By Clemente Lisi - NEW YORK, NY (Jun 2, 2009) USSoccerPlayers -- Costa Rica may be the most underrated national side in the World. While the US remains one of the heavy favorites to grab one of the three automatic spots awarded to CONCACAF for next year’s World Cup, the Ticos have also emerged as contenders for the right to play in South Africa.
This is a team has continued to enjoy regional success ever since it qualified for the last World Cup. With a 2-1-0 record (just a point behind the Hexagonal-leading USA) going into Wednesday’s game against the Americans, Costa Rica is a formidable opponent – especially when they play host at the very hostile Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose.
In what has been billed a must-win for both teams, Costa Rica is expected to give the US a very tough time (similar to the way Mexico plays at the Azteca Stadium). No CONCACAF team has won at the Saprissa Stadium in this decade. Not only will the US players have to deal with that fact -- along with thousands of fans raining jeers and whatever else down on them -- but coach Bob Bradley’s men will have to also contend with something typical to American sports, but very foreign to international soccer: artificial turf.
In 2003, famed Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa, who plays at the stadium, successfully petitioned FIFA for the right to change its natural grass field to the plastic stuff due to the long tropical rainy season. The field alone – the only one in Latin America to have this type of playing surface – will make the challenge of defeating Costa Rica even tougher for the Americans (not to mention the hot and sticky weather). To prepare, FIFA has allowed the US to travel to Costa Rica on Sunday (rather than Monday) in order to train on the artificial turf an extra day.
“Is it old? Is it new? How hard is it? Is the turf dry? Has it been wet down? Is it raining?” Bradley told reporters Friday during a conference call. “You know, these are things that affect the speed of the game, affect the bounces, affect how much give there is in terms of players when they’re cutting or going to the ground.”
Those unfamiliar with the Ticos will not see many of the same faces that were on the 2006 World Cup roster. Although the team that qualified for the last World Cup was solid, this current squad – loaded with young players – has been even more impressive.
Only two players remain from the team’s starting line-up in its first game at the 2006 World Cup compared to their most recent qualifying match. The biggest name of this surviving duo is 34-year-old midfielder Walter Centeno, the veteran on this young team and a player with a wealth of experience that also includes competing at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan. Centeno, who plays for Deportivo Saprissa, boasts an astounding 122 caps for the national team since making his debut in 1995.
Not all of the new faces, however, on this squad are young. 35-year-old defender Freddy Fernandez has turned a string of superb performances for tiny Costa Rican club Perez Zeledon into a spot on the National Team. With the exceptions of Centeno and Fernandez, none of Costa Rica’s starters against El Salvador this past April were over the age of 28. For instance, former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Michael Umana (who, like Centeno, started at Germany ‘06) is only 26 and remains a pivotal player on the team’s four-man backline.
On attack, striker Andy Furtado has been key in qualifying for the Ticos this year. In February, the 29-year-old netted two goals as Costa Rica downed Honduras, 2-0. Alongside Furtado, coach Rodrigo Kenton has partnered him with Bryan Ruiz. The 23-year-old midfielder (he’s the real bright spot in Kenton’s attack-minded 4-3-1-2 formation) made his debut with the National Team at the 2005 Gold Cup, where he scored his first goal. Since then, Ruiz has scored six goals in 16 appearances. He has also become the team’s leading scorer in World Cup qualifying with four.
Ruiz, who plays for KAA Gent in Belgium, has slowly made his way onto Kenton’s team (he had been previously called-up by former coach Hernan Medford) as a starter and is expected to play against the United States. His inclusion has turned Costa Rica into a goalscoring machine, with his deadly left foot and elegant style helping produce some magnificent goals (not to mention attention from scouts across Europe). In the previous round of CONCACAF qualifying, for example, the Ticos went 6-0-0, outscoring El Salvador, Haiti and Suriname a whopping 20-3 – making fans all but forget the team’s former star striker Paulo Wanchope, who retired two years ago.
In addition to having to deal with Ruiz and his supporting cast of young players, the US has never beaten the Ticos in Costa Rica. Escaping Costa Rica with even a draw would be huge for the Americans, since the US is 0-5-1 there in World Cup Qualifying. The US last earned a point on Costa Rican soil in 1985, drawing 1-1 before the now-infamous 1-0 loss at home in Torrance (before a crowd made up of Costa Rican expats) that stopped the US from qualifying for the 1986 World Cup.
Costa Rica is arguably be the most gifted National Team in Central America. They remain the only CONCACAF nation to ever beat Mexico at the Azteca Stadium during World Cup qualifying (a 2-1 win in June 2001). Costa Rica is also the only Central American team to qualify to two straight World Cup tournaments -- in 2002 and 2006 -- after appearing at their first World Cup in 1990. Against the US, Costa Rica will look to make even more history by taking over first place in the Hexagonal and booking an early flight for South Africa.
Clemente Lisi is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.” Contact him at CAL4477@yahoo.com