By Charles Bohm – WASHINGTON, DC (June 18, 2021) US Soccer Players – Much of the Concacaf 2022 World Cup qualifying finals will look familiar to the USMNT and its supporters. Costa Rica and Mexico are permanent opponents in this phase, which this time is growing from the legendary hexagonal to the COVID-adjusted “octagonal” format. Visits to the Federal District and San Jose have been terrifyingly difficult for US teams for decades. That is likely to continue in the months ahead. Costly housing losses at El Tri and Los Ticos in the 2018 cycle are a reminder that there are no guarantees on home soil.
Honduras is also omnipresent in this competition. Los Catrachos have made sultry San Pedro Sula one of the most uncomfortable travel destinations in the region. Her identity of defiance and savage physicality is now well established. It has earned them travel to two of the last three World Championships and four consecutive Olympic Games, a source of great pride amid the many challenges that make daily life in the nation difficult.
This mix of steel and game art has also become a central feature of their close Panama neighbors. While the USMNT have historically very rarely lost to them, Los Canaleros are rather uncomfortable to play. Their fans are notorious for their disruptive hospitality when visitors land on the isthmus. The whims of the FIFA world rankings forced them to make it through the first two qualifying rounds, but they have proven they are one of them.
This is only the third time in this century that Jamaica has reached the final round of World Cup qualifiers. Still, the reggae boyz are generally a familiar figure, albeit with the potential for a dramatic injection of dual-national talent from across the diaspora this time around. You will be fast, robust, manned by a contingent of players from the USA and Canada, and confident in “The Office” in Kingston.
It is two lesser-known teams that get the most benefit from the expanded “Ocho”. Both of these make the round robin competition more interesting and potentially more challenging for the establishment.
Canada has long been one of the confederation’s greatest underachievers. The Great White North has a large football population and a 21st century trend of growing domestic infrastructure via three MLS clubs and the arrival of the Canadian Premier League. But Les Rouges have wandered into one heartbreaking quality heartbreak after another. After participating in the 1998 edition of the Hexagonal, they haven’t tried the finals since the breakthrough this week. Her World Cup duck, which dates back to her only appearance in 1986, is even older.
Well the prospects are unrecognizable compared to those bad old days. Canada was furious when it came close to the arbitrary line for Concacaf automatic third-place qualification set through FIFA’s algorithms. That became fuel for a dominant march through the preliminary phases. They won six games in a row with 30 goals scored and only one goal conceded.
COVID-19 was the main obstacle to an expanded border closure that forced Canada into exile, as did the country’s three MLS clubs. Empty venues in Florida and Illinois had to serve as home away from home, undermining the advantage they often enjoyed on their territory. The group held out, spurred on by the drumming personality of charismatic trainer John Herdman. They treated potentially treacherous matchups like an Eredivisie-enhanced Suriname and a home-and-home streak with Haiti.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone,” said goalkeeper and captain Milan Borjan after beating Haiti 3-0 on Tuesday at SeatGeek Stadium, the former home of the Chicago Fire. “Teams should be afraid of Canada now.”
The product of the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy and the world-class Cinderella story Alphonso Davies is at the head of a large player pool with outstanding players from the MLS and European clubs. Herdman has demonstrated tactical and selective skills that live up to his reputation for motivational skills. They seem like a legitimate contender for Qatar, especially given the chance to play back home again during the many international showcases in cool weather this cycle.
As Borjan’s words suggest, the collective self-confidence and serenity of the team soar. They may finally be nearing their long dormant potential as they ascend to what Herdman called “the great mountain” of the octagon. “Climb with us, it happens,” he said. “We made it.”
Canada and the rest of the Octagonal Field shouldn’t overlook El Salvador along the way. On paper, Los Cuscatlecos are the biggest outsider among the eight finalists, a small country with modest means without a World Cup participation since 1982 and only two trips to the hexagonal. A USMNT icon and several dual nationals from the United States have supported their quest to become the mouse that roars in this cycle.
Hugo Perez took over the management of El Salvador in April and resigned from his U23 post for family reasons after the resignation of Carlos de los Cobos. He has to admit defeat in four qualifying games. As a veteran of the 1994 US World Cup and coach of the US youth national team from 2012 to 2014, Perez has received much praise for his leadership role. However, he is the first to realize that the tiny island nations they have encountered so far are a long way from the tough octagon matches that are to come.
“I’ve learned in my career that discipline and commitment are non-negotiable,” said Perez in a recent interview with a Salvadoran outlet. “We won four games with 16 goals scored; everyone is happy, even those who don’t play. But when adversity comes, you can tell. We have taken an important step, but it will take time. “
To add to the roster, he has recruited some newcomers that many watchers across the States will be familiar with, starting with his nephew Josh Perez. The winger played more than two dozen games for US youth national teams as a member of the talented group born in 1998, which also included Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Haji Wright. As a teenager he signed with the Italian club Fiorentina. After a time at LAFC he is now back in Europe with the Spanish second division UD Ibiza and changed his international loyalty in February.
Toronto FC defender Eriq Zavaleta and USL attackers Walmer Martinez and Joaquin Rivas have also been added to the mix this year and have contributed from the start. Los Angeles-based Gerson Mayen and Chiva’s USA product is another key figure for El Salvador. Defense attorney Alex Roldan, a standout for the Seattle Sounders in 2021 and brother of USMN’s Cristian, is also reported to join the Cuscaleco cause.
Canada and El Salvador are also the USMNT’s first two opponents in qualifying. Gregg Berhalter’s group will open their octagonal campaign with a visit to San Salvador to face Perez & Co. on September 2nd, then receive Les Rouges in a yet-to-be-determined US venue three days later before closing that window in Honduras becomes. This tricky trio of match days will set the tone for the challenging seven month race for Qatar.
It is noteworthy that the second legs for the same three opponents will take place in the new mid-winter window in late January and early February, which represents the potential for creepy game art on the part of Canada and the United States. As with the Hex, only three automatic qualification slots are offered for the Ocho, which could reinforce the importance of the traditional “home win, draw on the go” calculations.
The margin of error could be tighter than ever. That could make positive results against the Octagonal outsiders even more important than those against the traditional powers of Concacaf.
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com