When the 2011 Gold Cup schedule was first announced, there was one match from the group play round that clearly jumped out as a must-watch game: Mexico vs. Costa Rica. Coming into the tournament, Mexico and Costa Rica, along with the United States, looked to be the three leading contenders for the Gold Cup title. A first round clash between two of the three tournament favorites was a match-up not to be missed.
While the game may have lost a bit of its luster after Costa Rica's disappointing 1-1 draw against El Salvador, and Mexico already comfortably qualifying for the next round, there still is something to play for. The winner of Sunday's match moves into the knockout round as the winner of Group A.
If nothing else, the game atmosphere in Chicago will be fantastic. Tickets sold out earlier in the week, and the 60,000-plus fans that pack into Soldier Field on Sunday will give the game almost the feel of a final.
The number five has loomed large over this Mexico team so far in the Gold Cup. El Tri has steamrolled over its first two opponents - El Salvador and Cuba - by identical 5-0 margins. The number also came into play just prior to the Cuba match when it was announced that five players would be suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. Without the suspended Maza Rodriguez, Memo Ochoa, Edgar Dueñas, Sinha, and "Hobbit" Bermudez, (along with Ricardo Osorio who previously retuned to Mexico for medical attention), the Mexico roster remains a bit thin.
Normally, manager Chepo de la Torre would probably look to rest a few key players for the next round. But with the team's personnel limitations, he may end up playing all of his key players again on Sunday. That would include Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, who have both been outstanding for Mexico in the tournament. Chicharito has scored five goals in two games, while Dos Santos was named man of the match by the media for his performance against Cuba.
On the other side of the field stands a Costa Rica team led by manager Ricardo La Volpe, the man who coached Mexico's national team from 2002 to 2006. This will be La Volpe's first time facing the team which he coached in the 2006 World Cup. If he wasn't already motivated enough, La Volpe has heard boos from the Mexico fans every time his face has been shown on the stadium big screens in each of the tournament's first two games.
One big positive for Costa Rica is the presumed return of star striker Bryan Ruiz to the starting lineup. The Ticos will surely need the scoring talent of Ruiz against a Mexico team that has yet to concede a goal in the tournament. Costa Rica also cannot afford to come out flat like they did against El Salvador on Thursday. Mexico is too talented not to take advantage of any lapses in focus by the Ticos.
A win or draw clinches first place in the group for Mexico, while a win by Costa Rica gives them the group title. Both the first and second place team in Group A will open the knockout round on Saturday June 18th at the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Mexico vs. Costa Rica can be seen in the United States at 8pm ET on Univision.