MEXICO CITY -- Any casual Mexico or U.S. fan would be hard pressed to remember that Costa Rica, not El Tri or the Stars and Stripes, advanced furthest in the 2014 World Cup. The Central American squad's growth on the world stage may have come as a surprise to outsiders but Los Ticos have consolidated themselves as a tough opponent both in and out of CONCACAF for the better part of the past 15 years.
In the past four World Cup cycles, only the United States has racked up more points than Costa Rica in the final hexagonal round. Los Ticos have also beaten the likes of Uruguay and Italy in the current decade and drawn against powerhouses Spain and England in the aforementioned span.
Their current generation of players has seen Real Madrid, Everton and Arsenal buy up their biggest stars. Despite this, Costa Rica has never won the Gold Cup in its current iteration, and has only made one final, back in 2002. In spite of the string of successes the country achieved in advancing its program, CONCACAF's biggest prize remains an obsession for the nation.
"[Oscar Ramirez, the manager] has called up the best," said goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton to Costa Rican newspaper Nación. "Our mentality is to get to the final and to win it."
Even though star goalkeeper and UEFA Champions League winner Keylor Navas was left off the roster, the Central Americans fielded about as close to their top team as possible, at least in the first round.
Four Europe-based players were released following the group stage in order to properly prepare for the grueling campaigns abroad, a stark contrast from what the United States did, for instance. Other stars, like playmaker and Sporting CP star Bryan Ruiz, remain.
Finishing first out of their group and allowing just one goal in their first three matches, Costa Rica will now face Panama (strangely, for the first time in either country's history at the Gold Cup) in the quarterfinals, setting up a potential semifinal match against the U.S. in Texas.
"They have a clear advantage because [the Gold Cup] comes in the middle of their domestic season," said manager Oscar Ramirez during a pre-tournament presser. "We all have to play in their country, too." Although the Americans have been rough on them in this very competition, recent results in other fronts suggest an advantage. Since 2010, the two teams have faced off seven times, with Costa Rica winning four of those matches.
Given the unique challenge the Gold Cup has represented for them in the past, there's no getting ahead of the upcoming clash.
"It's not [as big as a] World Cup qualifier, but we have to play like this is our last game," said midfielder David Guzman. "What's important is to win however way we can," seconded defender Kendall Watson.
Assuming Costa Rica can navigate both Panama and the semifinal, it's not a harebrained thought placing Mexico as the last team standing in their way towards a potential championship. While the Central Americans have been adept at figuring the United States out of late, the story has been quite different when it comes to El Tri.
Mexico has defeated Costa Rica five times in Gold Cup history, including their last meeting, the quarterfinal in 2015 that saw Los Ticos eliminated from contention. In the current decade, both teams have faced each other eight times. Costa Rica has won just once but this is far from Mexico's best squad; coach Juan Carlos Osorio opted for a young, experimental group, favoring the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia earlier this summer as his prime objective. As such, only striker Erick Torres of Houston Dynamo plays outside of the country at the club level.
"They are always candidates to win, despite who they bring," said Ramirez. But it would be difficult to pit a pressure-filled Mexican team who struggled to beat Curacao in the group stage against Costa Rica's near-full arsenal of stars. Thus, it's not far-fetched then to envision Costa Rica capping their summer by lofting their first Gold Cup trophy, even if only Canada has been the only country capable of breaking Mexico and the United States' duopoly since 1991.
To do so, they will have to out-perform expectations once again like they did in the last World Cup, where they were just a penalty round away from ousting the Netherlands and reaching the semifinals. "We have the weapons to go out and win this," said Ramirez.
At this point, it shouldn't come as a surprise.