Wanchope: Influx of Ticos good for MLS and Costa Rica, but maybe not Saprissa
Paulo Wanchope was among the first Costa Ricans to blaze a trail beyond the borders of the small Central American country.
The forward’s career took him to England and then Spain, helping open doors for future Ticos to ply their trade in Europe, from Keylor Navas at Real Madrid, to Joel Campbell at Arsenal and Bryan Ruiz at Sporting CP.
Now, the former national team star and coach is helping to oversee what looks like the start of a new era for Costa Rican soccer: a preying ground for MLS teams.
As Costa Rican soccer has improved and MLS scouting and resources increased, players from the CONCACAF country are becoming top targets of several MLS teams. That never felt more obvious than this offseason, when four Saprissa players signed with MLS teams in quick succession. Two other players from the Costa Rican domestic league also signed with MLS clubs: Jose Salvatierra (Alajuelense to FC Dallas) and Jose Guillermo Ortiz (CS Herediano to DC United).
As sporting director at Saprissa, Wanchope was left to deal with the fallout as his championship squad was gutted: midfielder David Guzman and defender Roy Miller went to the Portland Timbers, defender and captain Adolfo Machado to the Houston Dynamo and defender Francisco Calvo to Minnesota United. It was the highest compliment to the talent Wanchope helped accumulate at Saprissa, and yet it also led to a massive task to rebuild a championship squad.
“We need to keep a balance,” Wanchope told FourFourTwo this week. “We know that it’s impossible to keep the good players, because obviously every player wants to have the experience to play internationally, to play abroad. And, of course, the money is even better in the MLS or in Europe, so we need to keep the balance.
“We are a big club; we need to win every tournament that we are in. This year we have already four players who are going to MLS; we cannot allow any more players to go out because we understand that next year, for our fans and the history of this club, we need to be competitive to win another trophy.”
Wanchope sees the recent exodus as the start of a growing trend. Costa Rican soccer has improved, both domestically and internationally. The Ticos gallant performance at the 2014 World Cup helped to bring about even more attention. That tournament helped Navas move to Real Madrid, but it also brought more scouts to the domestic league to mine for players.
The success of players in MLS has also increased demand. Wanchope pointed to the likes of Kendall Waston, Ronald Matarrita and Álvaro Saborío, all of whom have had success in MLS, as examples of players who helped put a premium on Ticos. With the recent addition of another $400,000 each in targeted allocation money, MLS teams also now have the budget to add more of those players.
Wanchope sees the transactions as mutually beneficial for Costa Rican soccer and MLS.
“MLS they know how to grow and they are bringing some good players. Obviously that will help the MLS,” Wanchope said. “And in the other side, for Costa Rica, it’s been great that we have players over there and they will learn from the experience, they will improve. It’s in the favor of our national team.”
The growth of that national team program has been obvious in recent years, and the presence of MLS in those squads is undeniable.
Several Costa Rican players from the 2014 World Cup have spent part of their careers maturing in MLS either before or after the quarterfinal run in Brazil: Giancarlo Gonzalez, Christian Bolaños, Waylon Francis and Miller. When Costa Rica beat the U.S., 4-0, in World Cup qualifying in November, the Ticos team included a number of current or former MLS players: Waston, Matarrita, Bolaños, Rodney Wallace and Johan Venegas.
Now, more teams hope they have found similar talent.
Wanchope said Portland is getting a player in Guzman who “can adapt very quickly into MLS. He’s brave, his mentality is always going forward and he likes to fight for his place, there is no doubt he will do that in Portland.” Calvo, he said, is “someone with a very strong personality. … I think he will be a great leader in Minnesota.” Machado is “a very enthusiastic, very strong player and he will be great for Houston. We know that there have been so many problems in defense and he will be the man who will organize and will lead the defense.” Wanchope also called Miller one of the top defenders at Saprissa and said the former Red Bull will thrive in his second stint in MLS.
Wanchope has already started rebuilding at Saprissa. The club has added four players from within the domestic league and has its sights set on one more player in Brazil. Wanchope, meanwhile, continues to wait for a chance to transition from his sporting director role back into coaching.
Wanchope was an assistant for Costa Rica during the World Cup run and coached the Costa Rican national team for a year after the tournament, but resigned after getting in a scuffle in Panama while watching the Ticos’ Under-23 team. He said he would be open to an opportunity outside of Costa Rica, perhaps in Mexico or the U.S.
“I would like to have that opportunity to go abroad as a coach,” he said. “I’ve been preparing myself to be a coach. Now I have the opportunity to be the sporting director, but my passion and my knowledge I want to give it all in coaching. So I think I’m doing the right steps, I’m learning things from another view in football and I will think that all this experience in Saprissa as a sporting director will help me in the future.”
For Wanchope, it would be another trail blazed.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.