Four years after its run to the World Cup quarterfinals, Costa Rica returns to the world stage seeking to confirm its legitimacy. Eschewing the label of “fluky” and grabbing hold of the title of second-best team in North America after Mexico (and ahead of the United States) is the goal.
Much of what it will do to attempt to reach those lofty goals, even under a new coach, will closely resemble what went down in Brazil in 2014. Los Ticos bring back much of their personnel and style from 2014.
Oscar Ramirez will construct his team like predecessor Jorge Luis Pinto: a defensive look designed to frustrate superior teams.
That 5-4-1 formation, with dedicated wingbacks and committed front-line pressing, held opposing teams to two goals in five games in Brazil. In the quarterfinal, Costa Rica stoned the Netherlands for 120 minutes of 0-0 soccer until Tim Krul saved two penalties to end the run. Costa Rica let the Netherlands hold the ball 67 percent of the time and pepper 20 shots in the direction of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but it never broke.
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Giancarlo Gonzalez and Johnny Acosta anchored the central defense in that game, just as they will likely do when Costa Rica opens group play against Serbia on Sunday.
Then and now, Cristian Gamboa traverses the left flank, Celso Borges patrols the midfield and the attack is headed by Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolanos, who are tasked with counterattacking into space on the flanks. LAFC forward Marco Urena, who scored against Uruguay four years ago, has developed an ability to draw away defenders with clever runs, opening more space on the wings.
All but two of the starters from that Netherlands quarterfinal are in the squad this year and project to feature heavily. Young blood comes only from 20-year-old defender Ian Smith and 22-year-old versatile wingback Ronald Matarrita, of New York City FC. Costa Rica has the oldest squad of any going to the World Cup, at an average age of 29.5.
Costa Rica had a sublime defensive record in the 2014 tournament, but according to expected goals statistics, it should have given up 1.0 goal per game rather than 0.4. Given some of the chances not taken by their opponents, Costa Rica had luck on its side.
This time, Group E opponents could prove to be better finishers than Group D teams were four years ago, exploiting Costa Rica’s weakness in attack and hurting its chances of advancing. The luck present in 2014 might not carry over into 2018. Plus, it is no longer a team of youthful upstarts.
No longer can Costa Rica fool teams with its physical, counterattacking 5-4-1 that exemplifies Concacaf soccer. And no longer can players like Ruiz and Navas jump out of obscurity to become World Cup world-beaters. Costa Rica will not be underestimated by group-mates Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland, even though it has the lowest odds of advancing out of Group E, per OddsChecker. The mystique is gone.
Whether Los Ticos veer toward the advantages of experience or the disadvantages of age and staleness will make or break their World Cup. It is a fine line, especially in a difficult group. Switzerland and Serbia are tough, and Brazil is virtually unbeatable.
Forcing Costa Rica out of its own end — scoring an early goal being the primary method — is the key to beating it. It is not as comfortable playing in space and pressing than in sitting in a tight block.
Ramirez, who took over in 2015, will have to find a way to mitigate that to further advance Costa Rican soccer.
Harrison Hamm is an American soccer and MLS writer for American Soccer Analysis, FanSided, The Comeback and Dynamo Theory. A full archive of his posts on all four websites is at miraclesports.wordpress.com. Follow him on twitter at @harrisonhamm21.
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