CONCACAF is Mexico, the United States, and everyone else. This is a line that is used quite frequently when one is searching for things to talk about CONCACAF.
Whether at a bar, a match, or in a studio the following thoughts are almost always expressed when talking about the region during the Gold Cup, the top international competition in North and Central America, “Two big teams, a bunch of small ones, and hey isn’t Canada terrible? Next question.”
There is some truth to this. Yes, Mexico and the United States have been the two dominant sides in the region for the past twenty years. Combined they have won 12 of the past thirteen Gold Cups (Canada won the competition in 2000) and both sides have qualified for each of the past six World Cups.
But if there is one lesson that is being learned during this Gold Cup it is that the region is no longer a pool with just two big sharks. Although the United States and Mexico have qualified for the knockout round with little fanfare, the teams in the best form have come from Central America and the Caribbean. Over the past week players and teams all throughout the region have shown that this group is bigger than just the U.S.A. in Mexico.
This is a very interesting time for CONCACAF. With the arrests of dozens of CONCACAF officials, including now-disgraced President Jeffrey Webb, just months ago the region has obviously sustained a very heavy black eye.
The incessant ramblings of ex-FIFA Vice President and former head of the Football Association of Trindad and Tobago Jack Warner and the bizarre tastes of former Executive Vice President of U.S. Soccer Chuck Blazer have sullied the victory of the United States Women’s National Team at the 2015 World Cup and, to a degree, this tournament.
It is sad to extent that this scandal is breaking at a time when CONCACAF is showing that the fruits of additional investment can bear on a developing countries football program. Perhaps it was a positive externality of FIFA’s otherwise alleged corrupt business practices but the improvement of football programs in the developing world is something worth noting.
This has certainly been on display at this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, with teams outside of the normal who’s-who making waves in shark-infested waters.
In Group A, Honduran midfielder Andy Najar has taken the Cup by storm. The former D.C. United Youth Academy product and current Standard Liege wide man gave the United States fits in their first match and gave Los Catrachos a much-needed draw against Panama.
Meanwhile Haiti, a team who three years prior were without a home and a football association due to the terrible earthquakes, find themselves in prime position to make the next round after scoring late against Panama.
In Group B, Jamaica have followed up a strong Copa America campaign with an equally impressive showing at the Gold Cup. With one match to play the Reggae Boyz have already escaped with a draw against 2014 World Cup quarterfinalists Costa Rica. Their dismantling of pre-tournament darlings Canada all but secured their spot in the next round with a match to play.
Despite neither team achieving a desired result, both Canada and Costa Rica have put on performances that their supporters can appreciate. In particular with Canada, a country who just a few years ago found themselves next to Mauritania and Samoa in the FIFA World Cup Rankings, any positive results should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Beyond the results, it is the quality of play that has made this Gold Cup such a special tournament. Aside from Mexico’s 6-1 thrashing of Cuba, every match has been close matches that had two goal deficits featuring excellent back and forth. This is an indication that play in CONCACAF is improving.
The footballing world should have seen this coming. Mexico’s near-elimination from World Cup Qualification was largely seen as a one-off. But the strong play of Costa Rica, Mexico, and the USA seemed to really catch people off-guard.
So what is the reason for this improvement in play? More opportunities for growth seems to be the main reason. Expansion in Major League Soccer and in the lower divisions of U.S. Soccer (which includes squads in Canada) has led to more opportunities for players to learn and play different styles of the game. That expansion in knowledge ultimately leads to more well-rounded players and in the end stronger national teams.
Beyond North America it seems that there are also more opportunities for players from the region in Europe. Likewise, football associations in the region are doing better at marketing their players and scouting players in other parts of the world who might be eligible to play for their national team.
Haiti is a perfect example of this, using FIFA’s loose rules on player eligibility to pick up players from places like France, England, Mexico and, of course, the United States.
All of these reasons point to football associations in the region taking national team service more seriously.
The question now is can one of the minnows win the Gold Cup? Although both Mexico and the United States have shown themselves to be strong adversaries there is room for a spoiler.
Jamaica seems to be the best bet with their stout defense and excellent wide play. But keep an eye on the ‘Soca Warriors’ of Trinidad and Tobago. Led by Kenwyne Jones, ‘T and T’ find themselves atop of Group C needing just a point to finish first.