When Rodrigo Kenton took hold of the reins, Costa Rica were mired in a deep and troubling crisis. Nearly knocked out of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying by lowly Grenada, his predecessor Hernan Medford welcomed the opportunity to vacate the increasingly hot seat. However, in the 13 months since taking over, the new man has sparked a remarkable turnaround, guiding the Ticos to top spot in the final round of qualifying, unearthing a raft of new and exciting talent and re-capturing the imagination of a football-crazy Central American nation.
On Thursday, Kenton and Co meet long-time rivals Mexico in Chicago for the semi-finals of the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup. FIFA.com caught up with the boss to gauge his feelings.
FIFA.com: There are a lot of new faces in this Costa Rica squad at the Gold Cup. Did you have to make some tough decisions?
Rodrigo Kenton: This is what I like to call our intermediate team. There are some big names missing, but I tried to find a good balance between experience and youth. I've included some guys that maybe didn't have the right rhythm yet and maybe needed a few more games.
You didn't have the best start to the tournament here in the USA, losing your first game to El Salvador.
In the first few games we didn't look too bright, it's true, but that's the way it is sometimes when you're using new players. We were unlucky in our loss to El Salvador. Now, though, we've righted the ship. Every game is life or death and the players have responded to the challenge very well.
Things certainly seemed to come together in the quarter-final when you beat Guadeloupe 5-1. Were you surprised by the high-octane performance?
I'm not surprised that we managed to score goals in the game against Guadeloupe, but you can never expect to score that many! To be fair, we'd been creating a lot of chances in our previous games, against Canada and Jamaica and El Salvador too. We should have scored a lot more before, but things weren't quite clicking with our final touch. We made up for it last time out, though. we couldn't stop scoring.
Would you say Costa Rica are improving with every game?
I would. And that's the best thing in a short tournament like this. Maybe it's not so bad to start off a little sluggish, because then you can really improve with every game. You have the room to get better, and I think we've built up our self belief.
Speaking of belief, it's bound to be high in your frontline after that 5-1 win.
As a striker you live and die on your confidence and my guys up front should be feeling confident after coming to life in the quarter-final.
The rivalry between Costa Rica and Mexico goes a long way back. What do you expect on Thursday in Chicago?
The biggest problem is going to be the crowd. It's going to be like a home game for Mexico here in Chicago. We will be the away team, no doubt about it. We just need to get past those first 15 or 20 minutes when they will be flying at us and getting pushed on by the fans. After that, if we can survive, we will be able to settle down and play our game. We can match them in every department on the field, but that crowd worries me. It will be like they're playing at the Azteca.
It's a new-look Mexican squad. Have you had a chance to sit down and watch them play?
I have. There are some new players, but it's the same old Mexican style really. [Javier] Aguirre is back in charge and he is trying out some new things, but there won't be any surprises on the field. They have tricky little attackers like Gio dos Santos, they move well up the flanks, they're strong and have good speed. They have a lot of weapons, but so do we.