Last month, the Philadelphia Union announced the first club-to-club partnership in franchise history, forming a collaborative relationship with Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa. Here’s a quick guide to help you get to know the storied side a little better.
The History: Saprissa are one of the most decorated teams in all of North America, amassing dozens of trophies since their founding in 1935. One of Costa Rica’s “big two” teams along with L.D. Alajuelense, they have finished atop the Costa Rica Primera División a record 29 times, most recently accomplishing the feat in 2010.
Saprissa also won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, the forerunner of today’s CONCACAF Champions League, on three occasions (1993, 1995, and 2005). They represented CONCACAF at the 2005 FIFA Club World Cup, finishing in third place after a loss to reigning UEFA champions Liverpool in the semifinal round.
For their consistent success both domestically and internationally, Saprissa earned the title of best club in Central & North America in the 20th century from the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
That pedigree is something that appealed to the Union technical staff, with Sporting Director Diego Gutiérrez calling Saprissa “one of the premier Central American clubs around and certainly the most successful out of Costa Rica.”
The respect between the two clubs is mutual.
"Philadelphia has, in a very short time, proven to be one of the top MLS institutions,” Saprissa president Juan Carlos Rojas said in a press release announcing the partnership. “We share similar values in terms of how a sports club should be run and this agreement will allow us to collaborate on many fronts. We are excited about the opportunities that this can provide Saprissa in one of the fastest growing soccer markets in the world."
Saprissa gets its name from Ricardo Saprissa Aymá, a former multisport athlete whose career included playing soccer with RCD Espanyol of Spain and playing tennis at the 1924 Olympics. After his playing days, Saprissa ventured to Costa Rica to coach. When San Jose native Roberto Fernández decided to start a football club of his own in 1935, Saprissa sponsored the team by providing uniforms. Fernández returned the favor by naming his newfound team after the former Olympian.
Saprissa is also known as el Monstruo Morado – the Purple Monster. This moniker was coined in 1987, when a reporter for El Diario Extra de Costa Rica used the term to describe the passionate Saprissa fans that packed the stands clad in the club’s distinctive colors.
The MLS Connections
Saprissa share a common thread with the Union: their kit sponsor. Since 2007, the San Jose club has been sponsored by Grupo Bimbo. At a fan forum on Thursday, Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz and EVP Dave Rowan alluded to preliminary discussions surrounding the creation of a Bimbo Cup tradition, which would pit Bimbo-sponsored clubs against one another in a competitive format.
There has also been a fair amount of player movement between the Costa Rican heavyweights and MLS, with alumni like Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborio and the Union’s own Josué Martínez once plying their trade at Saprissa. The Saprissa roster currently includes a handful of former MLS players, including former New England Revolution defender Gabriel Badilla and former Chivas USA original Douglas Sequeira.
Saprissa has faced off against MLS opposition 18 times, compiling an impressive 8-4-6 record along the way.
Saprissa’s counter to the Sons of Ben is La Ultra Morada (The Purple Ultra), the team’s official supporters group. Formed in 1995 by the club in hopes of replicating some of the fan groups of South America, La Ultra has maintained close relations with team management over the years. Packed to the brim on the endline stands with elaborate displays involving banners, smoke bombs, and more, the group helps generate one of the most intimidating and inhospitable atmospheres in North America.
Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá was built in 1972 and seats approximately 24,000 fans, making it the second largest stadium in Costa Rica behind the newly built Estadio Nacional. With its steep seating and often unforgiving artificial turf, the stadium has provided a massive home field advantage through the years.
Prior to the construction of the aforementioned Estadio Nacional, it also served as the primary home of the Costa Rican national team, who have had great success playing at La Cueva del Monstruo (The Monster’s Cave), as well. The United States national team, for one, has never so much as even drawn a match in seven visits to Estadio Saprissa, with their last trip being a lopsided 3-1 defeat in 2009.
What the partnership means for the Union on the field
Gutiérrez calls the Saprissa partnership “a strategic and wholesome concept both on the business side and on the sporting side.”
“Both teams aim to continue to improve the talent and to exchange ideas so that the product that is finally put on the field on opening day in Costa Rica and for us [in Philadelphia] is even better,” he said.
As part of the technical staff for a club entering just its third year, Gutiérrez understands that there is still much to learn about player development and the international soccer community.
“We want to understand what the game is like in each other’s countries and grow the overall understanding of how things are done on the sporting side,” he added.
In addition to strategy, the partnership also paves the way for future personnel exchange, with loans, training stints, and transfers all possibilities. In that regard, the connection has already paid dividends.
“For us, it’s already easy to see how a relationship like this can be fruitful with the addition of Josué, a guy who was born and raised in the Saprissa system,” Gutiérrez said. “Now that we’ve opened the door and guys on both ownership groups and technical staffs have gotten to know each other, we expect to explore further opportunities in the future. That may be a guy like Josué or a younger player or maybe someone with more experience, whatever our given needs are at the time.”
“Giving opportunities to younger guys to go down [to Costa Rica] and train, working to develop players, and creating opportunities for each other are an important part of the intent behind this partnership.
Added Sakiewicz, “We'll have an opportunity to have the first look at their talent."
Where they are headed
Saprissa are in the early portion of the Campeonato de Verano, which will include 20 league matches and a four-team postseason ending in May.
The club hopes to unseat rivals and three-time reigning champions Alajuelense, as they search for their first Campeonato title since May 2010.
Union fans can also expect to see Saprissa up close and personal, as the partnership agreement includes an exhibition match. The date of the friendly has yet to be determined.