A chaotic Apertura — one that saw Perez Zeledon win its first league title in club history — shocked Costa Rica’s first division to its core. The league’s elite reloaded in the offseason to respond.
An influx of transfers and managerial moves returned Deportivo Saprissa, C.S. Herediano and L.D. Alajuelense to the forefront of the conversation. The reigning champions did little to match them.
But there’s more than a league title at stake in 2018.
and blatantly biased MLS/Liga MX love fest CONCACAF Champions League ventures into the Round of 16. World Cup roster spots are also up for grabs.
Below is everything you need to prepare for the 2018 Clausura campaign.
Death, taxes and Saprissa forced to reload after selling its top players.
El conjunto morado lost two of its brightest stars, Julio Cascante and Ulises Segura, to MLS. Cascante, 24, reunited with former teammates David Guzman and Roy Miller in Portland. Segura, also 24, signed with D.C. United.
Anderson Leite returned to his home club, Londrina Esporte Clube, following the end of his loan period.
Saprissa turned to some of its former own, signing Michael Barrantes and Alexander Robinson. Barrantes last featured for the club in 2010. Robinson — who’ll likely serve as Cascante’s like-for-like replacement — last featured in 2014.
The uninspiring pair bring leadership and depth to the team, but it was the robbery Saprissa pulled on Alajuelense — signing Johan Venegas — that shifted the power in Costa Rica.
A failed stint in MLS forced Venegas to look elsewhere for minutes. With the 2018 World Cup steadily approaching, there’s little room for error. Momentous club form is a must for anyone looking to make La Sele’s final roster.
All signs logically pointed to his former home.
On Dec. 19, Alajuelense proudly tweeted a photo of Venegas in training.
Two days later, he was unveiled in purple.
Club president Fernando Ocampo responded like a scorned lover, claiming that he and Venegas had an agreement — which explained his inclusion in training. A contract extension for striker Jonathan McDonald and the club’s transfer targets, however, soiled the relationship.
Drama aside, Venegas’ inclusion awards Saprissa the league’s most potent attack. Stalwarts Marvin Angulo, Daniel Colindres and David Ramirez complete the deadliest front four in Costa Rica.
Not to be outdone, Alajuelense did its best to return to relevance this offseason.
The unconventional signings of Luis Garrido and Roger Rojas — a pair of Hondurans who led Olimpia to the knockout rounds of the CCL — joined Freddy Alvarez and Roberto Chen to revamp the club’s spine. Garrido will provide the bite behind Alvarez’s creativity. Rojas will pair with McDonald to form a formidable front line.
Chen will be part of a back four that already features veterans Kenner Gutierrez, Christopher Meneses and Jose Salvatierra.
Jose Miguel Cubero was the final domino to fall. Looking to recapture his 2014 World Cup form, the 30 year old moves from Spain’s third division on a one year loan.
But what about the two clubs that actually played in the final?
Perez Zeledon fancies itself a big club and doubled down on that sentiment, signing Fabrizio Ronchetti. The 32-year-old striker let the Cartagines quicksand get the best of him last season. He finished with just two goals in 12 appearances.
A far cry from the Ronchetti that netted 20 goals for the league champions in 2014.
Note: Perez Zeledon unveiled Dennis Castillo — a right back who spent time in MLS and USL — late Friday afternoon.
Herediano made two major signings of its own, the biggest being the return of Yendrick Ruiz. Bryan Ruiz’s baby brother — now 30 — spent the last year at Chiangmai FC in Thailand. The return home is on par with many others looking to impress ahead of the World Cup.
Admittedly, Yendrick doesn’t have much of a shot.
He joins Diego Estrada as the other premier signing for a club looking to return to prominence. Both are much needed additions following the injury to Jose Guillermo Ortiz. The 25-year-old striker suffered a ligament tear in his knee, one that will keep him out for the next six months.
The most prolific goalscorer in league history also has a new home. Santos de Guapiles — the forgotten team that made a run to the Cuadrangular last season — signed Victor Nunez on Friday. The 37-year-old striker has 244 career goals.
