SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Just five months ago, a 4-0 loss to the United States sent Costa Rica into shock.
Coach Oscar Ramirez called the Copa América Centenario group-stage game in Chicago “one of the weirdest games I’ve ever been apart” and apologized to fans for the lopsided lo ss to the US.
Now, after Tuesday’s blowout win at home over the US reversed that margin, Costa Rica have climbed into first place in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying with six points, Ramirez and company have nothing to apologize for.
“That was an early Christmas gift for our fans,” he said following the decisive victory in front of a sold-out crowd at San Jose’s National Stadium.
Los Ticos were helped in part by a steady defense led by Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas that has only given up one goal in four home qualifiers. But the true catalyst for Costa Rica Tuesday night was the play from their forwards, led by the Montreal Impact’s Johan Venegas and Vancouver Whitecaps’ Christian Bolaños, who slashed through the US backline all night.
Bolaños said after the win that he felt, on a personal level, it was revenge for the loss to the USMNT in the Copa América.
“We knew this team was better than that and we got three important points in front of our country tonight,” said the 32-year-old midfielder, who has four goals in his last three games for Costa Rica.
Bolaños’ resurgence, along with numerous bench players stepping up, has been key for Los Ticos to establish much-needed depth going into the final stages of World Cup qualifying. Even without three key defenders Tuesday, Costa Rica are now operating at a level where they have enough talent to replace crucial figures.
“Collectively we work well as a group and there’s a lot of competition so that when one guy leaves, the next guy is even better,” said veteran midfielder Celso Borges. “This is a very balanced group.”
Case in point: When Venegas came off the field midway through the second half, it was Sporting CP (on loan from Arsenal) forward Joel Campbell who came in to fill his spot, chipping in with two goals of his own.
There are many bright signs for Costa Rica as they advance one step closer to Russia 2018. But as a coach whose seat was getting a bit warm a few months ago, Ramirez said he knows there’s still a lot of work to do.
“It’s an encouraging win, but it’s still early in the process,” Ramirez said of the Hexagonal. “It helps mentally, sure, but we’ve only played 20 percent of our games in this stage.”