The quaint early stages of CONCACAF qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ are over. From now on, it’s serious business. The lesser lights are gone and those left alive will have to face the region’s heavy-hitters. USA, Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica are all in action on Friday, taking their first steps on the hopeful road to Russia.
The big game
Sometimes a result can be so bad, go so wrong, that it sticks with a player. It hangs around in the psyche and taunts him, attacking his sense of professional dignity. Such is the case with ten members of Canada’s current team, who in 2012, travelled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras needing a draw to stay alive in Brazil 2014 qualifying. What they got instead was a humiliating 8-1 loss. They now begin their 2018 campaign at home in Vancouver against those same men with the H on their chests. “It was the lowest point,” Julian De Guzman told FIFA.com. “We have a chance to show the world that result was a fluke, an accident.” With many like him in the side recalling first-hand what that defeat felt like, it shouldn’t take much for coach Benito Floro to motivate the locker-room.
The Hondurans, however, won’t be eager to help their hosts through the grieving process in this Group A fixture. A team radically transformed from the one that struggled in Brazil last year, new coach Jorge Luis Pinto promises a new style like the one he used to take Costa Rica to the World Cup quarter-finals.
In Group A, reigning CONCACAF champions Mexico begin their account against El Salvador at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Once a fortress, the Mexicans dropped results there on the bumpy road to Brazil 2014. But they still boast top players like Andres Guardado and a resurgent Javier Chicharito Hernandez. The Salvadorans are a wild card, after a string of inconsistent results in the early rounds.
Group B sees Costa Rica open with a tricky contest against much-improved Haiti, who impressed at the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup under coach Marc Collat. The Ticos are still trying to find a rhythm under their new coach Oscar Ramirez. But they beat USA in a recent friendly and have a stable of world-class players to call on. They will, however, have to do without injured Keylor Navas, who has legitimate claims to being the best goalkeeper in the world. Celso Borges of Deportivo La Coruna, Arsenal’s Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, back from a minor injury, will lead the lines.
The other game in the section pits Jamaica, surprise runners-up at the Gold Cup, against Panama, who finished third in the tournament.
In Group C the USA face off with a mercifully manageable test against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, remaining minnows from the early rounds. It’s a welcome development for US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose job has come under media scrutiny following a terrible run of form. In search of goals and a midfield that makes sense, the Americans will be without Clint Dempsey, who was left out of the side.
The other game pits Guatemala against Trinidad and Tobago, another Caribbean side on the rise. The Soca Warriors are led by veteran captain Kenwyne Jones and boast a raft of young up-and-comers ready to make their mark.
Player to watch
Tevin Slater (St. Vincent and the Grenadines)
SVG striker Tevin Slater has five goals in his four games, making him top-scorer in CONCACAF qualifying up to this point. It’s up to the USA defence, currently low on confidence, to keep the 21-year-old, a fisherman by day, from getting any more. “We’re not afraid,” he said recently. “We’re a team that likes to attack, maybe we like to attack too much depending on who you ask.” SVG have scored ten goals in their four qualifying games, but they’ve conceded seven.
Did you know?
The United States, five-time CONCACAF champions, have lost their last three games on home soil. Losses to Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica represent the first time since 1997 that the Stars and Stripes have dropped three home fixtures on the trot, and that doesn’t even take into account their losses in the Gold Cup to Jamaica in the semi-finals and Panama in the third-place match. The US have, in fact, lost four of their last six home games, a crisis by any measure. “I accept it — criticism when there are bad results is part of life,” said coach Klinsmann.
What they said
“Technology has ensured that the gap between national teams is closing all the time and it’s no coincidence that Mexico have struggled in the last few qualifiers. If we’re going to prevent that from happening again, we need to understand what type of game El Salvador play,” Mexico’s new coach Juan Carlos Osorio on the tricky opener with unpredictable El Salvador at the Azteca.
Fixtures (Round 4 Matchday 1 fixtures)
USA-St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Guatemala-Trinidad and Tobago