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Regional Review

CONCACAF Power: A Once-Troubled Region on the Rise

With Costa Rica and Mexico already through and the U.S. in position to follow them to the knockout rounds, the oft-beleaguered region is raising eyebrows at the 2014 World Cup.

BY Jon Arnold Posted
June 24, 2014
8:23 AM
IT STARTED WITH a Joel Campbell strike.

Sure, Mexico won the day before, but it was the Ticos who really electrified the region. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, who may have previously despised Campbell for his dive that caused Matt Besler to miss a World Cup qualifier, sat on their couches on a Saturday afternoon and said to themselves, “Hey, these guys complained a lot about that snow and used some gamesmanship, but I’d rather see them win than Uruguay.”

U.S. fans who jumped on the CONCACAF bandwagon after the Arsenal loanee’s equalizer haven’t been disappointed. Oscar Duarte put the Ticos ahead of Uruguay, and by the time Marco Ureña added insurance in the 84th minute, the CONCACAF train had left the station.

It continued with a heroic save.

Guillermo Ochoa’s magnificent performance against Brazil turned some Mexico-haters into friendly neighbors, as the well-coiffed backstop helped El Tri to a scoreless draw. It might seem a little strange, the sudden upswell of support for teams which are usually rivals. But it speaks to the underdog mentality familiar to American fans.

It’s not just the U.S., though. “#ConcacafNuevaPotenciaMundial”, or CONCACAF the new global power, is being tweeted with regularity throughout Latin America. While other federations might still be rooting against their regional rivals, CONCACAF has adopted each other. One player normally reviled by Americans drew rave reviews from many for his passionate post-match comments Monday.

“The thing is, all the people think that CONCACAF is easy,” Chicharito told ESPN’s John Sutcliffe after Mexico’s 3-1 win against Croatia clinched qualification to the last 16. “And you see, first off the group to Costa Rica, the United States almost gets through. Honduras battling a little bit harder and not getting through, but CONCACAF is there. It's not an easy part of the world. We are growing up as players because there are a lot of CONCACAF players playing in Europe, and that helps a lot. Thankfully we got through.”

It kept building with another upset.

It’s been a good World Cup for the federation. In addition to Mexico getting through, Costa Rica topped off its surprise win against Uruguay with a 1-0 toppling of Italy. It sends them into the knockout rounds before a final match with England. Jorge Luis Pinto, the manager of the Ticos, said he’d learned lots from watching the Azzurri through the years.

Apparently he’d been watching closely enough to beat the team at its own game—or something resembling it. This wasn’t a sit-back-all-match-and-get-a-lucky-goal upset. Costa Rica defended well—and got a few breaks on misses from Mario Balotelli among others—but fully deserved the result it got when Bryan Ruiz’s 44th-minute header stood as the lone goal.

It wasn’t just American fans who were saluting their Snow Bowl foes. Jurgen Klinsmann jumped in too. It’s happening for a number of reasons.

It’s tough, however, to ignore both Mexico and Costa Rica playing with three center backs and a pair of wing backs. The formation has allowed the teams to defend really well, despite lacking some of the personnel other teams have, but also get forward and showcase dynamic attacking players like Campbell, Celso Borges, and Christian Bolaños for the Ticos and Hector Herrera, Oribe Peralta, and Gio dos Santos, in the case of Miguel Herrera’s men.

Costa Rica, in particular, is also leveraging some of that underdog feeling, with Jorge Luis Pinto continuing to raise rabble about drug testing. Pinto has taken issue with FIFA’s procedures since they showed up at his camp prior to the final friendlies.

It came as a shock.

Why didn’t anyone see this coming? Probably because the teams were pretty dire coming into the tournament. The U.S. made it through its pre-tournament friendlies undefeated but didn’t inspire too much confidence with shaky results against Azerbaijan and Turkey before dispatching Nigeria in a bit more convincing fashion.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica was blown out by Japan and limped to a 1-1 draw with Ireland in part because Robbie Keane failed to convert a second-half penalty minutes after Borges scored his against the run of play. Mexico was nearly thrown back into the media frenzy that enveloped it during the 2013 campaign after a dismal defeat to Bosnia before bouncing back in a loss to Portugal that saw El Tri lose in the last possible moments.

Nevertheless, two teams are through, with the U.S. having a very good chance of following suit. Five wins, two draws, and two losses heading into Tuesday’s matches. Oh, right. Those two losses.

It doesn’t mean revolution.

Honduras tried to join the party. It really did. After a lethargic game against France when Los Catrachos went down to 10 men and had no hope against Karim Benzema and Co., the team rebounded against Ecuador. Carlos Costly scored Honduras’ first goal since the second group match of the 1982 World Cup, but Luis Fernando Suarez’s men couldn’t cope with Enner Valencia. The Pachuca man scored in both halves to lift Ecuador to the win.

There’s still an outside chance at qualification to the knockout round, but for now it seems likely the Central Americans will make another early exit, though already with more pride than they had when they left South Africa four years ago.

The struggles by the third-place finisher in the Hex are a reminder that there’s still a lack of depth in the federation. Jamaica, the best team in the Caribbean, was played off the pitch in a pre-World Cup friendly against France, and Panama—which ASN readers will recall nearly made CONCACAF’s playoff with Oceania’s one representative—had similar difficulties facing Brazil. Teams in the Caribbean go years without playing because of logistical and financial difficulties. Corruption still seems the lingua franca in some FAs.

Interest in club competitions hasn’t grown at a desirable rate. There’s work to be done.

It matters.

It all matters. A stronger region leads to higher FIFA rankings which means there’s a better chance of a CONCACAF team acquiring a cushier draw as a seeded team. Will FIFA realign World Cup slots? Better look to Asia before you nose around here.

The region has power. It has strength. It has exciting teams that are fun to watch and a fan base that, for now, is behind its brothers across borders.

It doesn’t have a World Cup winner or upstart teams pushing the regional powers. But the 2014 World Cup could be another building block as CONCACAF seeks to catch up with CONMEBOL to the south and UEFA across the Atlantic.

The message has already reached those regions. It’s resounding.

Jon Arnold is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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