Between 8 and 15 May, hosts Costa Rica and seven other national teams will compete in the CONCACAF Futsal Championship and, at stake, are the final four available berths for the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016.
The identity of all eight competing nations was completed on 5 May, Canada clinching their involvement via a shock 9-7 aggregate win over USA in the North American Football Union play-off, while Honduras, for their part, sank Trinidad and Tobago 6-4 on aggregate in the play-off tie between the respective third-placed finishers in the Central American Football Union (UNCAF) and Caribbean Football Union (CFU) championships.
The Canadians have been drawn in the competition's Group A alongside Panama, Guatemala and Mexico, three of the region's four representatives at Thailand 2012, while Honduras will be part of Group B with Cuba, Curacao and reigning champions Costa Rica. The top two from each section will progress to the semi-finals and, in the process, book their passage to Colombia 2016.
Little to choose
In a tight-looking Group A, the only certainty is that at least one of the trio that made it to the last Futsal World Cup will watch this year's edition from afar. That aside, the section's outcome is nigh on impossible to predict. "We're aiming to qualify for the World Cup, but we'd also love to do something we've done in the past, which is win this competition," said Guatemala's Spanish coach Tomas de Dios Lopez.
Los Chapines, considered to be among the region's leading futsal forces and host nation of the World Cup in 2000, were regional champions in 2008 and runners-up in 2012. In addition, they go into this qualifying tournament with five squad members from their trip to Thailand. "This squad also has youngsters, whose energy is rubbing off on the older players," revealed De Dios Lopez.
Mexico and Panama kick off with a similar objective in their sights: to prove that their first appearance at a Futsal World Cup was no coincidence. "It's a big challenge, but we're keen to show we didn't get there [Thailand 2012] by accident," stated 27-year-old Panama defender and captain Edgar Rivas, one of seven veterans from 2012. "We've improved technically and we'll try to impose our game, whoever we play against."
And while it remains to be seen if Canada can spring another shock and edge their way into the last four, their elimination of two-time regional champions and five-time World Cup participants United States will ensure nobody takes them lightly.
Ticos hold favourites tag
In Group B, in contrast, Costa Rica stand out as strong candidates to reach the semi-finals. The reason? On top of home advantage, Los Ticos have the same coach - Diego Solis - and seven of the same players that won the regional title in 2012. "I've got a very diverse and complete squad. We've got full belief in the experience of the guys who played at the World Cup and in the new players who, without yet having played in World Cup qualifying or at the finals, have earned their places."
It would be wise to trust in Solis' judgement: a man who is aiming to clinch his fourth trip to a FIFA Futsal World Cup. As a player, he was a key member of *Los Ticos' *squad on their first two trips to the finals, at Hong Kong 1992 and Guatemala 2000, where they also competed having previously won the regional crown. "On paper, we're the best team in this region," admitted Solis. "Expectations are high, but our first priority is qualification."
It is Cuba that appear to be Costa Rica's biggest threat, with the islanders four-time CONCACAF runners-up between 1996 and 2008. The Cubans were also convincing winners of the CFU championship, thrashing Curacao 5-0 in the final, and have experience in spades. In the coaching role is Clemente Reinoso, a member of the history-making 1996 side, while Fernando Champan (2004, 2008) and Jhonnet Martinez (2008) are still banging in the goals.
That being the case, both Curacao and Honduras can attempt to thrive with underdog status. Both nations are making their first appearance at the CONCACAF Futsal Championship, so any achievement is a bonus, but having got this far, why not go all out to make a splash at the final qualifying competition on the road to Colombia 2016?