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Thursday, March 27, 2008
The CONCACAF revolution
As promised in a previous blog: the relative minnows of the CONCACAF region may no longer be so. I'm speaking, of course, about our Central American neighbors. More specifically, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. Costa Rica seems to be falling out of the spotlight after almost two decades of ruling in the top three (behind US and Mexico). "Behind" is a relative word here since in 1990 they went through to the round of 16 at the expense of Sweeden and Scotland. Those were the days of "el Conejo" (the rabbit) on goal. I can't say I remember much else from their appearance at that world cup since I was more interested In Germany and Cameroon. And yes, they missed out on '94 and '98 but that doesn't mean they weren't a dominant team. Jamaica and its "Reggae Boyz" lit things up in 1998 and T&T capitalized on its England-based contingent for their appearance in Germany two years ago. Still, note that we're speaking of Caribbean teams and not the lower part of the CONCACAF contingent, which has different systems and styles of play. Caribbean teams aside (this time around I doubt they'll make it too far), the "other" UNCAF teams are looking much more impressive. From their younglins beating out the titans of the region in the Olympic Qualifiers (Guatemala shocked Mexico and Honduras won the tournament against an undermanned US side), to their increased presence across the pond and in more competitive leagues in the Americas, we're looking at a much tighter race for the 3.5 spots our conference can stake a claim on for South Africa. I'm not ready to say that the US and Mexico won't make it to the next world soccer celebration, but their road there will be much tougher this time around. Take Honduras for example. Just recently they beat both Colombia and Ecuador in warm-up games with clear dominance. Suazo (Inter Milan) and Palacios (Wigan Athletic) and former MetroStar Amado Guevara made their presence felt in those games. I have serious doubts that the North American teams will have it easy when they visit Tegucigalpa or even when they face the "catrachos" at home. Guatemala is another toss-up. They have shown an ability to produce significant upsets (Mexico comes to mind). With "El primitivo" (yes, he looks the part) Maradriaga at the helm and the goal-scoring prowess of Carlos "el pescadito" Ruiz, they look to continue vying for a spot in the top 4 of the region. Last but certainly not least is a Panamenian side that continues to evolve into a potential contender. The "canaleros" pulled a few interesting upsets in the past couple of years, and with a presence in the Colombian national league their experience can only add to their increased capabilities. So, in terms of what I alluded to in a recent blog: it's not that we (north Americans) are that bad, it's that they are that good. I'd be surprised if Honduras doesn't take one of the top 3 spots in the region. The last half-spot could go to Costa Rica if they are able to step their game up or to Canada if they capitalize on their new pool of experienced players. Still, don't count Guatemala and Panama out. These should be fun games to watch (thanks, ESPN Deportes). Let the qualifiers begin.