By J Hutcherson (Aug 3, 2021) US Soccer Players – If there’s a takeaway in this era of Nations Leagues and compacted schedules, it’s that whatever just happened only counts for so long. The Concacaf Nations League ended a little over a month before the Gold Cup began. Now it’s World Cup qualifying set to start on September 2. What’s already clear is that success in this region is even more of a moving target. The USMNT enters the new Octagonal final round with two trophies and plenty of momentum. Mexico was two late goals from not facing this level of scrutiny. With that in in mind, it’s worth asking what we’ve learned about the losing Nations League semifinalists over a summer of competitive soccer.
Let’s start with what happened back in June. If the USA, Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica are the top four teams in the region, as the Nations League suggests, it’s tough to make that work for the losing semifinalists. The third-place game at the Nations League didn’t help. Honduras beat Costa Rica on penalties, with Costa Rica calling time on their coach after a friendly loss to the USMNT. While there’s no doubt something needed to happen with Costa Rica sliding down the FIFA World Rankings, their Nations League run deserves some respect. So does Honduras’s, for that matter. There wasn’t a clear enough distinction between 3rd and 4th, with the argument that the same was true of all of the semifinalists.
Costa Rica took Mexico to penalties in their opener, while Jordan Siebatcheu scored in the 89th minute to knockout Honduras. Neither of the losing teams looked overmatched, with both raising tactical questions about their opponents. How the USMNT eventually beat Mexico overshadows that semifinal, showing a team willing to take significant risks that ultimately paid off. Though it was the last game for Costa Rica under Ronald Gonzalez, a 4-0 friendly loss immediately following the Nations League probably didn’t tell us much more about either team.
Moving to the Gold Cup and with similar rosters for both tournaments, Honduras had a tougher time. They lost to Qatar on the final matchday to advance in 2nd-place in group D. It’s worth the reminder that Qatar drew with Panama in its opener while Honduras beat them 3-2. Panama looked better than expected in both of those games, trading goals with Qatar in an open game and then coming back to take the lead against Honduras.
Losing to Qatar put Honduras on the Mexico side of the bracket, playing them in the quarterfinals. That 3-0 loss was a bigger result for a Mexico team that needed to shake off an indirect route to the knockout stage. Sure, Mexico did as expected and won group A. What they didn’t do was dominate it, drawing with Trinidad & Tobago in their opener. After a 3-0 shutout of Guatemala, Mexico saw out the group with a 1-0 win over El Salvador. That game raised questions with Mexico coming too close to a 2nd-place finish to impress the FMF or its fans.
Honduras caught the brunt of that in the knockout round, the unlucky focus of El Tri’s restatement of purpose. 3rd-place in the Nations League and a quarterfinal exit in the Gold Cup doesn’t reflect some of the soccer Honduras played over the summer. Against a fuller strength version of the USMNT, they were a tough team to break down. In looser games in the group stage of the Gold Cup, they showed a willingness to get caught up in the run of play. That ultimately didn’t pay off, with a more organized version of Honduras likely proving tougher for Qatar and Mexico.
Under new coach Luis Fernando Suarez, Costa Rica found a rhythm in group C. They advanced with the full nine points, with the only surprise a closer than expected 2-1 win over Suriname. A 1-0 shutout of Jamaica in the final matchday came courtesy of a 53rd minute goal from Bryan Ruiz. What amounts to business as usual for Costa Rica had returned. Get the odd goal and don’t get caught up in total shots (19 to 5 for Jamaica) or amount of possession (53% to Jamaica) and passes (424 to 351 for Jamaica).
That run of form ran into a Canadian side in the quarterfinals, exiting 2-0 in a game Canada controlled. That wasn’t the best advertisement for what Costa Rica might show home and away in World Cup qualifying, but reevaluating Canada is one of the biggest takeaways of this tournament. Simply put, Canada surprised three of the four Nations League semifinalists in the Gold Cup. They played the USMNT close in a 1-0 loss in their group B finale. They had a clear path to playing the USMNT again in the final, only to lose to a late goal in stoppage time against Mexico.
It’s worth pointing out that Costa Rica lost to a slightly tougher version of Canada’s roster than the one Mexico eventually beat. Canada didn’t have its complete first choice attack in either of those games, missing leading scorer Cyle Larin and Ayo Akinola. They played Mexico without Lucas Cavallini, showing what Canada could do under extreme pressure.
Canada is no longer an emerging team. The United States, Costa Rica, and Mexico now have first-hand experience trying to break them down, and without Alphonso Davies in the lineup. For Costa Rica, that has to be their biggest carryover from the Gold Cup. It’s not just that they exited to Canada, it’s that they now have to figure out how to get past that kind of squad in the Octagonal.
For all the near results at both tournaments, the eight teams left in Concacaf World Cup qualifying now fully understand the slight margin for error they now face. Honduras and Costa Rica showed that they’re at least in the conversation for once again advancing to the World Cup. Moving from the Hexagonal to the Octagonal only compounds the problems this time around, and on yet another compacted schedule. If Concacaf is becoming the confederation of 1-0 results and unexpected levels of competition, the final round of World Cup qualifying has never been this difficult.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com