Many fans newer to the game in this country who perhaps form their opinions by listening to anglicized radio programs or perhaps football themed shows direct from Britain have formed a completely invalid and biased opinion about CONCACAF. Many of the Anglicized pundits who make the assertions about the region have never watched a game either live or on television from venues such as the Mateo Flories or Saprissa Stadium. Many of these pundits easily forget the impact of altitude on playing style and pace at Estadio Azteca.
Political stability has not been the norm in Central America, but as regimes become more stable and Football Federations are given more consistent resources to work with, the footballing quality of the region has improved dramatically. The result of these changes is a more vibrant and competitive Central American region, whose members have been giving Mexico fits the last few years while continuing to trouble the United States.
It seems often forgotten that the most successful United States World Cup run of our generation came after a 3rd place finish in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, a full six points behind first place Costa Rica. In 1998, the US finished 2nd just a point behind Mexico but did not gain a single result in the World Cup.
If you play in the UEFA region, as England the inspiration for so many American footy fans does, qualification is a crapshoot. You could either be handed a very tough group as the Republic of Ireland has been this cycle or an easy group with minnows like Andorra as England has been handed. You can be group in with a seeded team the stature of Germany or Italy or luck out and face Croatia instead.
But in CONCACAF, much like COMNEBOL, the world’s toughest region, you cannot duck the top teams in qualifying. You will be forced to travel to the toughest road venues regardless of circumstance in order to secure a place in the World Cup.
Tomorrow night at Estadio Saprissa, the United States will face the sort of hostile crowd many who take their footballing inspiration from England would find culturally shocking. The toughness mentally of the US team will be tested. In the past the Americans could rely on veteran leadership in form of Mission Viejo boys and then more recently Eddie Pope, Earnie Stewart, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride in Costa Rica.
But now the slate is clean. Aside from Frankie Hejduk, no American has appeared at Saprissa more than once for an international match previously. How will the young yanks respond?
Bob Bradley has brought a unique focus to the national team. Bradley’s troops have taken things one game at a time since his hiring two and a half years ago. But even when facing the weakest Costa Rican team in recent memory, victory at Saprissa is likely to be elusive.
Should the United States win tomorrow night a clear message will be sent to the world that this team can play in the toughest environments and excel. Whether the world is paying attention may be another matter, but the message will have been sent loud and clear.
I have no quarrel with English Football or English fans. In fact the one Football club I support is in fact an English club. (Manchester City FC). My quarrel is with the British media, insular, xenophobic and highly unschooled in world football. This media has had a malign influence on American fans and their view of their own national team and perspective on topics related to football in this country.