Fresh off winning the 2021 CONCACAF Nations League Finals, the United States Men’s National Team takes on Costa Rica in a friendly at Salt Lake City, Utah’s Rio Tinto Stadium. This is the final match in advance of this year’s Gold Cup. The crowded schedule was an intentional move, designed to “simulate a cadence” of the upcoming World Cup qualifying.
The 40th all-time meeting between the two teams, the USMNT holds a slim 17-16-6 advantage. Costa Rica finished a concerning fourth place in the inaugural Nations League Finals, losing consecutive penalty shootouts to Mexico and Honduras. Having qualified for four of the last five World Cups, Los Ticos are firmly entrenched as one of the top three nations in CONCACAF, although their grip may be loosening as a golden generation begins to step away.
Manager Rónald González was appointed to the role in October of 2019, having previously served as a caretaker manager in 2010, 2011, and 2018. The 50-year-old former defender is struggling to secure results, sporting a 1-6-5 record. As with many teams, last year was “very difficult” allowing few opportunities to train as a group. With qualifying inching closer, achieving his stated “only one goal” of reaching the Qatar World Cup appears more challenging with each passing month.
“I do not want to dramatize the result, we must be patient and calm,” González said after the loss to Honduras. “Fortunately we are not in the qualifiers, we are in a preparation tournament. I was one of the most excited that in this CONCACAF Nations League we would have that advancement that we wanted. But we had difficulty maintaining the rhythm of the game.”
After several late departures, Costa Rica ultimately called in 22 players, including several from the recent failed Olympic qualifying campaign. Three domestic Liga FPD clubs – Alajuelense, Saprissa, and Herediano – provide more than half of the roster. Several veterans are missing from the squad, including an injured Keylor Navas, as well as Cristian Gamboa and David Guzmán who did not make the cut.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Esteban Alvarado (Limón), Leonel Moreira (Alajuelense), Patrick Sequeira (Celta Vigo B)
DEFENDERS (7): Bryan Oviedo (Copenhagen), Óscar Duarte (Levante), Francisco Calvo (Chicago Fire), Keysher Fuller (Herediano), Aarón Salazar (Herediano), Giancarlo González (LA Galaxy), Joseph Mora (D.C. United)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruña), Bryan Ruiz (Alajuelense), Yeltsin Tejeda (Herediano), Allan Cruz (FC Cincinnati), Randall Leal (Nashville SC), Bernald Alfaro (Alajuelense), Gerson Torres (Herediano), Alonso Martínez (Alajuelense)
FORWARDS (4): Joel Campbell (León), Johan Venegas (Alajuelense), Ariel Lassiter (Houston Dynamo), Jurguens Montenegro (Alajuelense)
González prefers the 4-4-2 formation but has at times utilized a 3-5-2. Having already played two meaningful matches, the logical choice would be to rotate the squad and give a chance to less experienced call-ups. These younger professionals are “still at an important learning age” and considered “the basis of the future national team.” There may be further changes to the roster, so any attempt at predicting this lineup is a speculative task.
Without Navas, González can test for a primary back-up goalkeeper. Leonel Moreira of Alajuelense plays more frequently and started during both Nations League matches. Esteban Alvarado has earned 19 caps and appeared during the February 2020 friendly against the USMNT. The 32-year-old Limón player is a 6’4” shot stopper who does not control the box or fight for crosses.
Center back Giancarlo González has not played this season for the LA Galaxy, in the last year of his contract before reportedly returning to Costa Rica. His era of dominance may be retreating into the past, but he still has some presence and skill. On the other end of the career spectrum, potential international neophyte Aarón Salazar impressed coaches at the Olympic qualifying tournament. The 22-year-old defender is a key player for Herediano and a scoring threat.
D.C. United fullback-winger Joseph Mora could be asked to play a more defensive role. The 28-year-old is a skilled tackler and constantly disrupts passing lanes. He is not a dangerous attacker but will push into the final third for some crosses and deep runs. Keysher Fuller has already started two matches at the Nations League, but may be called into service for a third time.
Defensive midfielder Bernald Alfaro has some bite in his tackles and serves as an outlet during the build-up. He could pair with the more attacking minded Allan Cruz of FC Cincinnati. At his best, the diminutive Nicoya native is a creative presence, capable of threading through balls and beating defenders with a few skillful moves.
Herediano winger Gerson Torres has not appeared for the national team since 2017. The 23-year-old favors his left foot and is always looking to cut inside for a shot. Ariel Lassiter could be used on the opposite side of the field or at striker. While not the most accurate crosser of the ball, he has a nose for goal and constantly drives forward, often in a straight line. The former U.S. youth international can be lethal in the final third when given enough space.
It has been said that “in Costa Rica there are many forwards but few scorers,” a phrase with which the manager reluctantly agrees. Perhaps a sign of aging, Johan Venegas was not starting against Mexico. The 32-year-old Alajuelense attacker has scored 11 goals in 62 national team appearances. Another Olympic call-up, Jurguens Montenegro, was a late addition to the roster. Reportedly due for a transfer to a bigger club, he’s a reliable finisher and has the preternatural attraction to the ball that is required of strikers at the next level.
Susceptible to pressure, Costa Rica will likely employ a bunker-and-counter strategy, looking to selectively push numbers forward and take advantage of late runs by the fullbacks. Los Ticos were able to hold off Mexico, but the composition of this lineup should be starkly different than the group deployed in the Nations League. The USMNT has more roster depth and a higher talent level, but this friendly serves as the last opportunity for experimentation ahead of the upcoming Gold Cup.
The match is scheduled for Wednesday, June 9th at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options included ESPN2, TUDN, UniMás, and FUBO TV (free trial).