likes to invert his outside attackers and have them play on the off-wing, which could see Campbell on the right side. Ruiz has the freedom to take up attacking positions as he sees fit. If the game isn’t coming to him, he will drop very deep and come to the game to make sure he’s getting on the ball. With two holding mids in front of a back three and two experienced wingbacks, the Ticos should be a difficult side to break down.
23 Dany CARVAJAL
Albacete/ESP • 2/0 • 28
Just transferred from Saprissa to Albacete in the Spanish second division. Was named the top keeper in the Costa Rican 2016 Invierno season as Saprissa led the league. The six-foot-two keeper made his debut in January at the Copa Centroamericana posting a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw with Nicaragua and losing 1-0 to Panama.
1 Leonel MOREIRA
Herediano • 6/0 • 27
Burst into the national team scene as a 21-year-old starting all three games at the 2011 Copa America, facing Argentina, Colombia and posting a clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Bolivia. He was outstanding against Colombia, keeping his side in the match. After that it took nearly three years to get another cap and two more after that to get a fifth. He started one of the Copa Centroamericana matches in January, a 3-0 win over Belize. A smaller keeper, he is great laterally and an impressive shot-stopper.
18 Patrick PEMBERTON
Alajuelense • 34/0 • 35
Veteran keeper started all three matches at the Copa Centennario last summer. He is quick off of his line and agile, but is far from a great shot-stopper. Sometimes he can be too aggressive coming off of his line and gets himself into trouble. His distribution can be suspect at times as well.
2 Johnny ACOSTA
Herediano • 58/2 • 33
Has been used as the sweeper in the back three. The right-footed defender looks to make long switches out of the back to wide areas, either to the attackers or to the wingbacks to launch the counter. Not afraid to push into the midfield with the ball at his feet.
15 Francisco CALVO
Minnesota United/USA • 23/2 • 24
The Minnesota United captain is one of the most under-rated players in MLS at the moment. Calm, composed with a solid left foot. He reads the game quickly and makes smart decisions with the ball and in tracking runs. Typically lines up on the left side of the back three. Waston’s absence gives him a chance to prove he deserves a run in the team.
16 Cristian GAMBOA
Celtic/SCO • 56/3 • 27
A right wingback with tremendous pace, Gamboa is capable of dangerous runs to aid the attack. Is better going forward than he is as a defender, but covers a lot of ground and is full of running. He and Oviedo were part of the 2009 under-20 team that went the semifinals at the FIFA U20 World Cup.
3 Giancarlo GONZÁLEZ
Palermo/ITA • 57/2 • 29
Could be used as the sweeper in the back three or as the right-sided central defender. With Waston out, he add an aerial presence. Smart and composed, he doesn’t panic, reads the game well and does a lot of the little things very well.
5 Kenner GUTIÉRREZ
Alajuelense • 2/0 • 28
A right-footed central defender that came up through the Alajuelense youth system. A no-nonsense type of defender who will help fill the absence of Waston with his size and hard-tackling style. Can be used to take long throw-ins.
8 Bryan OVIEDO
Sunderland/ENG • 34/1 • 27
The left wingback might have been pushed for playing time had Matarrita not been injured. An energetic wide player, he has struggled with the defensive side of his game in qualifying. Honduras repeatedly found space behind him in their match and he picked up an early booking after a few ill-timed tackles.
6 José SALVATIERRA
Alajuelense • 30/0 • 27
The right wingback was to be loaned to FC Dallas for the 2017 season, but failed his physical. He is better defensively than Gamboa and is a more combative presence. Still capable of providing width and a dangerous run, he is a better 1v1 defender, though his positional sense occasionally lets him down.
4 Michael UMAÑA
Cartginés • 100/1 • 34
Plenty of experience in the back three and has the cap total to prove it. He was a regular at the last World Cup and has started in the qualifiers, but with players like Waston and Calvo emerging his minutes may drop. An aggressive and confident player, he closes space in the midfield and stepped up twice to take penalties in Brazil. Just transferred from Alajuelense to Cartginés.
22 Juan Pablo VARGAS
Herediano • 1/0 • 22
A late addition to the squad to replace Ronald Matarrita from New York City FC who broke his foot. The lanky six-foot-three defender can play in the middle or as a left back where he shows surprisingly nimble feet for a man his size. Made his debut against Belize in the Copa Centroamericano in January.
