Expect the Unexpected

World Cup qualification is a true-life experience. For players and teams, no one leaves a qualification cycle the same as they started. Some mature and grow and become a much better side as the matches unfold, while others fall apart and fall to the wayside. The 2022 CONCACAF World Cup qualification cycle is no different. With all the matches now complete and the World Cup qualification picture largely complete (hello, Costa Rica!) here are ten lessons that we have learned ahead of Qatar 2022.

10.) North America Is at The Top Of The Table

For the first time in CONCACAF World Cup Qualification history, all three automatic spots will be coming out of North America with Canada, Mexico, and the United States advancing to Qatar. Of the three sides, the biggest surprise is Canada, who will be making their first appearance since 1986.

9.) Make The Most of Your Opportunities

Canada’s story is perhaps the most CONCACAF-y of CONCACAF stories. The side was originally slated to be placed in a second-tier bracket where their best chance of qualifying would come via a playoff against the first-tier bracket and then an intercontinental playoff. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the federation had to reverse course, going back to the more traditional format. That, coupled with two extra teams added to the final round, gave Canada and new coach Jon Herdman extra incentive to speed up their development process and go for a top three spot.

8.) Jonathan David and Cyle Larin Like to Score. A lot.

For Canada to advance, they were going to have to find some consistent goalscorers. While the side has had many notable goalscorers through the years, they have always lacked that finishing touch in the key moments. After years of scouting and development, they found two in this window in David and Larin. Of the two, Larin is perhaps the biggest surprise story. After a rocky start at Besiktas, the former Orlando City SC striker found his form through the National Team, scoring 13 goals during qualification. David, meanwhile has been on a tear for both club and country, scoring 9 goals for Canada and 13 for Lille.

7.) Snow Qualifiers Are Great…

One of the biggest moments of World Cup Qualification was the Canada-Mexico match in Hamilton, Ontario. Taking place during a snowstorm in November, the match at the time was the biggest in Canadian men’s soccer for quite some time. The rowdy Hamilton crowd made the match downright difficult for El Tri. Larin’s brace and subsequent snow angel will live in the minds of Canadian soccer fans for generations.

6.)…But Playing In Subarctic Temperatures Probably Isn’t A Great Idea

This World Cup Qualification cycle was unique in that as opposed to the typical ‘two games per international window’ fans were greeted with three matches in a ten day span. That condensed schedule caused matches to be played in late November, January, and February. That led to some rather frigid games in the single digits, including a USA-Honudras match in Minnesota that was in the single digits. While this isn’t the first time that a CONCACAF World Cup Qualifier was played in miserable temperatures, that multiple players suffered from frostbite showed how dangerous the match truly was. CONCACAF has to put a stop to the weather shenanigans or someone might get hurt.

5.) Never Count Out the Ticas

About midway through the Qualification window, it looked like Costa Rica might be done. The generation of Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, and Joel Campbell had led the side for so many years to the highest of highs, but in a region that was becoming increasingly younger, they seemed to be out of place. But the side won six of their final seven matches to earn the fourth spot and a chance to qualify for Qatar in an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand.

4.) Ochoa Is Still El Tri’s Best Goalkeeper

At the start of this World Cup Qualification cycle, many in the Mexican press were asking if Guillermo Ochoa was perhaps past his prime and it was time for Tata Martino to look elsewhere. Shaky performances against the United States and Canada in November that both resulted in losses certainly didn’t do him any favors. But the 36 year old goalkeeper turned things around in 2022, earning six clean sheets and helping El Tri secure their eighth consecutive World Cup appearance.

3.) That Christian Pulisic Is the USMNT’s Most Important Player

One of the misconceptions about football is that a team’s most important player is always their best player. Christian Pulisic is a perfect example of this. While Pulisic started the Qualification cycle as the United States Men’s National Team’s wonderkid, over the last two years the US have been blessed with many more young talented players than the Chelsea midfielder. But when it came down to it, time and time again the 22 year old was asked to stand up and deliver for his country. Whether it was the goal off of the bench against Mexico in November or the hat trick against Panama, Pulisic showed that when it came to the big moments he was ready.

2.) The Region Is Getting Younger

Outside of Costa Rica and a bit of Mexico, this qualification cycle was marked by the emergence of young, exciting new talent across the region. While Canada (Larin, David, Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan) and the United States (Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna, Brendan Aaronson) will get the most publicity players such as Leon Bailey (Jamaica), Diego Lainez (Mexico) and Alex Roldan (El Salvador) all emerged as leaders of their sides during a wild six months.

1.) It Takes a Lot To Undo Bad Performances…But It Is That Much Sweeter

To qualify for this year’s World Cup, both Canada and the United States had to confront some old ghosts and figure out who they were. That is much easier said than done. For Canada, it was erasing thirty years of stops and starts, heartache, and rocky performances (especially on the road).  As for the U.S., their demons were much more recent. The 2018 performance, or lack thereof, shook the game to its core and forced a complete overhaul of the roster and in U.S. Soccer. Neither team was guaranteed a spot in Qatar 2022 and both had a few nervy moments (moreso the United States) but in the end they both made it. Now the fun part begins.

By: Sean Maslin

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