HOUSTON — The cavalry arrived in force, but it arrived tardy.
With his team already qualified for the knockout stages, Colombia manager Jose Pekerman rested not only his stars carrying a bit of a knock, he rested them all. He started a new center back pairing, an entirely new strike force and even gave Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina the night off. The decision to sit those influential players could be the error that sends Colombia out of the Copa America. Saturday's thrilling 3-2 loss at the hands of Costa Rica puts Los Cafeteros through as the second-place team in Group A. Awaiting them? Likely a matchup with Brazil - a far weightier task than whichever other team comes out of Group B. Despite that, Colombia's manager says the team isn't worried.
"We can't make hasty conclusions," Pekerman said after the match. "The bet was risky with (us playing) some players that we hope aren't hurt in the process. We're going to keep going forward. I'm calm. I know what those guys can do."
Costa Rica manager Oscar Ramirez also sat some of his best players, but the Ticos were far from taking the night off. From the fifth minute, when Johan Venegas got on the end of a long ball and lashed home a stunning goal on a turn, Costa Rica's players went all out despite knowing before the match there was nothing they could do to extend their stay in the United States. Venegas was a thorn in Colombia's side again and again on the left, and the Montreal Impact midfielder played a big part in sending the Ticos into the half with a 2-1 lead, creating a play that saw Colombia goalscorer Frank Fabra also put the ball into its own net.
So when the thoroughbreds came on at halftime, with James Rodriguez and Edwin Cardona entering for Sebastian Perez and Dayro Moreno, it made a difference. Of course it did. For as poor as the team played Saturday, it still has the talent to lift the Copa America Centenario, even if that path goes through Brazil. But Saturday it was just a little too late.
"I would have done the same thing Pekerman did. The manager gave the opportunity to those who hadn't been active," Cardona said. "Unfortunately, they hit first, but the goal was to win.
"Now we've got to think about what's coming up because it's really tough. We've got to turn the page. We didn't want this, we wanted to finish first. To be champion, you've got to overcome all the obstacles."
Pushing forward, Colombia left itself susceptible to a gorgeous move from Costa Rica in the 58th minute. Bryan Oviedo overlapped Christian Bolanos on the Ticos' right-hand side and found Celso Borges in the box. The two-way midfielder, who also did more than his due diligence in defense, put the goal away.
Colombia fought back. The three substitutes were excellent, but Costa Rica's defense held on to see out the victory. Juan Cuadrado, who came in for Felipe Aguilar in the 66th minute, was electric on the right-hand side. It was substitutes Cardona and Cuadrado who combined to set up Marlos Moreno's 73rd minute goal.
That set up a heart-stopping final 15 minutes. Moreno, Cardona and Rodriguez had half chances. Ultimately, they couldn't beat the Costa Rican defense and goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton. It's tough to imagine the same would've happened had one or two of the trio gone from the opening whistle.
Leaving the stars out is a curious decision. Rodriguez and center back Cristian Zapata both left previous group matches with injuries. But was the night of rest for Carlos Bacca, Cuadrado or center back Jeison Murillo worth losing the group? Pekerman even had the advantage of knowing the other group results heading into the contest. Yet he still elected to rest his best players.
"There are times to run a risk and times not to. We considered that with the job we had done coming in, it was time to run a risk," Pekerman said. "Of course it hurts us to lose. It’s a shame for the people who came to the stadium to see Colombia win, who were excited."
It could work out for him. Though the road ahead now looks far more arduous, it's still passable. It will require the full cavalry, and they must not arrive a moment too late.