World Cup Preview: 2014 Semifinal Round, Matchday 1

Posted on June 8, 2012 1:44 pm

If this is the first time that you are paying attention to World Cup qualifying in our region (for the 2014 tournament, that is), you may be surprised to find out that more than half of the fixtures have already been played.

Between the first and elementary rounds, the smaller national teams in CONCACAF enjoyed the unprecedented opportunity to play multiple fixtures between September and November of last year, helping them to build their programs and gain experience. The benefits will not be long in arriving: according to the best available information, only one of the FIFA-affiliated Caribbean teams will not participate in qualifying for the 2012 Caribbean Cup, starting in August. Nicaragua and Belize also managed to significantly grow their profile at home, with the former selling out the Estadio Nacional in Managua for their match against Panama and the latter playing in Belize for the first time in years. And up in North America, not a single person has asserted that Canada would have played as many matches as they did in that time frame, were it not for World Cup qualifying.

Credit must be given to CONCACAF’s previous leadership for settling on a compromise that took into account the different levels of quality and necessity among the confederation’s members. To put it bluntly, there is little that the likes of Mexico wil get out of extra games against Dominica or St. Kitts. Thanks to the current format, the strongest national teams in our region got to skip the first two rounds entirely, and they will finally start up their own World Cup campaigns in the semifinal round. Here is the schedule for the opening matchday, with the group and home team listed first (all times EST).

Friday, June 8:

C – Cuba vs. Canada, 2:00 p.m.
A – USA vs. Antigua and Barbuda, 7:00 p.m.
B – Mexico vs. Guyana, 8:00 p.m.
A – Jamaica vs. Guatemala, 9:30 p.m.
C – Honduras vs. Panama, 9:30 p.m.
B – Costa Rica vs. El Salvador, 10:00 p.m.

Given that goal differential is the first tiebreaker in all FIFA competitions, the assignment for the United States and Mexico is clear: make good on their superiority in talent by hammering A&B and Guyana (respectively) as comprehensively as possible. Neither of the debutants in this round can be taken lightly, however: Antigua and Barbuda outperformed Haiti from start to finish in the elementary round, while Guyana took advantage of Trinidad and Tobago’s surprising defeat at Bermuda to finish the Soca Warriors off at the first time of asking. I would not be surprised to see both of them take up a conservative stance, placing a higher priority on their home games next Tuesday as the first realistic chance to earn points.

Canada, though, will ward off any sence of complacency ahead of kick off this afternoon in Havana. Without a doubt, the Cubans embarrassed themselves in the last Gold Cup; but if the Leones del Caribe revert to the form that saw them place third in the 2010 Caribbean Cup, and subsequently beat Panama 3-0 in Panama City, they could place a huge dent in Canada’s World Cup hopes by snatching a draw or a victory, carrying out the same “spoiler” role they played in 2008 when they dragged Guatemala down with them. Fortunately, the 11 from the Great White North already received a fair warning earlier this year: an unexpected 1-1 draw with Cuba forced their u-23 side to face Mexico for a spot in the 2012 London Olympics, rather than take on a more accessible opponent in Honduras.

Speaking of the catrachos, they will start off with the most difficult of their home fixtures in this round, against a Panama side that has proven itself one of the best in Central America. The showdown between the 2011 Gold Cup semifinalists, however, will not have as much of an effect on their respective chances of reaching the Hex as the two direct rematches from last year’s continental championship. First, down in Kingston, defending Caribbean champions Jamaica will welcome Guatemala to the Office, ostensibly with the intent of dismissing the chapines from World Cup consideration. The Reggae Boyz proved their capacity for handling Central American opposition in the last Gold Cup, defeating both Guatemala and Honduras without receiving a goal; furthermore, they have won every World Cup qualifier disputed at home since 2004. Given that both sides will expect to earn maximum points from A&B and struggle to get results against the United States, Jamaica will aim to avoid giving away an early advantage against direct opponents for a spot in the Hex.

The last match this evening, besides displaying similar features to the aforementioned showdown, will also bring together two sides that seen more than enough of each other in recent years.

MATCH OF THE ROUND

vs.

Before 2009, this game could have been written off as a guaranteed win for Costa Rica. As I mentioned in the preview for this round, though, the ticos have struggled mightily to deal with El Salvador since the cuscatlecos broke their 12-year winless streak against their fellow Central Americans in the 2009 Gold Cup. A brace from Osael Romero earned them a 2-1 win in the group stage; they followed that up by winning 1-0 in the Estadio Cuscatlan to cement Costa Rica’s shocking collapse in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Finally, last year in North Carolina, only a last-minute goal from “Chiqui” Brenes prevented El Salvador frmo sealing yet another victory.

It should be noted that none of those encouraging results took place on Costa Rican soil. But against a team in rebuilding mode, with a coach who previously presided over a 5-2 loss to Honduras at home, and in a National Stadium that has yet to establish itself as a fortress, El Salvador may be staring down a golden opportunity to hamstring their immediate rivals for World Cup survival.

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