The long road from CONCACAF to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia began in March of 2015 with the lowest ranked sides from the region’s 41 associations taking their first wobbly steps. Since then, the wheat’s been separated from the chaff and just 12 teams remain. Among them are big boys like Mexico, USA, Honduras, Jamaica and Costa Rica, up-and-comers like Panama, and even long-shot minnows like St. Vincent and Guatemala.

Memorable match
Jamaica 0-2 Panama - 13 November 2015
Panama have been knocking on the door of the World Cup finals for the last decade. And according to their captain Felipe Baloy: “the time is now.” Their opening group-stage win over Jamaica –  CONCACAF Gold Cup runners-up – in Kingston was a warning to the rest of the region. The Central Americans were in total control from the opening whistle. They pressed in numbers to great effect against the Reggae Boyz. Armando Cooper’s opener was an audacious free-kick that helped the Canaleros, hands-down the most improved team in the region over the last 15 years, dreaming again of that elusive debut on the world stage.

Surprise package
It’s no surprise that USA are top of Group C in the semi-final stage after two games. What is surprising is how disjointed they have looked in getting there. For years a giant in the region, Jurgen Klinsmann’s Americans have fallen on harder times. Their loss to Jamaica on home soil in the semi-final of this summer’s Gold Cup was a sign of problems, as was their loss on penalties in the third-place game against Panama. They opened their Russia 2018 qualifying account with a 6-1 hammering of whipping boys St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but they looked slovenly and out of sorts a few days later in Port of Spain, with a dour, dreary 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago, who are now level with them in the section.

Player(s) to watch
New coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s Mexico reasserted their authority after a wobbly campaign to reach the last World Cup in 2014. One hallmark of his current team – clearly the best in CONCACAF – is the injection of some fine young blood. In a dominant performance against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the introduction of Porto-based sparkplug Jesus Corona (22) on the left and Jurgen Damm, 23, of Tigres, on the right, turned the game. Both scored sensational goals to give El Tri their first competitive win in the Honduran city in 50 years, and they also gave the watching world a glimpse of two future superstars. 

The number
10 - Minnows St. Vincent and the Grenadines are out of their depth in the semi-final round. A side that fought through the early stages, they are comprised of all amateurs – a Coast Guard officer, a fisherman, and a schoolteacher among them. They conceded six against USA and four against Guatemala in their two group games, making it ten goals against in two games. “Maybe our coach is right,” said young striker Tevin Slater, who is top-scorer in the CONCACAF qualifiers. “We might need to focus a bit more on defence.”

What they said
"This has been a challenging year for our team [USA]. But we continue to understand the opportunity and responsibility we have to represent the United States and how important it is to give it everything every time we step on the field. That's what means most to me..." USA veteran Michael Bradley issues a rallying cry after being voted best USA men's player for 2015, a year in which the Stars and Stripes lost five of their last eight games.   

Up next
Mexico want to keep a stranglehold on top spot in Group A when they meet Canada, much improved under new coach Benito Floro, in March of 2016. In Group B, Costa Rica’s perfect record will be tested against Jamaica. USA, without suspended midfielder Jermaine Jones will hope for more convincing output in their two contests with Guatemala.