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Can Costa Rica make the World Cup?

A few weeks ago the conversation wasn’t worth having. Costa Rica’s World Cup hopes were fragile, teetering on the edge. Costa Rica’s Sele needed to travel to the harsh confines of San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán, the largest stadium in Central America, and beat or tie a wired Salvadoran squad to avoid elimination from World Cup qualifying. 

In that tight and sloppy game last Friday, La Sele held off El Salvador’s La Selecta, 1-0: disaster diverted. The next step was easy: Costa Rica clinched its spot in the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying by routing Guyana, 7-0, in San José on Tuesday night.

And now the full picture comes into view. Costa Rica will vie with Mexico, the United States, Jamaica, Panama and Honduras for three Concacaf spots in the World Cup. (Concacaf stands for Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.) 

So the conversation begins again. After qualifying in 2002 and 2006 for soccer’s grandest stage, Costa Rica suffered a catastrophic collapse to miss out on the World Cup in 2010. 

Can Costa Rica avoid upset again and make it to the World Cup 2014 in Brazil? 

The team has the potential, but has long struggled to fulfill it. The six remaining teams will play each in home-and-home matches throughout 2013, with the first matches beginning in the spring. 

“I dream every day of Brazil. I am not overconfident, but the work is going well,” said Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s embattled coach from Colombia.

Mexico is the one shoo-in, finishing the previous round of qualifying without a loss or tie. During the summer, El Tricolor defeated Brazil to win gold at the London Olympics. In other words, Mexico likely will be one of the favorites to win the World Cup.

The consensus appears to be that Costa Rica will challenge the U.S. for second place in the group. But these two squads have a reputation for underperforming on the world stage, and both struggled to advance out of the semifinals. 

And how sweet would it be for Costa Rica to outplay the U.S. in this final round? La Sele should be out for revenge.

The worst choke in Costa Rica soccer history came at the hands of the U.S. In 2010 World Cup qualifying, Costa Rica led the U.S. 2-0 for most of the match. The Ticos led 2-1 up until the final seconds. Then, the U.S.’ Jonathan Bornstein netted a goal to tie the match. The draw meant Honduras took Costa Rica’s spot in the World Cup (joining Mexico and the U.S.). 

Costa Rica had one final opportunity to qualify, in a match against Uruguay. La Sele never stood a chance against the Uruguayans, after the disheartening collapse against the U.S.

This time Costa Rica seems to be coming on strong. And they’ll get injured star Bryan Ruiz back for the final rounds. In addition to the U.S., the Ticos’ toughest competition for a World Cup spot will be Honduras, who embarrassed and eliminated a respectable Canadian team, 8-1, on Tuesday. 

Speedy Jamaica has the talent to win some matches, but the Reggae Boyz tend to be perennial underachievers. Panama always seems to stagnate with the same mediocre squad each year. They play well enough to make the final round of qualifying, but can never close the deal. Panama is the only finalist that has never qualified for the World Cup. (Panama, ranked 43rd, actually has the third-highest position of any of the remaining Concacaf teams, behind Mexico and the U.S. Costa Rica is last, coming in at 72nd. But the rankings don’t mean much.)

Keys to Costa Rica’s World Cup 2014 Hopes

Consistency. Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s embattled coach from Colombia, still has not defined his “dream team.” He continues testing players, trying different strategies and the team never has a clear style of play. Pinto has faced heat from all sides in Costa Rica, and plenty of critics have called for his dismissal. All the pieces came together against a terrible Guyana team Tuesday. However, Pinto needs to show his team can play better against more elite opponents. 

Teamwork. So far, Costa Rica’s best moments have come from individual stars – especially Randall “El Chiqui” Brenes, Álvaro Saborío and Celso Borges. Little has occurred in the name of teamwork. And only in rare circumstances has Costa Rica’s top stars played well together. The fleet-footed Joel Campbell has shown flashes of brilliance that demonstrate he might be the best player on the team. Yet Campbell has failed to convert on key opportunities in recent matches. He did not start the Guyana match as Pinto opted to try out the diminutive and altogether not-very-useful Allen Guevara.

Attacking. Pinto loves defense – perhaps a little too much. The only time Costa Rican players score in bunches seem to be when they disobey Pinto’s conservative approach to the game. Costa Rica needs smart players like Borges and Saborío out there, unafraid to attack. Against Guyana, the Ticos started Saborío as the lone forward, leaving him to take on the entire Guyana defense (fortunately for him, Guyana’s defense isn’t much of a threat).

Concentration. Even with Pinto’s ultra-defensive style, Costa Rica continues to make mental errors that will cost the Ticos against better opponents. There’s lack of coordination all over the pitch, from the goalkeeper to the midfield to the forwards. The individual talent is there, but Pinto needs to pick a lineup and go for it. If those players gel, that could be the difference between whether Costa Rica earns a trip to Brazil in 2014 or has to deal with another crushing disappointment. 

But Pinto’s quotes after the victory against Guyana show that many decisions still need to be made. If they don’t come soon, it could be too late for La Sele.

“The base of the team is ready and is stable,” Pinto said. “Some players have to show more work. However, the doors are open for all the players that are in good condition and have a strong character. I have not closed the door to anybody.”

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Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup

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