Eleven of those came with Santos in 2015.
Perhaps the biggest changes in Costa Rica’s first division are on the touchline, with the big three turning to new managers.
Undressed in the final by Jose Giacone, Hernan Medford unceremoniously stepped down as manager of Herediano. He cited personal reasons, but not winning an illustrious third league title got the best of him.
“I want to apologize to the fans,” Medford said, per Nacion. “I know they wanted a better Christmas and I couldn’t provide that. I leave very pleased with the front office, the fans and most importantly, the players.”
He’ll lead Guatemala’s C.S.D. Municipal in the spring.
A league title is already expected in five months.
Carlos Watson also stepped down following the 2017 Apertura, albeit for different reasons.
The Saprissa manager failed to win the Cuadrangular and force a final with Herediano. A 2-1 loss to Santos in the final Jornada was the nail in the proverbial coffin. But health, not results, forced the 66 year old into retirement.
Vladimir Quesada assumes the role of manager on an interim basis.
Quesada served as an assistant under Watson. Alongside el profe, he helped lead the club to its 33rd title in 2016. His appointment brings continuity to a club one result shy of competing for the title.
Alajuelense, the antithesis of continuity, hired its seventh manager since Oscar “El Machillo” Ramirez stepped down to take over the national team in 2015. Ruben Israel is now at the helm.
Fast forward two weeks. He no longer is.
Israel returned to Uruguay for health reasons, per Nacion.
“We know that there’s a medical emergency,” Alvaro Solano said. “The front office wished him well and hopes his situation can be resolved in Uruguay. I don’t know if there’s another reason for his absence.”
Nicolas Dos Santos will replace Israel in the interim.
Alajuelense were crowned champions of 90 Minutos Por La Vida — a preseason tournament put together to raise money for children with cancer — on Wednesday.
Not a bad start for Dos Santos’ tenure.
CONCACAF Champions League
CONCACAF went out of its way to protect its American and Mexican interests — what a surprise — ensuring MLS and Liga MX teams didn’t meet in the CCL Round of 16.
The Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC are the exception to this asinine rule.
The mechanism to fuck over Costa Rican clubs this time was a “pot system.” Sixteen teams were divided into two pots. The first pot contained four Liga MX and MLS clubs. The second pot contained the leftovers.
Saprissa and Herediano were among them.
Saprissa — who eliminated MLS clubs two of the last three seasons and is one of four CONCACAF clubs to finish third at the FIFA Club World Cup — didn’t merit a place in Pot 1. The rich CCL history of the New York Red Bulls — a club who’s never even sniffed the semifinals of the tournament — somehow did.
Herediano played in a semifinal as recent as 2015.
This ensured the worst possible draw for both clubs.
Saprissa face Mexican juggernaut Club America. Herediano didn’t fare any better, drawing Tigres UANL.
Tuesday, Feb. 20
Herediano vs. Tigres
Wednesday, Feb. 21
Saprissa vs. America
Tuesday, Feb. 27
Tigres vs. Herediano
Wednesday, Feb. 28
America vs. Saprissa
There won’t be much to watch here. Both will falter and this somehow will be an indictment on the state of soccer in Costa Rica.
On the Bubble
Assume the following:
Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas, Patrick Pemberton, Leonel Moreira
Defenders: Francisco Calvo, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Cristian Gamboa, Oscar Duarte, Kendall Waston, Ronald Matarrita, Bryan Oviedo
Midfielders: Celso Borges, David Guzman, Yeltsin Tejeda, Randall Azofeifa, Bryan Ruiz, Elias Aguilar, Rodney Wallace
Forwards: Johan Venegas, Marco Ureña, Joel Campbell
That’s 20 of the 23 spots for Costa Rica’s World Cup roster. Only five of the 20 listed play locally (Only six of the 20 can be found in MLS, so please stop trying to take credit for our success, Alexi Lalas).
The three remaining spots can be filled by players on home soil. It’s all dependent on their form this season.
