CONCACAF Heats Up

When it comes to CONCACAF World Cup qualification, one should learn to expect the unexpected. Through the years, the region has produced some of the craziest and wildest results in world football. This qualification window isn’t any different. With eight games in the books, the only thing that is certain is that there are going to be some great matches to wrap up play.

Although no spots have been secured through eight matches, there is a fairly clear line between the contenders (Canada, United States, Mexico, and Panama) and the rest of the pack (Costa Rica, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Honduras). But within each pocket of teams things are still very much up for grabs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in qualification has been Canada. The Reds have taken their second chance at qualification (initially they would have been out of qualification prior to the expansion to eight teams in the final round) and ran with it, leading the competition on 17 points. While their win over Mexico at the Iceteca in Edmonton will go down in football lore, their draws against El Tri in Mexico City and the United States in Nashville were perhaps bigger results.

Head Coach Jon Herdman has figured out how to rotate Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David to great success while keeping Cyle Larin busy up front (4 goals during qualifying). The final push for Qatar will require a return to San Pedro Sula in Honduras as well as hosting a U.S. side looking for revenge. If they can get past those two trouble spots, they may be returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Another side looking to make a return to the grandest stage in football is the United States. Despite a few bumps (a loss to Panama on the road, draw at Canada at home) the U.S. are on relatively solid ground (4-3-1, 15 points) to return to the World Cup after missing the 2018 edition.

While the side is teeming with young talent (Tim Weah and Miles Robinson have in particular stood out in the midfield and defense respectively) their inexperience has perhaps left them a few points short of where they probably should be at this point. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams are three of their cornerstone players. Yet, all three have had trouble staying on the pitch for head coach Gregg Berhalter. The next three matches are critical for this side to qualify (at home to El Salvador and Honduras and on the road to Canada). Should they fail to seal their spot over the winter, two difficult road tests against Mexico and Costa Rica await.

Speaking of El Tri, Mexico are on shaky ground after losses to both the US and Canada to end 2021.Now that isn’t to say that they are struggling to qualify (they are just two points and one point behind Canada and the U.S., respectively) but the results have been less than stellar. The big concern is the age of the side. Mainstays such as goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and midfielder Andrew Guardado have struggled to keep up with the younger sides in CONCACAF. The problem is compounded by head coach Tata Martino failing to find suitable replacements. El Tri needs Hirving Lozano and Raul Jimenez regain their scoring spark to get on more stable ground. Another bad series of results this winter though and Martino may be out.

Hot on Mexico’s heels are Panama (4-2-2, 14 points) who have built a nice cushion ahead of Costa Rica (2-3-3, 9 points) and Jamaica (1-4-3, 7 points). The Canal Men continue to get results in difficult situations (wins over Jamaica and Honduras at home) while getting big results at home (draws against Mexico and Costa Rica and a 1-0 win over the United States). Forward Gabriel Torres has had a sublime final round of qualification, scoring four huge goals. Given their advantage over fourth and fifth place, if they can continue to get results then they should find themselves in the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand.

Outside of the top four, keep an eye on Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz had an uphill battle to start qualification, going on the road for five of their first eight matches. After a few rough results, they finished 2021 strong, earning results in each of their last four matches. With five home games remaining, they need to start getting wins to make-up the difference over Panama. Mikhail Antonio and Leon Bailey are two of the best attacking players in the region and could very well swing the group as we enter the final few weeks of action.

Costa Rica also has a chance to overtake Panama but so much of it depends upon the health of goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Navas is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world and when he has been healthy he has kept The Ticas in the race. But when he cannot go, the side struggles. That Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz are still their best attacking options at 29 and 36 doesn’t help. If they cannot get three points at home on January 27 against Panama, they may miss the World Cup for the first time since 2010.

While there is still a possibility of playing a spoiler, El Salvador and Honduras’ hopes of making Qatar 2022 appear to be all but extinguished. The two sides seem to be at very different points with La Selecta really pushing the top sides. Head Coach Hugo Perez has completely rebuilt El Salvador (1-3-4, 6 points), with the side using this Qualification window to build for the Gold Cup and a run in 2026. Honduras (0-3-5, 3 points) meanwhile still have yet to get a single win in competition. After a strong decade, Los Catrachos appear destined for a big rebuild at the end of Qualification.

Although there are six matches left in qualification, everything is still up for grabs. While the three North American sides look to be in solid shape to qualify for Qatar 2022, things can change quickly. Just ask the United States at the end of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. So buckle in and enjoy the ride!

By: Sean Maslin

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