My piece on improvement from the “smaller teams” in CONCACAF
That word will be on, mostly, everyone’s lips in football in the coming days.
The confederations marquee tournament, the 2015 Gold Cup, is heading to the final stages of a tournament that has been full of surprises. Mexico and Jamaica will meet in the final on Sunday and only one side really deserves to be there. Mexico is not that team, after benefiting from three contentious penalty calls (four if you include an unwarranted red card) to book their place in the finals.
Let’s put the refereeing aside for the moment, though.
This tournament has been called crazy thanks to the performances from a number of “smaller” sides in the tournament. Trinidad & Tobago topped their group, Panama, Haiti and, of course, our surprise finalists, Jamaica. The first thing that comes to mind is that all these teams performed above their level, and that contributed to the results we’ve seen.
Would it be too difficult to think CONCACAF has actually become more competitive?
Both the USA and Mexico, the traditional powers in the region, have received their share of criticism in recent times.
The USA has failed to push on from the 2014 World Cup and this transition shows how tough it is to mix inexperience with veteran players in key positions. Question marks remain in defense for both sides, and the same goes with their attacking players for different reason. The USA progressed off the back of a fantastic tournament for Clint Dempsey, but when the Seattle Sounder (now 32) hangs up his boots, it will be interesting to see who takes up his mantle. Mexico has a number of talented forwards, but a lack of real creativity in midfield is part of the problem.
The upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers will prove to be the final testing ground for that theory, but it’s not a stretch to say that at this point. Mexico and the USA have now been joined by a Costa Rica side that should be together for a few more years and has talented players like Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell in the mix. Costa Rica may have fallen to Mexico, or the referee rather, but they are still a genuine threat to the duopoly.
They are joined by the teams from Haiti and Panama, another victim of Mexico, who may not boast the same quality, but do have teams that will be together during qualification and now have a platform to build from. Both those sides troubled the USA in the group rounds and play with a speed and energy that makes for exciting games. Whether they will survive the long journey to the “Hex,” the final round of World Cup qualifying for CONCACAF, remains to be seen. The two English-speaking Caribbean sides, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica, were among the most surprising performers — for some at least.
Trinidad & Tobago topped a group that included Mexico and went undefeated after a thrilling 4-4 draw with El Tri in the final group game. They went to penalties against Panama and were unlucky not to progress. This side may not have the players of old like Dwight Yorke or Stern John, but they have proven to be a solid outfit.
And to the Jamaican finalists: For those who watched the Reggaeboyz in the Copa America earlier this summer, the sides performances haven’t been surprising. Few may have predicted a place in the final itself, but a side that held Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay to 1-0 victories, while threatening themselves, was going to have success in this tournament.
Jamaica also topped their group undefeated and ahead of Costa Rica. New coach Wilfred Schafer has manufactured a solid defensive mindset in this group and the tournament’s best defensive record to show for it. A number of quick, skillful attackers make them a handful on the counter, but they are quite capable of keeping possession as well.
The Gold Cup final on July 26 may provide a glimpse at just how far, if at all, the gap has really closed. Despite their poor showing so far, Mexico has the experience and are still the favorites. If they put together a performance that meets expectations, then it should be business as usual. This Jamaica team seems to be a team of destiny though, and a win for the Reggaeboyz would signal the start of a much more competitive CONCACAF.