Brazil 2014: CONCACAF Corner III (Group Stage, Round 1)
Austin Fido checks in on the progress of CONCACAF’s World Cup quorum…
No team is out of the World Cup after one round of group stage matches, but some are more in than others. And several of those teams are from CONCACAF.
Three of the region’s four representatives in Brazil kicked off their group stage with wins. None of them are assured progress to the knockout rounds, but most are in a better position than was expected after one game.
And that is a good thing. The justly maligned FIFA world rankings count for little aside from sorting out seedings for big tournaments. In that regard, wins at the big tournaments count for a little bit extra, especially when they are over opponents from better-regarded confederations (looking at you, Costa Rica!).
But the World Cup isn’t about rankings or how many profiteroles get set aside for your execs at the next FIFA meeting: it’s about watching your nation’s best test themselves against those from around the world.
For the most part, CONCACAF’s teams passed this week’s test. Here’s a look back at what they did, and what lies ahead.
Uruguay 1-3 Costa Rica
Beset by injury problems in the build-up (including leading scorer of his generation, Alvario Saborio; second-string defender Heiner Mora limped out of the squad just a few days before this match), winless outside Costa Rica since last August, and winless against Uruguay in eight attempts: as the man writing for the UK Guardian put it, “every statistic has seemed to attack [Los Ticos].”
Shortly after half-time, when Oscar Duarte put a header firmly into Fernando Muslera and skewed the rebound to nowhere, the sense was those statistics were not lying. Costa Rica was a goal down and was repeatedly proving incapable of fighting back.
Then Joel Campbell happened.
He took over from Saborio, and even Bryan Ruiz, as Costa Rica’s primary offensive weapon a while ago, but despite doing pretty things for Olympiakos in UEFA Champions League, he may still be dubbed one of the breakout players of this tournament – especially if he can lead Los Ticos out of this group.
His goal was well taken, but his best trick was setting up Marcos Urena for Costa Rica’s third.
The knock on Los Ticos once Saborio went down is an apparent lack of attacking depth. Ruiz is good, Campbell may soon prove to be very good, and Christian Bolanos takes a mean set piece (he graciously gave Duarte a second chance, and the defender took it for the go-ahead goal). After that, it’s Randall Brenes and a guy who hasn’t really scored any goals worth discussing since 2011.
Until now. Urena’s finish belied his reputation as the shyest of goal-shy strikers: delicate, placed, artful.
Los Ticos are still favorites to get nothing more than these three points and three goals out of this tournament. But the squad just got a little deeper and more confident.
And this is a team built more around preventing goals than scoring them. Jorge Luis Pinto has been faithful to a 5-4-1 formation for some time. He got Costa Rica here with a qualifying campaign that saw them lose just two games (each 1-0) en route to the best defensive record in the Hex (seven goals conceded in 10 matches). Last year, admittedly against generally weak opponents, Los Ticos strung together seven consecutive clean sheets.
The single goal conceded to Uruguay will perhaps be of greater comfort to Pinto than the three scored. His side absorbed pressure, rode their luck, and (eventually) took their chances.
With three points in hand, if they wish, they can go into their next two games as though defending a one goal lead: if they don’t concede again in this group, Los Ticos are probably through to the next round.
Next match: vs. Italy, June 20
France 3-0 Honduras
Los Catrachos recent success in CONCACAF has been built on making teams uncomfortable: this is the true value of their San Pedro Sula home base.
Honduras doesn’t have to play as though auditioning to work security at the Gathering of the Juggalos, but in the pre-Brazil friendlies the team shipped two goals to Turkey almost as soon as it allowed its flair players on to the field, and got hammered by Israel when attempting a more fluent style.
The 0-0 against England was achieved through hard-tackling, disruptive, discomforting play.
Los Catrachos have plenty of guys who can do that job, it seemed successful against an upper echelon European opponent, so it was hardly a surprise when Luis Fernando Suarez pulled the same club out of his bag for his opening shot of the tournament.
It didn’t work. France should have had three goals in the first 30 minutes. At times, Honduras seemed to be willingly giving the ball away, showing scant concern for the consequences of letting Les Bleus charge at the back line.
There were consequences. The extraordinary combination of luck and Noel Valladares couldn’t hold forever. Shortly before half-time, Victor Bernardez pulled up lame, and the momentary disruption to the Honduran defensive alignment brought sufficient confusion for Wilson Palacios to run into Paul Pogba, conceding a penalty and drawing a harsh second yellow card.
Still, if your game plan is to foul whenever possible from the get-go, you are asking for a lot of the benefit of increasingly little doubt.
Up a goal and a man, France still struggled to find a scoring touch. The frame of the goal saw more action in this match than the net; a more assured French team would have scored six.
Perhaps this was the method to Suarez’s madness. We watched Karim Benzema find form over 90 minutes: a penalty to regain confidence; a shot of the post that bounced out of goal and then back in off Valladares; and finally, a quality finish from a difficult angle.
If the French are in better form after this match, they may make less hard work of converting the chances they create against Switzerland and Ecuador.
Honduras will want France to win all its remaining games, thereby reducing the race for second place to a playoff between the other three teams in the group. To win that playoff, Los Catrachos must start by not losing to Ecuador in their next match.
The game pairs former Ecuador head coach Suarez with Reinaldo Rueda, the man who led Los Catrachos to a one-point-and-no-goals group stage exit from the 2010 World Cup. From what we’ve seen to date, Suarez will do well to match the modest achievements of his predecessor.
Next match: vs. Ecuador, June 20
Mexico 1-0 Cameroon
It was third time lucky for El Tri, after Giovani Dos Santos twice had goals called back (incorrectly). But the Mexicans were largely in control of this match, and Oribe Peralta knocked home the rebound in the 61st minute after Dos Santos clipped his shot at the ‘keeper.
It could have been a more convincing win, but the fact it wasn’t was more the fault of the referees than El Tri. This was an encouraging start to the tournament.
Of concern, however, is that Cameroon did not look great. If the Indomitable Lions prove similarly domitable against Croatia, qualification from this group will come down to who beats Cameroon by the most and loses to Brazil most narrowly.
With a 1-0 win over what may turn out to be the last-placed team in the group, El Tri‘s immediate task is to better Croatia’s two-goal loss to the host nation and head into the last round of group play with a goal difference advantage for (at least) second in the group.
On the bright side, the first games of Group A went to plan for Mexico: Croatia lost, El Tri won. The expectation for this group is still that Brazil and AN Other will progress, and right now Mexico is exactly where it wants to be: first in line for second place.
Next match: vs. Brazil, June 17
Ghana 1-2 USMNT
At times – long times – this match resembled the France-Honduras game: a CONCACAF team being dragged hither-and-thither around the pitch by an opponent with much greater confidence on the ball but lacking the ability to make the final touch count.
There are, however, no points for style, only for outscoring the other team. And in this aspect of the game, if few others, USMNT excelled – scoring early and late to bookend a dominant Ghanaian performance with American goals.
The manner of the win is now irrelevant, save for the points and the confidence it leaves behind. Jurgen Klinsmann will focus his team on facing a metaphorically and literally injured Portugal.
The assumption in Group G is that Germany will beat all-comers, and the rest are playing for second place. All Klinsi will care about is finding another three points, and most likely sealing qualification for the second round (unless Ghana beats Die Nationalmannschaft).
Next match: vs. Portugal, June 22
Don’t miss our World Cup coverage, including daily tournament updates: follow @OTFSoccer
Austin Fido is OTF’s CONCACAF and USMNT editor. Find him @canetop.