CONCACAF, Gone But Not Forgotten

Two traditional powers are in the World Cup final again, but one humble region left its mark

Expectations for CONCACAF teams were low entering this World Cup. Few experts gave them much of a chance to get out of their respective groups or steal any headlines.

It wasn’t necessarily a bias against the region. Even ardent CONCACAF supporters grew concerned watching the four qualified teams bumble through the pre-tournament friendlies. The United States made it through undefeated but was unconvincing. Mexico suffered a rash of injuries to defensive midfielders and had up-and-down showings. Costa Rica lost to Japan and rallied to draw with Ireland. Honduras also had some injury concerns and lost two friendlies before drawing England in a match interrupted by thunderstorms in Miami.

But after the region’s entrants had played their first World Cup matches, it was clear they’d come to play. Mexico looked impressive in a win against Cameroon; the Ticos beat Uruguay, a semifinalist form four years ago; the United States got a win against Ghana that everyone agreed was the impetus for getting out of the group. (Of course, Honduras also lost to France 3–0.) The same pattern continued for all four teams with the later three advancing to the second round but los Catrachos crashing out without a point.

Some stereotypes about the region were re-enforced during the tournament. Fans can ooh and aah over a crop of young wingers and strikers, but it’s stopping goals where CONCACAF excels, not scoring them.

Guillermo Ochoa won Mexico’s starting job and much of the world’s adoration only days apart, holding the host country scoreless in El Tri’s second group match. Keylor Navas was one of the best players in Brazil. He kept Greece and the Netherlands off the board with a weakened Tico defense in front of him and then won a shootout against the former and hardly erred against the latter). American Tim Howard may be the goalkeeper who with the most saves in the tournament, even if he couldn’t will the United States into the quarterfinals.

Another preconceived notion that held true is that CONCACAF marches to the beat of its own drum. Miguel Herrera was familiar to those who watched him guide Club América to the 2013 Clausura title, but his celebrations made the world smile. So too did his 5–3–2 formation, a system that in the build up to the tournament seemed to be one forced upon personnel who would be better suited in a different shape. After the tournament, though, Herrera and Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto, had the three-center-back formation back in vogue.

But some of the stereotypes—namely that the region still lags behind—were shattered. England? Italy? Spain? Portugal? The European giants watched from home as Costa Rica made the quarterfinals and the North American sides gracefully exited the round of 16 after stretching their opponents.

What can CONCACAF do sustain the momentum generated by the strong showings? Mexico will likely send a B-team to the 2015 Copa America (Jamaica is also an invited guest to the South American championship). Honduras has parted ways with Luis Fernando Suarez and will look to redeem its reputation in September’s Copa Centroamericana, a competition in which Costa Rica will surely be the favorite.

All four have the Gold Cup in the United States in 2015, but 2016’s Copa America Centenario, which will blend South American and North American teams in a U.S.-based tournament designed to celebrate the competition’s 100th anniversary (or make a ton of cash depending on how cynical you are), provides a unique opportunity. Yes, national teams are only able to test themselves on the grandest of stages every four years. CONCACAF won’t have to wait quite that long, though, to see if it can carry over the momentum it has generated in this World Cup. International football is ruthless. If the teams can’t continue in a positive direction or—gasp—lose their qualification spot to an upstart, the positive vibes from 2014 won’t be enough for fans or FAs.

Whether those teams are able to hang with the South American heavyweights in 2016 or not, this World Cup has set down a marker of what they can achieve. It’s true that the region’s teams have reached this stage in the past, but never with this much of a strut and never in these numbers. A lot can change in four years, but Vladimir Putin should prepare for some CONCACAF swagger in four years.