By Dylan Butler
SANDY, Utah – It wasn’t the beautiful game, but that mattered little to Costa Rica head coach Jorge Luis Pinto.
The objective – beating Belize and clinching a berth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals – was met following a 1-0 victory Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“Maybe it wasn’t the brilliance, maybe we didn’t play our top game, but I didn’t think we played that bad,” Pinto said. “We pressured a lot, we penetrated as much as possible. We played maybe not our greatest game, but we did our very best.”
Pinto knew it would be a difficult game, he said as much in a press conference Friday at the stadium. While the Ticos would have rather played a more open, free-flowing style, Belize effectively stifled that. The Jaguars, Pinto said, were better than a lot of people are giving them credit for.
“Belize knows how to defend,” the Colombian-born coach said. “We wanted to play, but the other team was able to disrupt the rhythm.”
The Ticos know a thing or two about defending, too. Saturday’s victory extended Costa Rica’s unbeaten streak to seven games and the squad hasn’t conceded a goal during that stretch of more than 11 hours.
That was in very real jeopardy in the dying moments of second-half stoppage time. Goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton came off his line and got a hand on Elroy Smith’s corner kick. The ball went directly to Trevor Lennen, whose header from 12 meters appeared destined for the vacated net. Inches away from conceding a sure equalizer, Costa Rica’s Junior Diaz raced back to his own goal, lunged and tapped it over the crossbar to secure the victory.
Diaz, a defender who competes for Mainz 05 in the German Bundesliga, was one of six changes to Pinto’s lineup from the team that beat Cuba, 3-0, in the opening game of the group stage.
He was joined by Giancarlo Gonzalez, Carlos Johnson, Celso Borges, Kenny Cunningham and Ariel Rodriguez.
While the defense secured yet another clean sheet, the Costa Rican offense struggled to beat Belizean goalkeeper Woodrow West, who made six saves in a heroic effort.
Cunningham, who had a first-half goal called back for offside, set up the Ticos' lone goal in the 49th minute. His cross was inadvertently redirected by Dalton Eiley into the Jaguars' net for a 49th-minute own goal.
“In the beginning we were rushed a little bit, especially to cross the ball,” Pinto said. “In the second half we did the same and happily we got the goal.”
Costa Rica left Sunday for East Hartford, Connecticut, where it will meet a United States team that has won seven straight games, including a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier earlier this year.
Tuesday’s encounter will determine the first-place finisher in Group C and could be a precursor for the next World Cup qualifier between the two in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Sept. 6.
“I think we’re going to play as we always play,” Pinto said. “I think it’s the same soccer, they play the same, maybe their style changes a little bit, some players here, some players there, but we’re going to go strong, we’re going to be aggressive.”