Costa Rica will go for its eighth Central America Cup title this weekend — all thanks to beloved neighbor Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguans lost to Panama on Wednesday by a mere 2-0 margin, assuring the Ticos the top spot in Group B and a spot in the championship match against Guatemala on Saturday at 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, California.
The Ticos entered the tournament as a clear favorite due to their quarterfinals finish in the 2014 World Cup. Even though the Central America Cup roster only included seven players from this summer’s Brazil squad, Costa Rica still fielded the most talented players in the competition including striker Joel Campbell and midfielder Celso Borges. Plus, the Ticos have won the tournament in seven out of 12 editions.
Yet, under new coach Paulo Wanchope, Costa Rica almost flopped in their first post-World Cup competition.
If Panama had beaten Nicaragua — the worst team in Central America — by more than three goals, the Canaleros would’ve taken the top spot in the group. The spot could’ve been decided by a coin flip if Panama had won 3-0. Instead the Nicas saved Costa Rica from certain embarrassment by losing by just two goals.
The result came a few days after the Ticos barely avoided their own humiliation at the hands of Panama. Costa Rica used two late goals to overcome a second-half hole and tie Panama 2-2 last Sunday. La Sele goalie Patrick Pemberton also had to save a penalty in the game’s final minute to guarantee the tie. (La Sele defeated Nicaragua 3-0 in the tournament opener.)
The draw kept Costa Rica’s Central America Cup title hopes alive. Nicaragua just had to avoid a blowout against Panama. The 175th-ranked FIFA squad did exactly that, with Panama (ranked 63rd) again missing a crucial penalty kick.
While the 15th-ranked Tico squad had plenty of new faces, the Canaleros carried mostly the same squad that almost qualified for their first World Cup last fall. Panama was minutes away from a spot in a playoff for the final World Cup berth against New Zealand when the United States crushed their chance with two quick goals. The Panamanians come up short again, and La Sele will reap the spoils.
The Ticos will have a chance to redeem themselves again in the final against Guatemala, a country that has never qualified for the World Cup. Guatemala won all three of its Group A matches — beating Honduras, El Salvador and Belize — and have the tournament’s top scorer in Marco Pappa (four goals).
The top four finishers at the Central America Cup (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and El Salvador) automatically qualify for next year’s North America-wide Gold Cup. While Costa Rica survived to reach the tournament’s final, Honduras, the other Central American team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, had a much more shameful performance.
Under new head coach Hernán Medford, a Costa Rica football legend just like Wanchope, Honduras failed to score a goal at the tournament. The Hondurans still managed a 2-0 victory over Belize after the isthmus’ smallest country scored twice on itself in the match.
Honduras and Nicaragua will play Saturday afternoon in the Los Angeles Coliseum for fifth place in the tournament. The winner will play the Caribbean Cup’s fifth place team for an additional Gold Cup spot.
Following that match, Panama and El Salvador play for third place. Costa Rica and Guatemala close out the tournament later that night.
Campbell and Borges have returned to their pro clubs and won’t be available for the Ticos’ championship match. However, a couple of top reinforcements have arrived to take their place. World Cup team captain Bryan Ruiz, who scored twice in Brazil, will join the team in Los Angeles. So will defender Roy Miller, who started La Sele’s group stage match against England.