Jose Salvatierra, RB, Alajuelense
You can expect Machillo to bring eight or nine defenders to Russia. Salvatierra fits a need, serving as Gamboa’s replacement. Other potential defenders vying for a spot include Cascante, Keyner Brown and teammate Johnny Acosta.
Acosta brings more flexibility — moving from center back to right back in a back four — but you can’t expect to take 34-year-old legs to a World Cup. The logic remains with Salvatierra and Cascante to bring the defender count to nine.
Salvatierra ended 2017 on a high note, renewing his contract with Alajuelense through 2020.
Juan Bustos Golobio, CM, Saprissa
Injuries have plagued Golobio since 2011 — four in the last six years to be exact. A left ankle injury that required surgery in 2017 killed any momentum gained from a successful loan spell with Cartagines.
Still, at 25, Golobio’s ability to control a game from midfield makes him a much-needed commodity for La Sele.
Segura will likely be vying for the same spot — he probably has the edge now that he’s in MLS — but should Golobio return to form in 2018, it’ll be hard to deny his inclusion. Not many have forgotten what he’s capable of on the international stage.
David Ramirez, FW, Saprissa
You’re not scaring anyone with Venegas and Ureña. You’re not scaring anyone with McDonald, either, making Ramirez the likely choice for one of the remaining forward spots on the national team.
He’ll face competition from teammate Daniel Colindres, but Ramirez has more to his game. He’s not fixated on the wing and has the ability to serve as a target man.
That being said, all this goes out the window should Ariel Rodriguez return to Saprissa.
The club hasn’t exactly ruled that out.
Fixtures to Watch
You’re obviously going to pay attention every time one of Saprissa, Alajuelense and Herediano play each other, but expand your horizons a bit.
Here are 10 fun fixtures worth considering this season. The full schedule can be found here.
Jan. 7, Grecia vs. Alajuelense
Jan. 10, Saprissa vs. Santos
Jan. 24, Saprissa vs. Grecia
Jan. 28, Herediano vs. Perez Zeledon
Feb. 7, Herediano vs. Cartagines
Feb. 18, Cartagines vs. Carmelita
Mar. 4, Guadalupe vs. Liberia
Mar. 18, Grecia vs. Santos
Mar. 25, Limon vs. Santos
Apr. 8, Perez Zeledon vs. Saprissa
Apr. 15, Santos vs. Perez Zeledon
Predictions I’ll Get Wrong
Top Goalscorer: Roger Rojas
For the second consecutive season, the top goalscorer will belong to Alajuelense. It just won’t belong to McDonald.
The addition of Garrido will allow Salvatierra and Meneses more freedom to bomb forward and provide Rojas the proper service. Add Alvarez just behind him and you have the recipe for double-digit goals.
Relegation: A.D. Municipal Liberia
A.D. Municpal Liberia lost nine of their last 10 games and finished 2017 at the bottom of the table. They open the season hosting Saprissa, then away to Perez Zeledon and Santos. Sandwiched in between there is a pivotal match at home against Guadalupe, their primary opponent for relegation.
Adding to that fun list of opening fixtures, Liberia faces a financial crisis. A majority of the players haven’t been paid in three months. Only 12 first-team players will be ready for Sunday’s opener, and by ready I mean they’ve had five practices since returning from vacation on Dec. 28.
Catastrophe is on the horizon for Liberia.
Top Four: Saprissa, Herediano, Alajuelense, Santos
Saprissa and Herediano did enough in the offseason to remain at the top. Alajuelense made key acquisitions in areas of need. Perez Zeledon did not, which is why they’ll barely miss out on the top four.
Much of Santos’ poor form in the Cuadrangular had to do with their valiant effort in the CCL. That’s out of the way. They can refocus on the league and push for a spot in the top four.
The injury to Ortiz will be of greater circumstance than most believe. He was the early favorite to finish as the league’s top goalscorer. His presence will be missed in key matches.
Saprissa, on the other hand, have youth and depth all over the pitch. Especially in the final third.
That will be the difference in 2018.
The 98th season in league history kicks off this Saturday, Jan. 6. You have no excuse not to watch.