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Three weeks before Toronto FC’s first appearance in the MLS Cup final last year, Costa Rica handed out a 4-0 pounding to Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and the USA. Tonight holds in store Canada’s most difficult Gold Cup group game on paper.
Indeed, many observers have backed Costa Rica to win this tournament. With Mexico and the USA naming experimental, under-strength squads, the third favourites are the natural team to turn to. They have left their best player at home, too, in Keylor Navas and are also missing midfield veteran Celso Borges, but overall their list of absentees is nowhere near as long as those of CONCACAF’s traditional big hitters.
That sensational result back in November, though - which all but cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job - has proven to be something of a false dawn. Costa Rica have won three matches since, against Belize, Trinidad & Tobago and, this past Friday, Honduras. They were fortunate to deal a defeat to the coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, who guided them to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and who now manages the Hondurans.
At the Copa Centroamericano, which crowns the Central American champions and decides which teams go on to the Gold Cup (Mexico do not participate), Costa Rica finished fourth out of six. Belize, the only team they beat, lost four of five matches.
The Ticos’ win over Trinidad last month, meanwhile was their first in World Cup qualifying since the dismantling of the Americans. Their only other victory was also against T&T, but they remain in second place despite a loss to Mexico and draws with Panama and Honduras.
Is this just a bad run, or should we really question Costa Rica’s Gold Cup credentials? Their biggest problem has been a lack of goals, with their only multi-goal games since the USA win those two victories over Belize and Trinidad. Oscar Ramirez, who took over as head coach in 2015, has continued to ensure the team is well drilled defensively but they are lacking the sprinkling of stardust that made the difference at the World Cup.
Joel Campbell provided much of that but has gone from looking like one of the most exciting young attacking players on the continent to the substitutes’ bench for the tournament opener, with Marco Urena of the San Jose Earthquakes picked ahead of him up front. Campbell endured a difficult season on loan at Sporting in Portugal after Arsenal decided for the fifth time he would not crack their starting lineup.
All is not that rosy in the Costa Rican camp, then, and though Canada are undoubtedly underdogs they should not be writing this game off as their one freebie of the group stage. There is not much evidence, at the moment, that the Honduras game is the more realistic bet for a point or three of the two remaining.
Whether Costa Rica are off the boil or on top of their game, however, they are good enough to offer a more thorough assessment of how good this new-look Canada team really is.
I came out of their win over French Guiana in the optimists’ camp, prepared to write off their few minutes of madness given the strength of what came before it and Alphonso Davies’ breakout performance, which will give the whole team an injection of confidence.
The feeling that this side’s hopes will rest on its ability to keep goals out has not really changed. Canada looked better than expected, in that regard, through 68 minutes on Friday night; was the meltdown they then suffered an unfortunate bout of nerves or a sign of the kind of proneness to costly lapses in concentration that distinguish average back lines from good ones?
After 90 minutes in the 30°C heat of Houston, we should have an answer.
Kick-off: 7.30pm ET (6.30pm local)
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston
TV channel & live stream
TV: TSN 1, 3, 4 & 5 (Canada), FS1 (USA)
Stream: TSN Go (Canada), Fox Sports Go (USA)
Milan Borjan has been cleared to play for Canada after an elbow to the face left him with swelling around his eye against French Guiana.
Costa Rica could be without Minnesota United midfielder Johan Venegas, who suffered a knee injury against Honduras and did not participate in full training on Sunday.
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Pemberton; Gamboa, Gonzalez, Acosta, Gutierrez, Calvo; Campbell, Guzman, Ruiz, Wallace; Urena.
Canada (4-3-3): Borjan; Petrasso, Jakovic, Vitoria, De Jong; Bernier, Piette, Arfield; Hoilett, Cavallini, Davies.