Russia 2018 qualifying continues in CONCACAF this week with a host of new combatants joining the fray to take on the winners of the previous round. Canada, El Salvador and Cuba, all FIFA World Cup™ participants from the past, will all be in action. 

The big game
St. Kitts and Nevis – El Salvador, Warner Park, Basseterre
El Salvador enter qualifying with a team hoping to recapture the glory days of 1970 and 1982, when the Central Americans reached the finals of the World Cup. The current side, under coach Albert Roca, is full of budding talent and even managed a respectable 2-0 loss against Lionel Messi’s Argentina in a recent friendly. But St. Kitts and Nevis are one of the Caribbean teams on the up. Led by captain and MLS veteran Atiba Harris, the Kittians play a speedy and attacking style. “El Salvador is tough, but so are we,” said Harris, who scored in the 12-4 aggregate win over Turks and Caicos. “There are a lot similarities between football in Central America and the Caribbean.” 

In other action
Cuba travel to Willemstad to take on a Curacao side coached by former Netherlands and Barcelona forward Patrick Kluivert. The Cubans warmed up with a friendly in Havana against New York Cosmos of the USA’s second tier NASL. Their 4-1 defeat seems to indicate there’s some work to be done ahead of the opener, when captain Yeniel Marquez will lead the Cubans in his fifth attempt at qualifying.

Antigua and Barbuda play both legs of their series against St. Lucia on home soil. Known as the Benna Boys, the Antiguans knocked out Haiti in Brazil 2014 qualifying and are hoping to repeat similar heroics this time out under new coach Piotr Nowak, a former Poland captain and MLS legend with Chicago Fire.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines take on Guyana while Aruba play their first game of the campaign against a Barbados side known for their physical play, but who struggled against minnows US Virgin Islands in the first round. The Barbadians will once again lean on the experience of captain and Wigan Athletic veteran Emmerson Boyce.

Belize had a rough go of it against the Cayman Islands in their first-round series, but they are still favourites to get results against the Dominican Republic, especially with the return of their star man Deon McCaulay.

Canada begin their campaign with a tricky test against lowly ranked Dominica. A team made up exclusively of professionals, the Canucks might feel the pressure against a group of island part-timers giving it their unorthodox all.

Central American hopefuls Guatemala take on Bermuda, who beat the Bahamas in their first round game, while Puerto Rico and Grenada clash to round out the field which opened on 7 June with Nicaragua edging out Suriname 1-0 at home in Managua 

Player to watch
Most in the camp agreed on the reason why Belize struggled against the Cayman Islands: The absence of star striker Deon McCaulay. He scored 11 goals in Brazil 2014 qualifying to finish above Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the official scorers’ table. “If we get him through five times, you know he’ll score at least two. That’s a guarantee," said a relieved Elroy Kuylen, who bagged Belize’s only goal in the first round with a superb free-kick.

Did you know?
Atiba Harris, St. Kitts and Nevis skipper and widely regarded as the islands’ best-ever player, has football running through his veins. England international Micah Richards is his first cousin, and the two played pick-up games together when the Fiorentina defender visited his ancestral home of St. Kitts as a young boy.

The number
17 -
The number of players from club side Antigua Barracuda FC who played in the Antigua and Barbuda national team during Brazil 2014 qualifying. Now, though, that number is zero. Barracuda, who played in the lower leagues of the USA’s professional hierarchy and were plagued by a demanding travel schedule, disbanded after losing every game of their final season. 

What they said
“It’s never easy playing against these little Caribbean countries. They’re unorthodox and you never know what to expect. We can’t play down to their level. We have to kill them off and that has to be our mindset.” Canada midfielder Patrice Bernier, with roots in Haiti, on the Canucks’ opener with Dominica.

CONCACAF second round (first legs) for Russia 2018
7 June
Nicaragua 1-0 Suriname

10 June
St. Vincent and the Grenadines-Guyana
Antigua and Barbuda-St. Lucia
Curacao-Cuba
Aruba-Barbados

11 June
Dominican Republic-Belize
Dominica-Canada
St. Kitts and Nevis-El Salvador

12 June
Guatemala-Bermuda
Puerto Rico-Grenada

* Return legs of the second-round series will take place between 14 and 16 June