Soccer in the world of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) is a tricky beast. It’s like spunky mid-major college basketball. You’re not quite sure who’s good, who’s bad and who just refuses to die.
It stands to reason that Mexico would be the big fish in the CONCACAF pond. After all, they have a rich soccer history, and they won the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics. But Mexico barely qualified for the World Cup at all. They had to survive a goofy playoff with New Zealand to squeak into one of the final bubble spots.
So maybe, oddly enough, the United States are the power driving CONCACAF. They won the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF version of the regional tournaments they hold between World Cups. The United States have definitely been on the rise over the past twelve years. In the final game of the Gold Cup tournament, they played Panama, who didn’t qualify for the World Cup. But Panama beat Mexico to get to that final game, and the United States beat Honduras, who is playing in the World Cup on this very day.
The point is, CONCACAF is a popcorn mess, not a one or two team show. In that entire paragraph above, I never once mentioned Costa Rica, one of the biggest surprises of the World Cup thus far. They “CONCACAFed” Uruguay last week, and they gave Italy a good “CONCACAFing” today; and as a result they knocked mighty England out of the World Cup and they haven’t even played them yet. Right now, they look like the strongest team in the conference. Fans who watch Team USA out of the corner of their eye might remember Costa Rica as “the team we played in the snow game.” If not for the snow, how would the United States have fared? It’s hard to say, but one thing we know for sure about Costa Rica: They aren’t afraid of anybody.
What if Costa Rica and the United States switched groups? I feel pretty good about Costa Rica’s chances against Ghana, given what we saw. And maybe the United States would have fared well against Uruguay sans Luis Suarez (or, maybe if they’d played the United States instead of Costa Rica, Suarez wouldn’t have sat out the game). The United States did beat Italy in a friendly two years ago, so it’s not out of the realm of imagination that, as the results stand today, things would have been the same.
But could Costa Rica go toe-to-toe with Portugal and Germany and do a little CONCACAFing? I would love to see them try. If the United States aren’t careful, soon they might be racing to keep up with them. Iron sharpens iron, and it’s fun to see CONCACAF on the rise.