Qualifying doesn’t have much correlation to how teams actually perform in the World Cup, but the CONCACAF final round actually showed quite a bit about the region’s new place in world soccer.
The final round of CONCACAF qualifying, dubbed “The Hexagonal” because there are six teams, was extremely competitive for the 2014 cycle, and in a way that was different from most cycles.
CONCACAF has gone through very clear eras. For a long time, Mexico was like a sixth-grader who grew to be 6-foot-5, and it just pounded the lot of much weaker peers.
Beginning in the early 1990s, as soccer proliferated in the United States – always something of a sleeping giant in world soccer – the Americans grew to be Mexico’s rival. Within the span of a generation, the Americans established themselves as a side that was as good or better than its southern neighbors.
Yet there still was a divide in the region. It used to be the U.S., Mexico and somewhere several galaxies away, everybody else. (Consider the Gold Cup, the confederation’s main tournament, which has been played 12 times. The U.S. and Mexico have won 11.)
It seems during the last cycle that CONCACAF has transitioned into a new and better time.
There was real competition from everybody in the hexagonal, and qualifying out of CONCACAF finally means more than an eye roll from the rest of the world.
Honduras established Tegucigalpa as a true stronghold during the past cycle, in the same vein of Estadio Azteca, Mexico’s legendary home base.
For so long, support was the only thing the U.S. couldn’t manufacture for its national team.
That’s not the case anymore.
The Yanks were supported everywhere they went during the past cycle, and the U.S. federation didn’t need to fall back on its time-honored tradition of playing games in cities where a large number of opposing fans could attend. The Americans now have meaningful qualifying homes in at least 10 states.
Let’s not forget Costa Rica, which was perhaps a snow-ruined game away from winning the group in qualifying.
Jamaica has been able to consistently put its top players in respectable leagues, and Panama has grown as a federation during the past 10 years.
Suitable finishes in the World Cup were had by three of the qualifiers. The U.S. and Mexico lost to better teams in the round of 16, while Costa Rica was a penalty shootout away from the semifinals.
There is a ways to go for any CONCACAF nation to be a consistent world top-10 team, but depth will aid the region in the long-term.
CONCACAF teams now will play in the Copa America – South America’s confederation tournament – beginning in 2016, another step of integrating with world powers.
The U.S.-Mexico era of CONCACAF was fun for the Americans, who often breezed through their regional competitors in major competitions. That time likely is finished, and the new era of CONCACAF should be embraced by U.S. fans.
Quality tends to follow demand.
A better region won’t hurt.