By Dylan Butler
PORTLAND, Ore. – With huge, passionate crowds at JELD-WEN Field, Portland has earned the reputation as “Soccer City USA.”
No one knows that better than midfielder Rodney Wallace, who plays for the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer.
When he arrives at his home stadium Tuesday night for Costa Rica’s CONCACAF Gold Cup opener against Cuba, Wallace will do so as a member of the Ticos, who hope the Timbers faithful will adopt Costa Rica in the Group C match.
“On our way here we saw some fans approach him and praise him for how well he’s doing here with the Portland Timbers,” defender Michael Umaña, 30, said. “Hopefully they’ll come here and through their support of Rodney, support us and it will help us.”
It remains to be seen just how much help Costa Rica will need. The national team is second in the final round of World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014 and has a five-game unbeaten streak dating back to a 1-0 loss to the United States in the snow of Commerce City, Colorado, earlier this year. That setback is the lone blemish on its record over a 15 match span in all competitions.
The Ticos, however, have never won the Gold Cup. And while they can practically taste another World Cup berth, the focus has shifted to this competition over the next three weeks.
“It is true we have had some success, but we want to take this opportunity right now to give the option to other players who have not the chance to play minutes, to develop other players that could have a chance to play on the national team,” Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to give our best in this Gold Cup. We’re here to compete and that’s what we’re going to do.”
While Pinto is likely to roll out a first-choice selection for Costa Rica’s opening game of the tournament, he said he also was going to rotate his roster, giving a chance to players like defender Juan Diego Madrigal, midfielders Oscar Esteban Granados, Osvaldo Rodriguez and Mauricio Castillo, as well as forwards Kenny Cunningham and Yendrick Ruiz – all of whom have 10 or less caps.
“This tournament is very important,” Umaña added. “We really want to show the coach we’re here to do well for the national team. We want to show him who will be better for the national team and this is actually a great opportunity as a player. We just want to perform well.
That task begins with Tuesday’s contest against a confident Cuban side that won its first Caribbean Cup in December. As upsets abound just two days into the Gold Cup, Costa Rica is careful not to underestimate its opponents.
“We need to focus on tomorrow’s game,” commented Umaña. “We know the distances in soccer are now not that big. There’s more parity in competition with other teams. We are well aware of that and the results are showing exactly that.”
In the 2009 Gold Cup, Costa Rica was eliminated by eventual champion Mexico on penalty kicks in the semifinals and there seemed to be a hangover into the final round of World Cup Qualifying. The Ticos finished fourth, losing narrowly in a playoff to Uruguay.
Umaña, who has played in a World Cup (2006) and an Olympic Games (2004), is confident this year’s squad is determined not to repeat the past.
“We are putting aside what happened four years ago and moving forward. We are actually looking at this as an opportunity to show what we have and how we can play,” Umana said. “It’s not going to affect us at all in the second half of the qualifiers.”