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 By Arch Bell

Influx of Costa Ricans into MLS ups the ante of World Cup qualifier vs. U.S.

It was a refrain that was repeated throughout the mixed zone by the Costa Rican players as they exited Arlington, Texas' AT&T Stadium last July following the 2-0 Gold Cup semifinal loss to the United States:

"This is disappointing, but the more important one is in September," said defender Francisco Calvo, echoing the sentiments of teammates. "We'll be ready for that one."

There was almost a quiet acceptance about the defeat from the Ticos. They could only shrug their shoulders, acknowledging that the reinforcements brought in by U.S. coach Bruce Arena -- Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey among the notables -- were always going to be tough to counter, especially considering the injury-plagued Central Americans were missing key attacking pieces like Johan Venegas, Christian Bolanos and Joel Campbell.

Now, little more than a month later, another Costa Rican team returns to U.S. soil, and it could be the best-equipped Tico side to earn a World Cup qualifying win in the U.S. for the first time since May 1985.

Like in Brazil three years ago when Costa Rica made its stunning run to the quarterfinals, Sporting Lisbon attacking midfielder Bryan Ruiz and Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas are the headliners, but the base of this team has shifted.

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While Costa Rican giants Saprissa, Herediano and Alajuelense still contribute plenty of players to Oscar Ramirez's squad, the foundation of this team plies its trade in MLS. A total of seven players from Ramirez's 24-man list play in MLS, and another, center-back Giancarlo Gonzalez, spent a half-season with the Columbus Crew in 2014.

Costa Rica and the U.S. are two rivals who already know each other well within CONCACAF. Now with the recent influx of Costa Rican players to MLS, including four Ticos who joined MLS during the winter, that familiarity is stronger than ever.

It even goes deeper than at the league level. Teammates will be battling each other Friday night. It would be no surprise to see U.S. midfielder Darlington Nagbe clash with Portland Timbers teammate David Guzman in midfield. For two guys who see each other every day on the practice field, each will be keen to expose the other's shortcomings on the international stage. Same goes for Costa Rica and New York City FC midfielder Rodney Wallace, who was Nagbe's teammate for four seasons in Portland.

The San Jose Earthquakes aren't a team that exactly strikes fear into the hearts of defenses around MLS with just 31 goals scored this season in 27 games, yet this qualifier could well hinge on whether an Earthquakes forward can find the net for their respective country.

Chris Wondolowski, while not likely to start, could be used as a late substitute to find the U.S. a goal. On the other side Marco Urena seems to be a favorite of Ramirez's, and after flubbing a pair of chances in the Gold Cup semifinal, Urena will surely be motivated to make amends on Friday.

Francisco Calvo
Francisco Calvo, right, has become well acquainted with U.S. stars between national team duty with Costa Rica and club team Minnesota United.

This is a trend that shows no signs of abating, either. If anything, the number of Costa Rican national team players who are seeking a move away from their domestic league and have their sights set on MLS will only increase. Former MLS player and current agent Kurt Morsink is paving the road for many of them.

"A club from Costa Rica cannot compete, even if it's Saprissa, with MLS salaries. It is a league that has grown, it has a lot of money, it pays well and has the money to make transfers," said Morsink in an interview with La Nacion last December.

Not only does MLS provide the salaries these players desire, but it can also offer greater visibility to European clubs. The aforementioned Gonzalez parlayed his brief spell with Columbus and strong performance at the 2014 World Cup into a move to Serie A with Palermo. No doubt younger players like the 25-year-old Calvo of Minnesota United would like to accomplish the same thing after Russia 2018.

So while the Gold Cup semifinal provided a taste of this new MLS civil war between the U.S. and Costa Rica, the stakes are now much higher with Friday being a World Cup qualifier.

"It will be a battle, for sure," said Calvo back in July about the qualifier.

And for Costa Rica's MLS players, nothing would be more satisfying than returning to their clubs in the U.S. and Canada with a victory to show for it.

Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .


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