The 18 CONCACAF teams still in the running for places at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ now know what they have to do to be at the global showpiece following Saturday’s Preliminary Draw in St Petersburg.
The ten survivors from the second round of the qualifying competition went into the hat with Haiti and Jamaica for the six two-legged ties in Round Three, the pick of which is the meeting between the Reggae Boyz and Nicaragua.
The Jamaicans will be anxious to build on their impressive run to the final of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup but will not have it easy against Los Pinoleros, who under the stewardship of Costa Rican coach Henry Duarte eased to a 4-1 aggregate defeat of Suriname in the previous round, producing some classy possession football and a disciplined performance in the process.
Curacao take on El Salvador in another of the round’s stand-out ties. The island nation can now count on the experience and expertise of former Netherlands striker Patrick Kluivert, who has taken charge of the national team after working as an assistant to the then Oranje coach Louis Van Gaal at Brazil 2014.
Kluivert faces a tough assignment against La Selecta, who may have gone eight campaigns without qualifying for the world finals but are invariably tough opponents to crack at their El Cuscatlan fortress.
The six winners in Round Three will advance to a group phase, where the CONCACAF Zone’s top six teams will be lying in wait for them in three four-team sections.
The two seeds in Group A are Mexico and Honduras. While Los Catrachos have handed Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto with the task of steering them through the qualifiers, 2015 Gold Cup finalists El Tri are banking on Miguel *El Piojo *Herrera to take them to Russia.
Having been drafted in at a very late stage of Mexico’s troubled but ultimately successful push for a place at Brazil 2014, where they went out in the last 16 once again, Herrera will now have all the time he needs to shape his team and take them on what he hopes will be a smoother path to the world finals.
The big guns in Group B are Costa Rica and Panama. Though *Los Ticos *parted company with Pinto following their surprise run to the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014, they opted for continuity in naming Paulo Wanchope – an assistant coach on that record-breaking run – as the Colombian’s replacement.
Having come with a few seconds of a place at the last world finals, Los Canaleros will be aiming to build on the huge strides they have taken in recent years and make the most of their fine blend of skill and strength.
USA and Trinidad and Tobago are the two heavyweights in Group C. Since the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2011, the Stars and Stripes have developed into a formidable unit. While far from unbeatable, as their loss to Jamaica at the Gold Cup proved, the Americans are nothing if not ambitious.
For their part, the Soca Warriors gave a good account of themselves at the 2015 Gold Cup, reaching the last eight before exiting the tournament in a penalty shootout. An increasingly well-drilled outfit, the Caribbean islanders should be a force to be reckoned with at the business end of the qualifiers.
*Round Three *Match 1: Curacao-El Salvador
Match 2: Canada-Belize
Match 3: Grenada-Haiti
Match 4: Jamaica-Nicaragua
Match 5: St Vincent and the Grenadines-Aruba
Match 6: Antigua and Barbuda-Guatemala
Round Four *Group A
Winner Match 1
Winner Match 2
Winner Match 3
Winner Match 4
Trinidad and Tobago
Winner Match 5
Winner Match 6