The first group stage of qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean begins on Friday, with 22 teams in action across the region, from the northern tip of Canada all the way to the steamy jungle interiors of Suriname. Minnows and former powers alike will be keen to get out of the blocks sharpish and take a step toward joining USA, Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba in the next round.
With a significant gulf in talent between the so-called established sides in CONCACAF and the lesser lights, many are expecting one-sided mismatches, but a few surprises and shocks could be on the cards as well. Join FIFA.com for a look ahead to the first steps on the road to Brazil 2014.
The big game
Trinidad and Tobago-Bermuda
It wasn’t long ago that Trinidad and Tobago’s Soca Warriors were the toast of the Caribbean scene. However, much has changed since the dual-island nation rode the tactical acumen of Leo Beenhakker to a debut FIFA World Cup finals in 2006. Little neighbours Bermuda are eager to take advantage of their recent slip-ups. After a series of destabilizing coaching changes, T&T have settled on experienced German tactician Otto Pfister, who is eager to right the ship for the country that failed to reach the last CONCACAF Gold Cup and has seen its stock plummet in recent years. “There is a lot of natural ability here in Trinidad,” the coach recently told FIFA.com. “Now we just need to make the best use of it.” Pfister, who took over in March, has been working with a core of young and locally based players since his arrival.
Bermuda are by no means a power in the Zone, but they are capable of pulling an upset or two as they proved in the qualifying rounds for South Africa 2010 when they beat the Trinidadians 2-1. In the end, the unlikely islanders were overturned after a 2-0 loss in the return leg, but they showed a fighting spirit and an earnest desire to upset the apple cart. John Barry Nusum, who scored a pair of goals in that series, will again lead the lines for the Bermudans alongside speedy former MLS standout winger Khano Smith.
The best of the rest
Group A favourites El Salvador open their account at home against the Dominican Republic, a baseball-mad Caribbean country looking to make their mark. “El Salvador will be the favourites,” concedes Dominican coach Diego Hernandez “But we will give our all.” In the other game of the section, Suriname will host the Cayman Islands in Paramaribo with Kenneth Jaliens’ potentially dangerous Surinamese hoping to start out strong against the group lightweights.
Trinidad and Tobago will try to avoid mounting nerves at their Hasely Crawford stadium in Port of Spain when Bermuda come calling in Group B, while Guyana – a tiny nation tucked away in the north-eastern tip of South America – open their doors to take on Barbados, a moderate contender in the Caribbean sub-region who have been rising in recent years. Group C has only three teams competing following the withdrawal of the Bahamas. Panama, who reached the semi-finals of the recently concluded CONCACAF Gold Cup are every inch the favourites in a section which doesn’t get underway until 6 September.
Canada are the big powers in Group D and will open their account against tiny island side St. Lucia, who beat Aruba to reach the second round. Stephen Hart’s Canadians boast a number of established stars like MLS pair Dwayne DeRosario and Julian De Guzman, as well as PSV Eindhoven’s Atiba Hutchinson, and are aiming to reach their first World Cup finals since their debut in 1986. In the group’s other game, St. Kitts and Nevis will host hopeful and ever-improving Puerto Rico in Bassaterre.
Grenada, who reached the last two Gold Cups, open their Group E account at home in St George’s against Central America up-and-comers Belize, who dispatched Montserrat in their first–round qualifying series. Guatemala, who have been within seconds of reaching the World Cup finals in recent preliminary tournaments, will open their hunt for a place in Brazil at home against Caribbean minnows St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Haiti are in the process of overcoming recent devastation and the after-effects of the massive earthquake of last year, and taking aim at top spot in Group F. The 1974 FIFA World Cup participants start their trek toward Brazil in Port au Prince against the US Virgin Islands, the perennial minnows. “Haiti is probably two goals better than us,” said USVI’s technical director Keith ‘Grell’ Griffith, after helping to orchestrate a 52-place jump up the World Ranking. Antigua and Barbuda will meet Curacao (formerly the Netherlands Antilles) in the group’s other game.
Player to watch
Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who came out of international retirement earlier this year, is the side’s talisman and goal threat. He is his nation’s all-time top scorer with 44 goals in 91 appearances, and St Vincent’s defenders will need to be at their steady best to repel the Veracruz-based man’s advances.
What they said
“They [St. Lucia] can be very physical, so that is something always to consider. They will also be very athletic as are most of the Caribbean nations,” Canada coach Stephen Hart is expecting a physical contest with St Lucia.
CONCACAF Second Round. Matchday One
Trinidad and Tobago-Bermuda
Antigua and Barbuda-Curacao
Haiti-US Virgin Islands
El Salvador-Dominican Republic
St. Kitts and Nevis-Puerto Rico
Guatemala-St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Have Your Say
Will the big boys like Canada, Haiti, El Salvador and Guatemala do the expected, or will the minnows show their teeth and force a few shock results in the New World on Friday?