14 Randall AZOFEIFA
Herediano • 54/3 • 32
Much more of a deep-lying distributor than a ball-winning midfielder, Azofeifa is tidy on the ball and shows good range of passing. He also takes right-footed free kicks and isn’t afraid to have a go from distance is given the time.
20 David GUZMÁN
Portland Timbers/USA • 30/0 • 27
A key to Portland’s strong early start to the MLS season, he seems likely to replace Borges in the starting 11. He is quicker and more defensive than Azofeifa and his work rate should help in the middle of the park where the Ticos are always in danger of being over-run. Could see time on right-footed set piece duty.
19 Ulises SEGURA
Saprissa • 3/0 • 24
Young, right-footed midfielder has been a consistent contributor to Saprissa’s successful run in the past two seasons. With a number of his countrymen successfully moving Stateside in the off-season, Segura is rumoured to be the next Tico headed to MLS after the Gold Cup. Made his international debut in a playmaking role in the Copa Centroamericana this year.
17 Yeltsin TEJADA
FC Lausanne-Sport/SUI • 40/0 • 25
Tejada hasn’t featured a lot in the centre of the Ticos midfield of late, but he started all five of their matches at the 2014 World Cup as an under-rated piece of their quarter-final run. Very quick, he closes space well and has good ball skills. A subtle player that doesn’t draw a lot of attention while working in the middle of the park. Battled injuries this season with his club in Switzerland.
13 Rodney WALLACE
New York City FC/USA • 16/3 • 30
Wallace has been excellent for NYCFC as a wide attacking player combining well with their wealth of attacking talent. A good crosser, smart runner and able to play with quality players, Walace has had the misfortune of coming along while Campbell and Ruiz provided the Ticos with better left-footed attacking options. With Matarrita out, he offers a potential left wingback option as well.
9 Ariel RODRÍGUEZ
Bangkok Glass FC/THA • 10/1 • 27
A tricky player who shows off quick feet in tight spaces, he has scored everywhere he has played. He scored 49 league goals in four seasons with Saprissa and then added five more goals in nine CONCACAF Champions League matches. He has 26 goals in 41 matches since moving to Thailand. Was on the Copa Centenario squad last summer but had to pull out due to injury.
12 Joel CAMPBELL
Arsenal/ENG • 72/14 • 25
Fast, powerful and always dangerous. Campbell can terrorize defenders with his dribbling and the threat of him unleashing a rocket of a shot off of his left boot. He is also capable of fully disappearing from a match and not wining 50-50 balls. He can change a match and much is expected for the 25-year-old who has a wealth of experience.
7 David RAMÍREZ
Saprissa • 12/3 • 24
Is back with Saprissa after a season-long loan to Moreirense as he saw regular minutes in the Portuguese top flight. Like Ureña, he’s not a prototypical No. 9, but he has pace and works hard to press opposing defences. Unlike Ureña, has never been a prolific goal-scorer, netting 21 times in 92 career matches with Saprissa and only twice in 25 outings with Moreirense. Scored against Jamaica at the last Gold Cup and started all four matches, including their 0-0 draw with Canada.
10 Bryan RUIZ
Sporting CP/POR • 90/23 • 31
A great foil for Campbell, Ruiz pops up in smart areas and pulls the strings of the Ticos attack. A frequent free kick taker with his dangerous left foot, he has a great first touch. At times needs to go find the game if not seeing enough of the ball in the final third and will pop-up in front of the back four. Given the freedom to play all over the pitch to influence the match.
21 Marco UREÑA
San Jose Earthquakes/USA • 49/10 • 27
Hardly a prototypical target forward, Ureña will do whatever is asked of him. He can use his pace to get behind defenders, hold off bigger men with his back to goal or run at defenders and combine with his teammates around the box. Enthusiastic and always working, he also takes his chances which may be his most vital attribute in the tournament.
11 Johan VENEGAS
Minnesota United/USA • 37/8 • 28
Used more as a second striker in MLS, the six-foot Venegas leads the line for the Ticos at times. He started and scored the opener in their 4-0 thrashing of the U.S. that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job. Venegas can also play off of a target forward on the right side of the attack. He has gotten a regular run as a starter with Minnesota United after being traded from Montréal.