Costa Rica attempts to recover from shocking loss for U.S. match.By Robert Rodriguez
and Robert Wagman
(Saturday, July 22, 2000) -- What a difference a goal makes. By allowing a late goal to Barbados last weekend, and losing a road qualifier that everyone assumed it would at least draw, Costa Rica has put itself into a must-win situation on Sunday when it takes on the United States in tomorrow's home CONCACAF World Cup qualifying match in San Jose.
Following that loss, Costa Rica (0-1) finds itself at the bottom of the semifinal Group E standings, behind Barbados (1-0), the U.S. (0-0-1) and Guatemala (0-0-1). The top two teams after six games advance to the final group of six from which the best three are World Cup bound in 2002.
How much pressure? Costa Rica's star striker Paulo Wanchope, who currently makes his living with West Ham United in England, had to hire bodyguards to watch over his family this past week after it received threats over his not scoring against Barbados.
Wanchope's mother decided the private security guards were needed. "This week the fans have been very violent," Wanchope said after a practice where fans threw objects at the players. "They shouldn't treat us like this. I'm only asking for respect. I can't set foot in the street without people yelling things, and this has affected my family a lot."
How much pressure? Enough to make the Costa Rican Federation cut the price of the cheapest seats available from just over $8 to just under $5, and to offer fans a money-back guarantee that Costa Rica will win.
It is also assumed that a loss will cost Costa Rica's coach, Brazilian native Gilson Nunes, his job. The team has gone through six coaches in the past four years, and Nunes clearly needs to win in order to keep his job. His lack of familiarity with the players -- he has been coach for less than three months -- could pose some challenges. A second loss at this stage of qualifying would be devastating to Costa Rican hopes of qualifying for World Cup 2002. It was a kind of national consensus the team was not prepared for Barbados.
History suggests Costa Rica should emerge with a victory against the visiting Americans. Over the years the U.S. has amassed a dismal 0-3-2 record playing at Costa Rican venues. But these were U.S. teams of the past, who often meekly succumbed when playing on the road in Latin America. The quality of American soccer has improved tremendously over the past 10 years, and the U.S. is now a regional power a step below Mexico.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, is attempting to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in history. Costa Ricans made headlines 10 years ago by participating in World Cup Italia '90 and making it to the second round of play under the tutelage of former U.S., Mexico and Nigeria World Cup coach, Bora Milutinovic. Times have changed for the worse for the Costa Rican national team, as evidenced by its failure to qualify for the 1994 or 1998 World Cups. The only player who has remained a fixture on the team since appearing at Italia '90 is Necaxa's Hernan Medford.
Every national team has a star, and in Costa Rica's case it is Wanchope. This striker is currently the only Costa Rican player based in England. Other standouts on the Tico roster include the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Mauricio Solis and free-kick specialist Ronald Gomez, who plays for OFI in Greece.
The playmaker of the team, however, is short-tempered Walter Centeno. His excellent ball handling skills make him the motor of the Costa Rican team, and a player to watch. Although it is uncertain if he will start in the U.S match, Major League Soccer fans might get an opportunity to see New England Revolution standout Mauricio Wright serve on Costa Rica's defensive line.
A big problem for Costa Rica is it will be missing its three starting midfielders. Luis Diego Arnaez and Jeaustin Campos are injured, and Nunes will sit out Pablo Chinchilla, who was strongly criticized in the press for his play against Barbados. "He's a young player with a lot of quality, who is under a lot of pressure," Nunes said of Chinchilla. While this is a must-win match for Costa Rica, it is almost that important for the United States. If we are to assume our place with Mexico as the region's best, we have to begin winning pressure packed matches on the road.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena understands this. "There is the good and there is the bad. The bad, Costa Rica is looking at this match as a must win and they will be mentally ready. The good, Costa Rica will be under tremendous pressure to win and will be a little nervous. The attitude we take into the game is important. If we go into halftime even or a goal up Costa Rica will begin to feel the pressure and that will be good for us."
For tomorrow's match at Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in San Jose, the U.S. will start pretty much the same 11 who played against Guatemala last weekend. But defender Gregg Berhalter has arrived from England where he apparently has made the team at first division Huddersfield Town. He could well start in place of the Los Angeles Galaxy's Robin Fraser who broke his hand last Sunday.
Arena is hoping that milder weather in Costa Rica will also help his team, which wilted in the heat of Guatemala.