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Friday, July 12, 2024

Costa Rica’s Journey to the 2026 World Cup: Saint Kitts and Nevis Match Preview

The time is upon us again, a day that only occurs every four years, when dreams are born and hopes are raised as Costa Rica commences another arduous fight to the greatest sporting event on earth, the FIFA World Cup. Los Ticos has participated in six World Cups so far and would love to make it seven, with the added incentive that the 2026 tournament takes place in nearby Mexico, USA, and Canada.

The first hurdle is the second round of qualifiers, where La Sele will face Saint Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago. The winners and runners-up of the group will advance to the third round, where, along with a group of three other teams, they will play double round-robin home-and-away matches. The group winners will qualify for the World Cup, and the two best-ranked runners-up will advance to the inter-confederation play-offs. I did say before it is a long fight, with places not being confirmed until November 2025, so buckle in for a bumpy ride!

Costa Rica will kick off its 2026 World Cup Qualification campaign against twin-island nation Saint Kitts and Nevis on Thursday evening at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica.

In what will be Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro’s first competitive home fixture, he will hope to build on an encouraging 2024 for La Sele, which has yielded two wins, a draw, and a defeat to World Champions Argentina so far.

Unlike the match against Argentina, anything less than a comprehensive victory against an island nation with a population of just 54,000 will be considered a disappointment. Such a small population means a whopping 65% of the country’s inhabitants could fit into Costa Rica’s national stadium!

The significant gulf between the two teams is highlighted by their positions in the FIFA rankings, with Costa Rica ranked 52nd and Saint Kitts and Nevis at 147th, a substantial gap of 95 places.

Saint Kitts and Nevis Profile

Situated in the eastern Caribbean Sea in the Leeward Islands chain of the Lesser Antilles. Saint Kitts and Nevis are colorfully nicknamed “The Sugar Boyz” due to the sugar cultivation on the island of St. Kitts. They are also the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population, and the world’s smallest sovereign federation.

Despite its minute size, La Sele will need to respect a country that boasts a robust assembly of players plying their trade in England’s non-league, including striker Omari Sterling-James, midfielder Tyrese Shade, and defenders Lois Maynard, Jameel Ible, and Andre Burley. Goalkeeper Julani Archibald is also a well-known name in Central American football, thanks to his many years playing in Honduras for Real de Minas and Victoria.

But undoubtedly, the two danger men of The Sugar Boyz squad are current top goal scorer and clinical striker Harry Panayiotou and talismanic former Premier League midfielder Romaine Sawyers, who currently plays in the English second division with Cardiff City. The heartbeat of the side and their most significant threat, keeping these two players quiet, will go some way to gaining victory for Costa Rica.

Saint Kitts and Nevis have seen steady progress in recent years,

considerably due to the 2018 project of acquiring players from abroad with Kittitian or Nevisian heritage, with an influx of professional players from England making themselves eligible to represent the nation as a result.

This led to the country historically qualifying for their first CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2023, where they lost all three games, conceding 14 goals in the process without scoring a goal.

They have let in five goals in matches against Jamaica and Guadeloupe in the past year, as well as 6 against the United States, so they are vulnerable to conceding goals, especially in the second half of games, as the fatigue of playing against superior players becomes more evident. To counter this, they will likely adopt a defensive low-block structure, focusing on keeping a compact shape and minimizing spaces to keep the scoreline tight. So expect the home side to have the lion’s share of possession and chances!

Coached by Mexican Francisco Molina, The Sugar Boyz’s primary attacking outlet is through counterattacks. They will aim to catch Costa Rica on the break through the exploitative pace of their attacking players, such as Panayiotou and right-winger Kimaree Rogers.

Costa Rica Team News

Rocked by the recent unexpected retirement of captain and goalkeeper Keylor Navas, veteran center-back Francisco Calvo, has now assumed the captaincy role (congrats, Francisco!) and is expected to lead the backline on Thursday evening.

After an impressive performance in last week’s friendly against Uruguay, Patrick Sequeira is anticipated to fill the immense gloves left behind by Navas between the sticks. Alfaro favors a back five, so defenders Jeyland Mitchell and Yeison Molina, who picked up their first international caps for Costa Rica in their draw with Uruguay, may get some more game time. Veterans Joseph Mora and Julio Cascante are also expected to feature at left-back and center-back, respectively. Haxzel Quirós looks to edge out

Gerald Taylor for the right-back berth as well.

Orlando Galo and Brandon Aguilera have made a worthy pairing, so they are expected to continue their partnership in the middle of the park. Up top, Álvaro Zamora, Manfred Ugalde, and Josimar Alcócer could make a formidable front three.

The only players called up to the squad without a senior cap are Douglas Sequeira and Andy Rojas, who will be hoping to make their senior debuts, with Alfaro still determining his favored team. Joel Campbell will also seek his 138th cap for Los Ticos, surpassing Walter Centeno for the fourth most-capped Costa Rican player. Should he find the back of the net, he will also move beyond Celso Borges and Juan Ulloa for fifth in most-goals as well.

Possible Starting 11

Sequeira (gk), Mora, Calvo (c), Cascante, Molina, Quirós, Galo, Aguilera, Zamora, Ugalde, Alcócer.

Los Ticos will enter this encounter on an eight-match unbeaten run in World Cup qualifying, which meant they qualified for Qatar 2022 after winning just one of their first seven games in that Octagonal stage.

In addition to being Costa Rica’s first game of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualification campaign, the fixture also marks the first-ever meeting of the two nations in what promises to be a thrilling contest.

Kick-off will be at 20:30 UTC−06:00 on Thursday, June 6. 

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