The rest of Concacaf as the March window opens
By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (March 23, 2022) USA Soccer Players – The Concacaf World Cup qualifier enters its final act on Thursday. It’s the first of three matchdays to complete a schedule that began last September. While the pandemic meant eight teams instead of six and a shorter window, the process always felt long, hectic and stressful. It’s business as usual in the region, regardless of the number of matchdays.
Teams that started in September with hopes of making a surprise run at the World Cup saw their dreams dashed before the final round of games even arrived. For a nation, qualifying was a coming out party with opportunities for transformation. Regular contenders for places in the 32-team World Cup field have found getting there more complicated and frustrating.
March begins without anything decided. Thursday night could bring some clarity, or it could set up a series of dramatic matches on Sunday. No one involved wants to leave this to the last day, emphasizing the importance of getting points now. The highest-profile game of the round is Mexico’s home date against the United States, but two of the region’s other three games are equally important for the standings.
All eight teams must balance the challenge posed by another three-game, seven-day window. Only Honduras and Jamaica are officially out of the running to qualify for the World Cup. Honduras are the only team in the region without a qualifying win. They will enter the final window of games hoping to salvage some pride and perhaps remind the region that they were semi-finalists in the Nations League. The Reggae Boyz have seven points in 11 games. They can’t close the gap on Pamana, 4th, even with a perfect window.
Jamaica’s home tie with El Salvador is important for the visitors, who are trying to avoid elimination. Jamaica will be without star striker Michail Antonio, who was not called up for the March games. Born in England, Antonio is one of many dual nationals who have chosen Jamaica. This should eventually change the scope of the program. Paul Hall stepped in as interim head coach in December with the task of salvaging the qualifying campaign, only to see Jamaica eliminated by Costa Rica in Kingston on February 2.
Now it’s Jamaica’s turn to try and play spoilers with a group that includes Aston Villa winger Leon Bailey, Derby County defender Ravel Morrison and Queens Park Rangers striker Andre Gray . Jamaica is at its best capitalizing on turnovers. It’s something El Salvador must consider at the National Stadium on Thursday night. El Salvador head coach Hugo Perez, a man who represented the United States at the 1994 World Cup, has received praise for the progress his side made in qualifying.
Although El Salvador are likely to miss out on a top-four spot, Perez has deepened the player pool, given young players vital experience and brought a positive new spirit to the team. They will be desperate in Jamaica. With any hope of catching Panama on the line, they will have to throw numbers and try to overwhelm the Reggae Boyz. The lack of goals for Perez’s side has been a problem throughout qualifying. Without a clear solution, a full assault might be the only option.
El Salvador’s slim hopes hinge on Panama’s fortunes against Honduras. Panama currently occupies 4th place in the ranking. They need a home win to secure a lead over fifth-placed Costa Rica going into the second game of the window. A draw would increase anxiety, especially if Costa Rica closes the gap.
Everything is in place for Panama to take care of cases against Honduras. With Honduras winless in qualifying, Pamana has no excuse to drop points at home. Panama have two of the region’s top scorers in qualifying, Rolando Blackburn and Cecilio Waterman, who have each scored three goals in 11 games. That total is good enough for a tie for second behind Canada’s Jonathan David and Cyle Larin.
Panama can’t secure a top-four spot with a win over Honduras, but they can stay ahead of Costa Rica and put pressure on the United States and Mexico awaiting their outcome. Like so many other Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, the wait is a physical game that revolves around one or two key moments. Everyone already knows how tough Panama is at home.
It’s the matchup between the team in first place in the octagon and the team in fifth place that could have the biggest impact in the region on Thursday. Canada arrives in San Jose, Costa Rica on the verge of qualifying for its first World Cup in 36 years. They are already guaranteed to finish in the top four. A single point in Costa Rica would virtually guarantee a place in Qatar. A victory will reserve their place regardless of the results elsewhere.
Canada are without Alphonso Davies, back in training with his club after recovering from a Covid-related heat issue. Without him, Canada had three wins in January and February and are coming to the final hurdle with plenty of momentum.
The pressure is on Costa Rica. Their World Cup qualifying streak will end with nothing in this crucial home game, making San Jose’s National Stadium at full capacity a huge boost for the home side. Despite an aging core, Costa Rica remain a dangerous side with the experience to pull off a shock run in Qatar.
The Ticos still have Keylor Navas, one of the best goaltenders in the world. He may not be able to get them back to the World Cup on his own, but he’s certainly capable of helping them qualify for Sunday with qualification still on the line.
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Photo by John Todd – ISIPhotos.com