Four years ago CONCACAF sent four teams to the World Cup: USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Somewhat remarkably three of those four teams made it to the knockout rounds: USA and Mexico both advanced as far as the Round of 16. Mexico would eventually loose, on a controversial penalty, to the Netherlands. The US eventually fell to Belgium in extra time, while Costa Rica defeated Greece on penalties in the Round of 16 before falling to the Netherlands on penalties in the quarterfinals.
This time around CONCACAF is only sending three teams to the World Cup: Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. Honduras finished fourth in the Hex but lost the home and home playoff with Australia. It’s safe to say that four years ago the CONCACAF teams surpassed expectations by a wide margin.
Will that be the case this time around?
They’ve been knocked out of the World Cup in the Round of 16 six consecutive times: in 1994 by Bulgaria, in 1998 by Germany, in 2002 by the USA, in 2006 by Argentina, in 2010 by Argentina and in 2014 by the Netherlands. Theoretically it doesn’t get any easier this time for them. Their group consists of Germany, Sweden, and South Korea.
Obviously the Germans are the reigning champions. They always make a deep run at the World Cup, having gone to the semifinals of every World Cup since 2002. Last summer, they breezed past Mexico at the Confederations Cup by a score of 4-1. Sweden figures to be a tough out as they finished 2nd in the World Cup Qualifying group behind France and then beat Italy in the home and home playoff. South Korea figures to be the least difficult of Mexico’s opponents but they have proven before that they can pull some surprises on the sport’s biggest stage.
Many experts are picking Mexico to finish second in the group and that’s not at all unreasonable. But that does put a bit of a damper on the expectation of advancing past the Round of 16. This would mean that they would more than likely play Brazil in their first knockout game. And right now, Brazil is on fire. After topping the table in South American qualifying, their recent form continues to shine.
But there is reason for hope that this time might be different. Mexico has perhaps their most talented team ever with the likes of Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez, Hector Herrera and the old warrior Rafa Marquez.
They also have a top class manager in Juan Carlos Osorio. Though, despite winning 75% of his games, he is despised by the Mexican fans and media. This has led to speculation that no matter what happens at the World Cup, he’ll be gone soon after. Results in their warmup games have been spotty as well. So far this year they’ve beaten Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iceland and Scotland while falling to Croatia and Denmark, and drawing Wales. It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s not too difficult to imagine Mexico heading for a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit.
Costa Rica is a much different story.
This time around it’s difficult to gauge their chances. Their group consists of Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.
Brazil is obviously world class and it would take an Earth-shattering, seismic shock, to see Costa Rica get a win. But it feels like the games against Switzerland and Serbia could both go either way. Interestingly, midfielder Yeltsin Tejada plays his club ball in Switzerland with Lausanne.
The 23 man roster looks solid for the Ticos as a number of the players on this roster were also in Brazil four years ago. Marco Urena, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz lead the attack. Celso Borges and Christian Bolanos anchor the midfield and only one defender has fewer than 21 caps (Ian Smith). While, Keylor Navas is in goal fresh off winning the Champions League with Real Madrid.
Their results in their respective warmup friendlies this year have been hit and miss. Wins came against Scotland and Northern Ireland coupled with losses to Tunisia and England. It’s not too much of a stretch to think Costa Rica can get to the Round of 16. If they do, that’s where the dream would more than likely end as they would probably end up having to play Germany.
What about Panama?
The third and final CONCACAF team to qualify for the World Cup is Panama.
Panama is one of only two nations to be playing in their first World Cup (along with Iceland). This has been a long time coming for Los Canaleros. Most famously they came so close four years ago. Leading the USA 2-1 in the final minutes of the final qualifier before Graham Zusi scored an equalizer and Aron Johannsson scored the winner to break Panamanian hearts. The result sent Mexico through to the home and home playoff against New Zealand.
It may have been a long wait but Panama has certainly been busy since then.
They finished 3rd at the 2015 Gold Cup. Then, qualifying for the 2016 Copa America Centenario. There they managed to win a game and even stole into a shock lead against eventual champions Chile. Their last achievement would be making it to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Gold Cup. The squad for this World Cup could very easily be considered ancient, with 10 of the 23 players over the age of 30.
But with that age comes a vast wealth of experience with five of those players earning over 100 caps. In addition to the players being experienced, manager Hernan Gomez is one of only four people to take three different countries to the World Cup. His previous trips included taking Colombia to France 98 and Ecuador to Korea/Japan 02.
Up front Blas Perez, Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres figure to be the main goal scoring threats while guys like Anibal Godoy and Gabriel Gomez will control the midfield. On the backline Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy figure to be the ones most capable of putting out any fires and in goal is Jaime Penedo.
Panama’s group figures to be a tough one. Obviously the contenders are England and Belgium with Tunisia being something of an unknown.
On the face of things getting out of the group would seem to be a monumental task for the Panamanians but Belgium has been less than impressive in their last two international tournaments, despite making it to the quarterfinals of both Euro 2016 and the 2014 World Cup. England, on the other hand, has been dismal at their last two World Cups. Failing to get out of the group in Brazil and getting trounced by Germany in the Round of 16 in South Africa.
Results in their warmup friendlies have not been good. Losses to Denmark, Switzerland (by a shocking 6-0), and Norway; and a draw against Northern Ireland with a win against Trinidad & Tobago. Whether Panama gets out of the group or not the biggest thing for them is that they’re just happy to be here playing in their first World Cup.
Four years ago CONCACAF kind of shocked the world.
This year it might be harder to do that. It wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise to see two of the three teams make it out of the group stage. It would be a surprise to see all three of them do it, and an even bigger surprise to see any of them advance past the Round of 16. But surprises can and do happen.
That’s why they play the games. In any case, CONCACAF should have a respectable showing at this World Cup.
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