At 2014 World Cup, overlooked CONCACAF nations are serving notice

There was a time when distinguishing predator from prey wasn’t too difficult a task at the World Cup. Geography made it particularly easy, and the big, bad European clubs could lick their chops when a soccer team from the United States or the Caribbean islands scampered onto the pitch.

But that has not been the case in Brazil, where the oft-overlooked teams from CONCACAF have made a big statement. While the European teams and South American stars might dominate soccer headlines, the unheralded CONCACAF bunch has cleared out a nice pathway to the next round of World Cup play.

With its 3-1 win over Croatia on Monday, Mexico picked up enough points to return to the round of 16. Costa Rica, despite long pre-tournament odds, already advanced out of its group last week. And the United States can stay alive in the tournament with a tie Thursday against Germany and still win Group G outright with a victory. In some scenarios, the American team will advance even with a loss.

Never before have three CONCACAF teams advanced out of group play. Few analysts would’ve predicted such success out of the CONCACAF, the throat-clearing acronym for soccer’s governing body in North America, Central America and the Caribbean islands, but it’s been that kind of tournament, filled with exciting finishes and plenty of parity. The defending champs will soon be heading home to Spain while a scrappy underdog such as Costa Rica has earned an extended tour of Brazil.

“[I]n current football there are no easy games,” said Portugal midfielder Raul Meireles, whose team tied the United States, 2-2, Sunday in Manaus. “There aren’t favorite national teams. All games are difficult.”

Soccer fans around the world displayed their World Cup team pride with flags, funny hats and lots of chanting and cheering. (Divya Jeswani Verma/The Washington Post)

Somehow, the CONCACAF sides have netted points against the likes of Portugal, Ghana, Italy, Uruguay, Brazil and Cameroon. With a flurry of late goals Monday, Mexico picked up its second win of the tournament and locked up the second spot in Group A. It will now face the Netherlands, the Group B winner, on Sunday in Fortaleza. Mexico will be making its fifth straight appearance in the round of 16; it has failed to reach the quarterfinals in its previous four tries.

No team in the tournament has been more surprising than Costa Rica. Oddsmakers slapped the Ticos with long-shot odds, many pegging them as 2,500-to-1 underdogs to win the tournament.

“We dared to dream that we could beat Uruguay and we did,” Costa Rica defender Junior Diaz said last week. “Then we dreamed we could beat Italy and reach the second round and we did. Now we can dream even bigger.”

“I think it’s only now, a little after the game, that it’s sinking in how much this achievement will mean to the people of Costa Rica,” forward Bryan Ruiz said following the Ticos’ 1-0 win over Italy.

CONCACAF, with 41 members stretching from Canada to Panama, is not considered one of FIFA’s most competitive confederations, its level of play normally regarded as several tiers below soccer in Europe and South America. But CONCACAF soccer does present some unique challenges that might have prepared its teams for World Cup play. From country to country, fields can be unpredictable and weather unbearable. And the travel can make bouncing around Brazil feel like an leisurely road trip.

“Going through CONCACAF, we’re not complaining. We just go into the countries and make the best out of it,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said last week. “If it goes great, okay. If it doesn’t go great, you learn your lesson.”

The United States was the last CONCACAF nation to advance past the round of 16 in World Cup play, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002. Before that, no squad from North America, Central America or the Caribbean islands reached the quarters since Mexico in 1986. The United States’ third-place finish in the inaugural tournament in 1930 still stands as the best finish by a CONCACAF nation.

See where most World Cup players compete during the rest of the year.

Even before the field in the round of 16 here is settled, CONCACAF has already sent a strong message to the global soccer community. The four teams in the tournament — United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Honduras — tied for the most CONCACAF had ever sent to the World Cup.

Costa Rica, which faces England on Tuesday, has reached the round of 16 for just the second time. The Ticos entered the tournament ranked 28th in the world by FIFA, before upsetting No. 7 Uruguay and No. 9 Italy.

“We don’t want to stop there,” Costa Rica Coach Jorge Luis Pinto. “It’s only the start.”

CONCACAF had three guaranteed slots in the 32-team World Cup field, and a fourth team — Mexico — backed its way in by topping New Zealand in a playoff (with a big assist from a U.S. squad that eliminated Panama). Organization officials were hopeful that a strong showing in Brazil would give it leverage to earn four guaranteed spots in the 2018 Cup in Russia.

Regardless of how the next round plays out, the CONCACAF sides have shown they’ve come a long way and can no longer be overlooked.

“This championship just goes to show that every team has a level that is very difficult to beat. Just look at the results,” Netherlands Coach Louis van Gaal said. “There is no walk in the park.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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