When it comes to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Mexico and the USA have always had a stranglehold on the competition.
Since its formation in 1991, Mexico has won the tournament seven times, while the U.S. has claimed five titles. Canada has provided the only disruption, winning it in 2000 by beating South American guest Colombia 2-0 in Los Angeles, but aside from that anomaly, predicting the Gold Cup winner is usually a straightforward routine.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Gold Cup has always been played in either the U.S. or Mexico (save for two group games in Canada in 2015), so home-field advantage–and Mexico has plenty of it on U.S. soil–almost always plays a role for the victors.
This year, the duopoly could meet its match.
Costa Rica enters this year's competition with an extremely strong lineup, filled with experience and young talent, and despite the fact that Los Ticos are missing their biggest star (Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas) and one of their most reliable midfielders (Deportivo la Coruña's Celso Borges) they boast a squad that is here to make a statement.
Given the fact that Mexico and the U.S. enter the Gold Cup with less-proven, second-choice talent (and Mexico won't have its coach), they should probably not be making more headlines than the 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists. History dictates that despite what's on paper, the trophy will head to a familiar destination. Costa Rica can change the story, though.
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"We're going to go step by step because the goal is to win the cup," said Costa Rican captain Bryan Ruiz earlier this week. "I want to play in it. I feel like it's a great chance for us to fight to be champions, and I want to be a part of that. That's why I did everything possible to be able to take part."
Ruiz, the second most popular Costa Rican player in his home nation, is joined by other attacking threats such as Joel Campbell (the journeyman who remains in the books for Arsenal, having spent last season with Ruiz at Portugal's Sporting CP), San Jose Earthquakes' Marco Ureña (10 goals in 40 international appearances) and NYCFC's Rodney Wallace. Ariel Rodriguez may play for the relatively unfamiliar Thai club Bangkok Glass, but he is an extremely exciting player, having scored 26 goals in 40 matches last season.
At the back is where this Central American nation really prospers. Defenders such as Johnny Acosta, Michael Umaña and Giancarlo Gonzalez were all in Brazil three years ago, and it will be this experience that can help Costa Rica achieve its first Gold Cup title. Manager Oscar Ramirez's team has only conceded four goals in Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifiers, with only Mexico faring better.
The biggest challenge to Costa Rica's chances, however, may be the head coach himself. Ramirez was first involved as a coach with the national team in 2006 were he signed on as assistant, but then left two years later to manage in the domestic league. He was voted Costa Rican manager of the year in 2013 after a successful run with Alajuelense and in 2015, he rejoined the national side and became Paolo Wanchope's assistant in August. His journey changed course after the Wanchope–a national hero during his playing days with Manchester City–was fired due to a fight with a security guard in Panama a week later, Ramirez was given the head gig.
Ramirez is only really known in Costa Rica, having never played or coached a club outside of his home. As a player he went to the World Cup in 1990, where Costa Rica–in a group with Brazil, Sweden and Scotland–finished runner-up in the group stage and ending up losing to Czechoslovakia 4-1 in the round of 16.
"We have a very good chance of winning the Gold Cup because we have a very good team," Wallace told CONCACAF's official website. "The team knows how we play. We know our system, and we have the confidence and ability to win this tournament."
Costa Rica is a talented, well-built unit that will most definitely get out of the group stage, where it will face Honduras, Canada and French Guiana. As long as Ramirez's proven combination of defensive discipline and experience comes together, there is plenty of reason to believe Los Ticos can finally end the Mexican-American domination in this competition.