Costa Rica better off with Major League Soccer's influence
On Sunday, Costa Rica will make their fifth appearance on football's biggest stage at the World Cup -- the Ticos' fourth in the last five editions.
This is no small feat for a country with fewer than five million people. It can also be argued that the Ticos have become the most consistent team from CONCACAF in terms of World Cup qualifying, having breezed through qualification for Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018, unlike Mexico's drama-filled 2013 Hexagonal and the United States' disaster in 2017.
At the heart of Costa Rica's emergence has been the presence of Major League Soccer players on their roster.
The Tico teams that reached South Korea-Japan in 2002 and Germany in 2006 very much had a domestic feel to them. A glance at the squads and most of the players hailed from the Costa Rican league's big three: Saprissa, Herediano and Alajuelense.
After narrowly missing out on South Africa 2010, Costa Rica were back four years later in Brazil with a number of players based in Europe, but also three from MLS: Waylon Francis, Roy Miller and Giancarlo Gonzalez.
That trend continued on the road to Russia, arguably reaching its pinnacle when a whopping seven MLS players were called for the World Cup qualifier in Harrison, New Jersey against the U.S.
Costa Rica of course beat the U.S. 2-0 that night, thanks to a brace from then-San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Urena.
Costa Rica boss Oscar Ramirez is still betting heavily on his MLS men in Russia, with Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), David Guzman (Portland Timbers), Ronald Matarrita (New York City FC), Rodney Wallace (New York City FC) and Urena (LAFC) all earning a seat on the plane.
The inclusion of these six players reflects the role MLS has played in Costa Rica's evolution.
"MLS has become an important league for Costa Rica," said former Costa Rica international and MLS player Alvaro Saborio in a phone interview with ESPN FC.
"Its proximity is an advantage and it has helped with the growth of the national team. The pay is better now and there are more opportunities."
It's ironic because there has been much hand-wringing about the lack of pressure of playing in MLS, specifically the lack of promotion and relegation in North American soccer, and how that has adversely affected U.S. players.
Yet this doesn't seem to be an issue for Costa Rica, nor Panama for that matter -- the Canaleros are also taking six MLS players to Russia.
If anything for the six Costa Rican players spread throughout the U.S. and Canada, being in MLS is an opportunity to flourish after dealing with years of pressure few U.S. players might ever understand.
"In Costa Rica the pressure starts when you are 7 or 8 years old," said Kurt Morsink, a former American-Costa Rican player who now works as an agent.
"You grow up playing soccer in hopes of supporting your family. At 15 it's make or break to try to get a spot on Saprissa's youth team."
You could forgive the aforementioned Saprissa for taking a special amount of pride in this Costa Rican squad. An astounding 11 players with Saprissa roots are on the Ticos' 23-man roster, including Calvo, Guzman and Waston; that's more than European giants Barcelona, Manchester United and Benifca and second only to Sporting Lisbon.
"That's the culture of Costa Rica. And with that the players are more polished, they are smart and more tactically aware," Morsink said.
"But the Costa Rican league can only take them so far. The structure available in MLS helps these players take the next step. They know that they can succeed in MLS."
Four years ago, Costa Rica took Brazil by storm, defeating past champions Uruguay and Italy on the way to winning their group before eventually being eliminated in a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands on penalties. The case can be made that this Costa Rica team, which will face Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland in their group, is even better than the one from four years ago.
"This team is more mature. They are well-organized, they have that experience from Brazil and they have players who have played in big games in both MLS and Europe," Saborio said.
And it could be just the thing that triggers another magical run for the Ticos.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .