Last November, the final round of World Cup qualifying wrapped up around the globe, giving us the full picture of which 32 countries will compete in Brazil this summer. In CONCACAF, 35 nations began the qualification process back in June 2011. After the final qualification round, the Hexagonal, four of those teams qualified.
CONCACAF, which oversees FIFA member countries in North and Central America and the Caribbean, was afforded an arguably too generous 3.5 World Cup spots. Representing the confederation this summer are the United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico.
Plenty has been said about the United States and the unfortunate hand we were dealt in the Group of Death alongside Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. Jurgen Klinsmann and his players face an uphill battle to get out of a group full of potential drama and story lines.
But how about our vecinos al sur? What of those countries against whom we play in between World Cups? Let's take a closer look at each of the other teams representing CONCACAF, as well as their chances in June.
What's their deal?
Los Ticos have managed to field a consistently strong team for the past few decades. This summer will be their fourth World Cup appearance, and they'll be looking to best their inaugural effort of 1990, when they advanced to the Round of 16. Costa Rica is managed by Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint at the helm of the national team.
Since 2011, Costa Rica has played its home matches at the brand new Estadio Nacional in San José, which has helped attract friendlies against high profile teams like Spain and Brazil. The stadium in itself is actually a fascinating story. It was built and paid for by the Chinese in exchange for various diplomatic favors, most notably Costa Rica cutting off all ties with Taiwan, with whom they had historically been very friendly.
Also, Costa Rica's badge looks silly and features Slender Man.
How they got here:
Costa Rica finished second in the Hex, never really kicking the shit out of anyone, but picking up points when they had to. The most noteworthy game was the now-famous Snow Clasico against the US. In the second game of the Hex, the Americans hosted Costa Rica in Denver during a blizzard. Mind you, this was in fucking late March, but the pictures speak for themselves. There were calls to suspend the game, but both teams ultimately agreed to continue playing, and the US managed a 1-0 victory thanks to an early Clint Dempsey goal in a game that was predictably ugly. Ever the sore losers, Costa Rica protested to FIFA, having decided after the fact that they'd actually rather not have played in all that nieve. FIFA was quick to tell them "tough shit", and the result stood.
Starting at the back, Costa Rica boasts one of the best goalkeepers in CONCACAF in Keylor Navas. Helping Spanish club Levante to a surprisingly decent season thus far, Navas is a ton of fun to watch play. He has fantastic reflexes, and seems to be airborne more often than not in pulling off saves that are equal parts for the benefit of his team and the cameras. With a talent for flying acrobatics, Navas manages at least a few ridiculous saves each game. Through the ten games of the Hex, Navas conceded just seven times, the fewest of all goalkeepers in CONCACAF.
Higher up the field is Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio. After "only" four years with the club, he's already something of a legend at RSL. In 2010, he became the club's first ever Designated Player, and soon topped their all-time scoring chart (he's also Costa Rica's third best goal scorer in history). Though he only scored twice in the Hex, Sabo is a physical poacher of a goal scorer, and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Don't be surprised to see him put one past England's howler-prone Joe Hart in June.
Finally, we have to talk about Joel Campbell. More specifically, fuck Joel Campbell. Campbell is owned by the Arsenal, but has never actually played a game for them, instead being loaned out across Europe for the past three years. When the US played at Costa Rica in September, tensions were especially high following the Snow Clasico. Toward the end of the game, Joel Campbell (who has never denied allegations that he murdered a prostitute in 2006) dove thusly, earning US defender Matt Besler a yellow card and suspension for the following match against Mexico. Worth note is that the referee who awarded the yellow card was Mexican. SCANDAL! Anyway, to even call Campbell's theatrics a dive is sort of an insult to the more skilled divers like Arjen Robben and LeBron and Neymar, so I really don't know what to call that. FIFA took their sweet ass time before officially "sanctioning" Holocaust-denier Campbell. This was a hollow gesture that meant precisely zero, and did nothing to address the fact that Joel Campbell is a war criminal. Again, fuck Joel Campbell.
Los Ticos open their campaign against Uruguay, who have terrifying goal scoring potential in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Uruguay might even invite the ghost of Diego Forlan along to slice the oranges.
Up next is England, who are one of the toughest teams to predict, because they could be total garbage, or they could play up to their immense potential. The English are facing some fitness concerns, and have an odd mix of aging mascots and young talent, so they could lack cohesion.
Finally, Costa Rica will face Italy, who are not known for giving away goals easily. Italy may lack firepower, as
American traitor Giuseppe Rossi is recovering from a knee injury, and Mario Balotelli may be thrown in jail for head-butting a stranger at any moment. As is the Italian style, the Azzurri are stubborn in defense, fielding a core made up of Juventus players. Look for that match to end 0-0.
Costa Rica is possibly fucked from the first whistle. On paper, the three other teams are much stronger and more experienced. The World Cup is always full of surprises, but Los Ticos probably have the slimmest chance of any of the CONCACAF nations to advance. The stats nerds have given Costa Rica a 28% chance to make it out of the group.
What's their deal?
When their fans aren't trying to make out with them, Honduras fields a reasonably strong team. This is their second consecutive World Cup appearance, and third overall. Aside from winning a few minor Central American tournaments, they've never really won much at the international level. Their biggest victory in recent memory came at London 2012, where they defeated Spain before losing 3-2 to Brazil in the knockout round in a surprisingly even match.
How they got here:
La H started the Hex strongly, defeating the US 2-1 in San Pedro Sula and tying Mexico 2-2. They never really dropped any points that they shouldn't have, and more importantly, they won a few games that nobody expected them to (2-1 over Mexico at the Azteca). The Hondurans were also unbeaten at home throughout the Hex, something that certain CONCACAF heavyweights can't say.
This team, unlike previous squads that Honduras has fielded, doesn't really have any exceptional players in Europe on whom the Catrachos can count to make a big individual difference. There are standouts like Maynor Figueroa, named for a minor character in a Jane Austen novel, who is having his best season at Hull City and will lead them in the FA Cup Final next month.
One clear takeaway from Honduras's performance in the Hex is that they're heavily reliant upon just two players to score goals. Jerry Bengston of the New England Revolution and Carlo Costly of the Honduran league's Real España shared a three-way tie with American Jozy Altidore as the top scorers in the Hex, with four goals each. Although they're less talented and internationally renowned as past Honduran attackers (most notably David Suazo and Carlos Pavon), Costly and Bengston have somehow become the most efficient goal-scoring duos in the past few generations for La H.
But the biggest thing to note for us gringos is that this is the most team-first squad Honduras has ever fielded, and it could be because the majority of their team are either current or former MLS players. Names like Roger Espinoza (formerly of Sporting KC), Andy Najar (formerly of DC United), Victor Bernardez (San Jose), and Boniek Garcia (Houston) should be familiar to MLS super-fans like Billy Haisley.
Honduras opens against an extremely talented but recently underachieving France side, who pulled off a miracle to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the second leg of their play-in round against Ukraine to make the tournament. Lining up against players like Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, and Samir Nasri is an intimidating prospect for any side, even more so for relative minnows like Honduras.
Next they'll face Ecuador, who somehow ended up ahead of Uruguay in CONMEBOL qualifying. An intriguing storyline will be the telenovela-esque matchup between the Honduran and Ecuadorian managers, both of whom are Colombian. In the dugout with Honduras is Luis Fernando Suarez, who took Ecuador to the 2006 World Cup. Managing Ecuador is Reinaldo Ruedo, having held that position since stepping down as Honduras manager following the 2010 World Cup. So each team should know what to expect from the other, and who the players go home with after the game is really anyone's guess.
Lastly, Honduras will face the way too-highly-seeded Switzerland, in the least-anticipated rematch from South Africa 2010. You may remember Switzerland as the team who handed eventual champions Spain a 1-0 defeat in their first game of the 2010 tournament. They've gotten better since then, so certainly not a team to be underestimated.
La H are probably the weakest CONCACAF team to make the World Cup, but they also got the easiest group. France should be their toughest opponent, but considering the unimpressive record of the French in recent international tournaments, nothing can be taken for granted. On a good day, Honduras can at least manage draws against Switzerland and Ecuador. You probably wouldn't put money on Honduras progressing, but crazier things have happened in World Cups past.
Special thanks to Chief Honduras Correspondent Luis Carranza for his input on Los Catrachos.
What's their deal?
For a very long time, El Tri has formed half of the USA-Mexico duopoly that has dominated the confederation relative to all other teams. CONCACAF is basically, in regional terms, two big powerhouses plus a bunch of smaller sides that can only do so much to compete. Sound familiar? This summer will mark their 15th trip to the World Cup. They have qualified for every World Cup since 1994, after being banned by FIFA from the 1990 tournament for using overage players in qualifications for the 1989 World Youth Championship. Cheaters.