Soccer teams from around the world visited the United States this summer for dozens of friendlies and preseason tournaments. The influx will continue over the next 10 days, only with greater stakes.
For the first time, the Copa Centroamericana, the region’s seven-nation biennial championship, will take place at U.S. venues, starting Wednesday at RFK Stadium with three matches.
In its first competition since the World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil, Costa Rica will field as many as seven first-choice players against Nicaragua at 5:30 p.m.
World Cup participant Honduras will face Belize at 7:30 and, in the most appealing match to fans in Washington’s Latin American community, El Salvador and Guatemala square off at 9:30. (Panama received a first-day bye.)
First-round matches will continue Sunday in Dallas and next Wednesday in Houston before placement games are held Sept. 13 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
As with the summer tours, U.S. dollars are at the root of the decision to play here. While the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid visited for ticketing and marketing purposes, the Union of Central American Football (UNCAF) broke from tradition for the purpose of tapping into an enormous base of Latin American expatriates.
All four venues have large Central American communities, with Washington serving as a hotbed for Salvadoran soccer. With that in mind, El Salvador was chosen to play Spain in June at FedEx Field for the 2010 World Cup champion’s final tuneup before flying to Brazil. Many of the 53,267 in attendance supported the Salvadorans.
This tournament is no exhibition, however. Four teams will qualify for next summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States, the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean. A fifth team will enter a playoff against a Caribbean side for a Gold Cup berth.
The Copa Centroamericana winner will also advance to the 2016 Copa America, the celebrated South American competition to be staged in the United States for the first time.
As heavy favorites, Costa Rica and Honduras were placed in separate groups. Neither team is at full strength. Although the first week of the tournament falls in an official international scheduling window, allowing national teams to request players without interference from clubs, many top-choice candidates were allowed to remain with their full-time employers.
Costa Rica, for instance, did not summon goalkeeper Keylor Navas, whose World Cup performance led to Real Madrid acquiring him from fellow Spanish club Levante. The Ticos did recall, among others, Arsenal forward Joel Campbell, Brugge defender Oscar Duarte and AIK Stockholm midfielder Celso Borges.
Also named to the 21-man squad was Portland Timbers midfielder Rodney Wallace, a former Bullis School and University of Maryland player who began his pro career with D.C. United.
The Ticos are in transition after a stormy breakup with World Cup Coach Jorge Luis Pinto, who had issues with the Costa Rican federation and his own staff. “I slept with the enemy for 1½ years,” Pinto said in late July. Assistant Paulo Wanchope took charge.
Costa Rica advanced to the final in 11 of the 12 previous Copa Centroamericanas, winning seven times.
Honduras, a three-time champion, left behind most of the players from the winless World Cup squad, including Anderlecht wing Andy Najar (Edison High, D.C. United) and Wigan midfielder Roger Espinoza. All but four members of this squad play in the domestic league.
El Salvador seeks to continue rebuilding efforts under new Coach Albert Roca after enduring a widespread match-fixing scandal last year.
Guatemala’s roster features Seattle Sounders midfielder Marco Pappa and 2002 MLS MVP Carlos Ruiz, the program’s career scoring leader who has come out of international retirement. Ruiz, 34, spent 2013 with D.C. United and currently plays for Municipal in Guatemala City.
Panama summoned Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and FC Dallas forward Blas Perez. Nicaragua and Belize have a combined record of 5-45-9 in tournament history.