Saturday's match will be Gregg Berhalter's second in charge of the U.S. In the opposing coach's box will be a manager on his Costa Rica debut, seeking some of the same things as his counterpart.
The U.S. men's national team will close its annual winter camp with Saturday's friendly vs. Costa Rica in San Jose, Calif., just looking for another step of incremental growth at the start of a new era. Its opponent will be looking for much of the same.
If there are three words to describe the last few weeks, they're "progression," "culture" and "foundation." With new manager Gregg Berhalter at the helm and instilling his technical and tactical ways to a group of players with varying degrees of experience for the first time, the camp has taken on a greater level of significance than usual. The matches were bound to be low-stakes affairs, as was evident Sunday night in Arizona, when a shade over 9,000 watched the U.S. handle a highly experimental Panama side with relative ease. But the results are largely secondary to the process and introducing everyone involved to how things will be from here on out.
"When I think about the progression of this camp and how we started off with a very intensive training period really focusing on our style of play, team building, competing. ... We transitioned last week to a competition phase," Berhalter told assembled media Friday. "With the game against Panama, the week was more focused on a traditional cycle that we've experienced coming into a World Cup qualifier. Travel day, on-field regen day, three training days to game. We have a similar progression this week as well."
The Costa Rica team that the U.S. will face is a step up from the opposition Panama put on the field. The regulars like Bryan Ruiz, Keylor Navas and Joel Campbell won't be there, nor will World Cup qualifying nemesis Marco Ureña. Nobody will mistake this group of Ticos for a World Cup-ready bunch. But with a number of faces from MLS–including a pair of 2018 World Cup veterans in Minnesota United defensive stalwart Francisco Calvo and Portland Timbers midfielder David Guzman–the side Costa Rica puts on the field will present an incremental challenge.
"It's clearly going to be an improved opponent and it will be a good test for this group," Berhalter said. "I'm really happy with the progression of the team so far and this is just another test for us. It's increased competition and a good test for this group at this time."
Costa Rica is going through a similar phase of starting fresh, albeit with a completely different backdrop. Gustavo Matosas was hired as manager in October following post-World Cup turnover and, like Berhalter, is in the process of instilling his methods. This will be his first match as an international manager after a lengthy career on the club level, putting him just one behind Berhalter in that category. Regardless of the stage and the names on the back of the jerseys, a chance to make a splash against the USA on U.S. soil is an opportunity that the new coach and his eager visiting squad won't take lightly.
"The new coach of Costa Rica has an opportunity to share his vision with the rest of the country, and for us we know it's going to be a physical opponent, an opponent that is going to be hungry to perform and a good challenge for this group," Berhalter said.
Win, lose or draw, the results that matter are less related to the scoreboard and more related to the lessons learned, mood around the team and proficiency with which the players carry out Berhalter's instructions. A new batch of European-based players will join the fold in March, and that group figures to mesh with a number of camp standouts who caught Berhalter's eye over the last few weeks. That will present another challenge for the new manager, who looks to mold the player pool to his liking prior to this summer's Gold Cup, and he's well aware of the task at hand.
"It's a work in progress," Berhalter said. "It's easy to talk about culture and chemistry, but we know it takes time. We know it takes a lot of effort. We know it takes a concerted effort to do things that bring the guys together and create an environment the guys enjoy being around. We feel like we've made progress this camp, but we know there's a long way to go."