Is Costa Rica Here to Stay?
I’ll admit it. This was supposed to be an England/Costa Rica post-game report. I was too distracted by the Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz (Luis Suárez) biting incident, and then, well, games, games, games.
Finally, with a break before the semi-finals, I have some time to reflect on Costa Rica’s achievements.
For those not familiar with CONCACAF, it’s worth noting that in recent times Costa Rica is consistently the best team from Central America. They have won seven Copa Centroamericanas, with Honduras next at three. Costa Rica have also been runner-up four times. Their only other finishing place is fourth, in 1995. Also, “Costa Rica finished in first place in the 1990 FIFA World Cup qualification and 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification with the best punctuation in the history of the Hexagonal (23 pts).” When Costa Rica didn’t qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and 1998, they finished fourth in CONCACAF.
Their club game is good too. Saprissa won the CONCACAF Champions League in 2005 and lost a semi-final in 2010-11. LD Alajuelense was a losing semi-finalist in 2013-14, when the MLS had zero teams in the semi-finals. Going back further, Saprissa has three titles and two runner-up appearances, with Alajuelense contributing two titles, and three runner-up appearances. Cartaginés also has a title. After Mexico, Costa Rica is the most successful country at club level. Remember, the MLS didn’t start until 1996 (and as far as I can tell, the old NASL did not compete in the Champions Cup). The CONCACAF Champions Cup didn’t start until 1962, when US football was in its 40 years in the soccer desert. If you look only at the current competition format, Costa Rica is in a very close seco
What’s particularly interesting about Costa Rica is that expectations were down going into this World Cup due to injuries to starting left-back Bryan Oviedo (who plays for Everton), Real Salt Lake striker Álvaro Saborío, and defender Heiner Mora. Perhaps this worked to their favor. It’s very difficult to predict whether backs against the wall will cause collapse (Brazil 1 – Germany 7) or bring team cohesion (Italy 2006). It seems to have brought cohesion for Costa Rica.
Keylor Navas is only 27, so he has a couple of World Cups left in him. Joel Campbell is 22, so he has two, maybe three depending on the injury situation in 12 years. Assuming a reasonable healthy squad, you have to think Acosta (34 in 2018), Umaña (35), Júnior Díaz (34), Christian Bolaños (34), Michael Barrantes (34), and Brenes are all done. Roy Miller (33 in 2018) may also be done. Ruiz and Granados (both 32 in 2018) may still be around.
That is no different than any other team. They don’t appear to be in a particularly bad spot as far as age. It isn’t particularly great news either. They were the 17th youngest team at the World Cup. That’s right in the middle of the 32-team tournament. Mexico was 16th youngest and the US was 19th youngest, by way of CONCACAF comparison, but the US has promising young talent. Honduras, on the other hand, was the 2nd oldest, after Argentina, although Honduras has their own promising youngsters – such as Andy Najar.
The recent call-ups aren’t particularly young, the youngest being 23. By way of comparison, the youngest for the US is 21 (Juan Agudelo) and Mexico’s is 20.
Those players might have gotten call-ups if they were doing better at the youth level. While the 2011 U20 team made it to the Round of 16 in the U20 World Cup, the 2013 team did not qualify. Their U17s did not qualify for the 2011 or 2013 U17 World Cups. The U23s did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but those players aren’t really young players any more. The youth teams aren’t great, but we’ll get another look at the U20s in January 2015.
THE VERDICT: It’s hard to see Costa Rica becoming a regular in the quarter-finals. Costa Rica will likely continue to be a Central American power, sometimes challenging the US and Mexico for the top team in CONCACAF, but also sometimes failing to qualify for the World Cup. Since the World Cup has expanded to 32 teams, Costa Rica has only qualified 3/5 times. If CONCACAF gets a fourth spot, expect to see them more often. If CONCACAF continues to playoff against Oceania instead of against South America (like Costa Rica did in 2010), you can also expect to see Costa Rica there every time. With their history, there’s really no reason for them to ever finish below the fourth spot in CONCACAF. Honduras will continue to fight with Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago for the last World Cup spot.
It’s worth noting that I hope I’m wrong. While I don’t want Costa Rica to be too strong in the Gold Cup, the strength of Costa Rica should help translate to the strength of MLS, which in turn I hope strengthens the USMNT.