Mexico and Costa Rica, two giants of the region’s football landscape, have shrunk down to size amid competition in the Gold Cup. As they enter Sunday’s quarterfinal match, both sides are looking to make up for blown opportunities in the group stage that saw seemingly sure victories turn into draws.
For Costa Rica’s men’s national team, the agonizing streak without a win drags on, which includes a 2-2 draw against Mexico on June 27 after Costa Rica led 2-0 at half.
Victory has eluded Costa Rica in the cruelest of ways under coach Paulo Wanchope. Whether it be the blown lead against Mexico, a stunning stoppage time goal given up to El Salvador, or a litany of missed chances against Jamaica, La Sele is still searching for its first win since October.
Despite nine consecutive games where Costa Rica has suffered either a loss or a draw, players say they are not feeling pressure to deliver their young coach his first win.
“Against Jamaica it ended as a tie that could have been a victory and the same for El Salvador where points were left on the board,” team captain Bryan Ruíz said at a news conference. “We hope we can start a run in the quarterfinals, but we’re not feeling pressure.”
Wanchope, now 0-3-5 as head coach, said after the 0-0 draw with Canada that he was encouraged with his team’s play, though it never translated to the scoreboard.
“In football it’s hard to find justice,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not just. It’s only about results.”
Mexico is also coming off a game where it dropped a win in the final seconds against Trinidad and Tobago, when the Soca Warriors scored an equalizer off a free kick to take Group C. Up until the stoppage time stunner, it looked like Costa Rica was set to play Trinidad and Tobago.
“We were hoping for Mexico because we know that (playing) against a rival like them demands that we give double the effort,” said striker David Ramírez, who scored against Mexico in the June friendly.
Mexico’s top player Giovani dos Santos, who also scored in the draw, is doubtful to play on Sunday after leaving the field with an injury against Trinidad and Tobago. It would be another blow to a Mexican side that is already without all time goal leader Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.
Those injuries may allow some advantage for a Costa Rican defense in desperate need of a spark. Though Wanchope has gone with a new starting 11 in each game so far, none of his formations have been able to repair the broken back line.
After defender Michael Umaña left the team to reportedly work on contract negotiations with his professional club in Iran, 27-year-old defenseman Kendall Watson has arrived to take his place and possibly provide some needed energy. When he arrived at the New Jersey practice fields on Thursday, Watson told reporters the group he joined seemed as upbeat as ever amid a barrage of criticism.
“The critics are always going to be there whether things are going right or wrong,” Watson said. “But the important thing is to take away the bad things and try to work on them and change them.”
The Mexican defense, much like Costa Rica’s, has a host of glaring issues. In El Tri’s 4-4 draw with Trinidad and Tobago, they allowed three goals in just over 10 minutes. After struggling to hold Trinidad and Tobago’s attacking front, veteran defender Francisco Rodriguez will now be called on to contain Ruíz and Ramírez, among others.
La Sele’s captain says after watching tape of the group stage games, he’s happy with the way the team has played, despite the missed chances. He alluded to the quarterfinal meeting with Mexico as a perfect opportunity to establish momentum and roll to the Gold Cup final.
“We’re visualizing a run to the final but we have to take it step by step,” Ruíz said.
First, the Ticos will need to find an identity, and the correct lineup, against an aggressive Mexico squad. But even with the ever-shifting lineups, the doubts levied against Wanchope from media and fans, and the growing winless streak, players maintain this team is as strong as ever.
“The team is united like always,” Watson told reporters. “The guys are always positive and, against adversity, that’s what proves character.”
Costa Rica and Mexico will kick off on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EST (5:30 p.m. Costa Rica time) at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.