Against Mexico, Costa Rica may see Gold Cup run end sooner than thought
HOUSTON -- Costa Rica coach Gustavo Matosas' message to Mexico ahead of the Gold Cup quarterfinal on Saturday was stark: "I'm going to defeat them."
The Uruguayan knows Mexican football inside out after leading Leon to promotion and then back-to-back Liga MX championships in 2013-14. He even went to high school with former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto for a time when Matosas' father played for Toluca. But it's going to take a significant improvement from Los Ticos on Saturday in Houston's NRG Stadium if that bold statement does come true.
In fact, it'd be a major shock, even if Costa Rica has been comfortably a top-three team in CONCACAF in the past decade.
Mexico technically may not be favorite for the Gold Cup -- according to ESPN's Futbol Index, the United States has a 44.1 percent chance of winning compared to 33.2 percent -- but El Tri has been the best side in the tournament so far and has home advantage in a sold-out NRG Stadium.
Mexico head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino knows his team can't get caught making the kind of lapses of concentration as during the 3-2 win over Martinique in the final group game, but given the Argentine made six changes to the starting lineup for that match, it's unlikely Mexico will be so generous again.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, struggled to defeat Bermuda and lost to Haiti to finish second in Group B. It faces Mexico earlier in the tournament than Matosas would've hoped, even if he is putting on a brave face.
Matosas at least knows Mexico and was greeting members of the Mexican press upon arrival at training on Wednesday. Perhaps the former Club America coach enjoyed seeing some old faces, given that a significant number of questions from the Costa Rican press were about lifting the players and how to turn things round after a shaky start to his stint in charge.
"A lot of things go through [my mind when facing Mexico], some nice feeling and some uneasy ones," said Matosas on Wednesday ahead of training in Houston. "I think Mexico is favorite because of its economic potential and the football it demonstrates, but Costa Rica has a great generation of players. The stadium will likely be full of Mexicans, but when there's a ball there in the middle, you never know."
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Martino and Matosas both began their jobs with their respective national teams at the start of the year, but while Mexico has won all seven games in 2019, Costa Rica has struggled under Matosas, accumulating losses to the United States, Guatemala, Peru and Haiti.
"Everyone wants to win all the games and score eight goals," said Matosas. "The important thing for the coach is to stay on the margin of all that and not get caught up in the emotional roller-coaster."
To be fair, Matosas' challenge is greater than that of Martino's. Matosas has been charged with turning a culture on its head, while Martino already had a team used to a certain style of play.
The Uruguay played under legendary Brazilian coach Tele Santana at Sao Paulo and is an adherent of his open, attacking style.
"Will it be necessary to be more balanced to take on Mexico?" Matosas was asked by a Costa Rican reporter on Wednesday.
"Balance is important in football," replied Matosas. "Attacking can leave you short of cover, but I always prefer to attack."
The problem Matosas has is that Costa Rica's recent success in the past two World Cup cycles has been based largely on the combination of a now-aging generation of players, a defensive tactical style drilled in by Jorge Luis Pinto and a back five that worked like clockwork to frustrate teams that were individually better than Los Ticos. The leadership role of Keylor Navas -- not at the Gold Cup as the Real Madrid keeper sorts his club future -- has also been important.
After five games under Matosas, the team has had an average of 57 percent possession, compared to an average of 40.1 percent over 2018 under Oscar Ramirez and Ronald Gonzalez. In fact, in every game under Matosas, the possession percentage and pass completion rate has increased. The 2-0 loss to the United States in the Uruguayan's first game saw Costa Rica have 42.9 percent of possession and in the game against Haiti that had risen to 69.5 percent.
That statistic is likely to come to a halt against Mexico, whose turnover from Juan Carlos Osorio and interim Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti has been significant, but keeps the central philosophy of being the protagonist and dominating the ball.
Mexico has received a rock-star reception around the United States -- the average attendance for Mexico games in the group stage was almost 60,000 -- so far this summer and with Martino in charge there is an intensity about a starting XI that is relatively easy to predict.
"We have clear objectives and we'll go toe-to-toe for 90 minutes of football," said LA Galaxy and Costa Rica center-back Giancarlo Gonzalez. "It's not fear, we know our worth. We know we have good players."
This quarterfinal should not be one to miss, but if both come out swinging, surely Mexico's power will be too much.