SURVIVAL of the ... fittest? 5️⃣ Thoughts from the Concacaf's November window
Esto sí es Concacaf. We go from A to C after a crazy finale
It’s another one for the Concacaf Films vault, one they’d play on ESPN Classic as an instant classic if the network still existed. We’ll actually be talking about it for years. Deep, deep into second-half stoppage time, Edson Alvarez scored for Mexico to bring the aggregate series level in a Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal with Honduras. After a handful of retakes, El Tri emerged victorious in the penalty shootout, moving into the 2024 and taking a spot in the 2024 Copa América.
Apologies for the sketchy video that may be taken down when you see this. Concacaf’s continued refusal to allow their own videos to be embedded in other websites, plus Twitter’s ongoing refusal to allow Substack writers to embed video posts, means I’m picking either a video that won’t work in a lot of countries or one from our friends at these types of channels.
Honduras sports daily Diez called it “robbery in the Azteca” posting a tweet saying Mexico moved through thanks to “its best player, referee Ivan Barton”.
Barton loves himself some extra stoppage time, but as I wrote before the match, it was always going to be tough to avoid at least the appearance that Concacaf had its thumb on the scale. El Tri shipping up to Frisco, Texas and playing one match at a stadium with a capacity less than 20,000 is a less economically enticing proposition than El Tri playing two times in the home of the Dallas Cowboys, which holds four times as many fans.
I don’t think there was any ‘mano negra’ per se, but Barton and his staff are human and he’ll know the situation. It’s a tough spot, but you can understand the Hondurans’ frustration.
That’s where La H manager Reinaldo Rueda largely came down as well, certainly not alleging anything untoward but saying, hey, you be the judge here.
“(My players) fought until the last minute,” he said. “I think this is the game. It’s too bad because of what happened, but it’s up to you (in the press) to evaluate.”
They also have to be frustrated at the game to come, a playoff against Costa Rica with the winner going to Copa América and the loser figuring out summer plans on short notice. There was lots of trash talk from Honduras laughing at how badly Costa Rica lost to Panama (twice) this month, so there will be plenty of spice to the ‘true Clásico of Central America’ as one Costa Rican outlet, no doubt tired of losing to Panama, called it.
For me, this shows that we’re once again entering a period in which the space between the ‘grandes’ of Concacaf, the top teams which right now look to be the U.S., Mexico and Panama, aren’t dominating the other teams in the region. As Mexico continues its slide toward averageness and the U.S. keeps struggling to work out how to break through a team that sets up to defend, more teams will get chances to shock.
Did the best teams move through in the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinals? I actually think they probably did. The top teams emerged over 180 minutes. The strongest survived.
But make no mistake: It was absolutely survival for Mexico, which was pushed to the brink, for the U.S., which slogged through a pair of games against a Trinidad and Tobago team initially slated to be in League B, and for Jamaica, which didn’t even think it would be in that category until quite late Tuesday night.
How do we evaluate Jamaica after their rally?
After Canada went to Jamaica and came back with its first win on the island since 1988, the series was in the North Americans’ control. When Alphonso Davies scored in the 25th minute, it looked like the series was wrapped up. Even after Shamar Nicholson scored twice in quick succession, Canada found an equalizer on an Ismael Kone header to slow the frantic fight-back. But Bobby Reid’s successful penalty after a handball saw Jamaica get the result.
Speaking of history, it’s Jamaica’s first-ever win on Canadian soil, and Jamaica is in the CNL Final Four for the first time.
In addition to the first time beating Canada in the Great White North, it’s just the third-ever win for the Reggae Boyz over a North American team on North American soil and the first time ever they’ve found three goals on a North American away trip.
All that to say: This Jamaica team could be different. Even with Michail Antonio out injured, Ligue 1-based Nicholson is growing into a fearsome goalscorer and a good option between Demarai Gray and Leon Bailey. The midfield is showing more steel than it has in years, and the back line always has formed a strong base when the same players are consistently answering call-ups as they are now.
But they still have some convincing to do. Why the skepticism? Why not label Jamaica as a true contender to win the Nations League and make a deep Copa América run? Forgive me, but a lot of us have seen this multipart docuseries before.
Even with the new-look Jamaica, we saw what the team looks like without Gray, whose foolish red card in the 85th minute means he’ll miss the CNL semifinal.
It was an impressive turnaround Tuesday night, but we’re still saying the same things we’ve always said about Jamaica. The talent is there. Sometimes the tactics are there. Can they put it all together when it matters?
The next edition of League A will be fun for us sickos … but crowded
None of the teams involved in Tuesday night’s quarterfinal craziness were at any risk of losing their spot in League A of the next Nations League, set to kick off in September 2024. But many teams in League B worked to secure promotion and earn that spot in League A. It’s looking like a crowded field.
While the field will be the same size as it was this year thanks to the CNL Final Four getting byes to the quarterfinals, teams like Canada and Costa Rica now are in the mix with newly promoted squads like Nicaragua, Guadeloupe and even Guyana who have hope of staying in the division.
And it should produce a lot of fascinating matchups! Just let me check the calendar here and…wait, are you kidding me? We have the Swiss style thing for another year?!
Well, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see the same teams meet each other for whatever reason and others never play. Be kind to us, gods of the draw.
Saint Martin completes perfect campaign, while others tread water in League C
St. Martin continued to dominate League C, securing promotion as the group winner with a 4-0 win over Bonaire with a performance that showed from the opening whistle that they were there to get all three points.
It’s been an impressive campaign for Saint Martin which goes to League B after winning all four games in this CNL, netting 20 goals for and conceding just once.
Of course, you already knew the Swallows were rolling since you’re a newsletter reader:
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Someone seems to step up every match for St. Martin, and Tuesday it was Randy Gentes, who scored the opener in the third minute, nearly set up a second in the 10th minute, and actually scored again before the break to make it 3-0 at halftime.
In between, Keelan Lebon scored a candidate for goal of the window.
Still, Bonaire earned the promotion this time around that they fumbled in the previous edition, going up to League B as the best second-place team in the division,
While St. Martin, Bonaire and Aruba continue to show progress, other teams in League C continue to tread water. The CNL is supposed to boost teams like Anguilla, which went 0-0-4, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which went 0-3-1.
Then again, those countries have to take advantage of the opportunities. The success this window of the British Virgin Islands, who weren’t promoted but secured five points this time around shows that when the right team gets put together, it can take large strides forward.
Four of the five League C teams who are staying in League C are back in competitive action in March, with World Cup qualification beginning in the region.
Friendlies don’t pay for teams outside League A
It’s always better to play than to not, right? Well…maybe not so for some of the League A teams who were able to schedule games after falling short of the Nations League quarterfinals.
Cuba went to Russia for a friendly match and fell 8-0, matching its worst loss in history after losing to the USSR by the same scoreline in 1980 and getting beat 8-0 by Sweden in 1938.
Beyond the embarrassment of an historic loss, a video emerged in which new Cuba recruit Fabian Gloor asked to swap shirts with a Russian player, except he could only do so much of a swap. “I can’t give you because in Cuba we have not enough,” Gloor tells a Russian player, who then gives him a shirt and wishes him good luck.
In far less weighty frustration, Curacao hosted El Salvador for a pair of matches in an effort to hop into Pot 1 of the upcoming World Cup qualification draw but failed to beat La Selecta in either contest despite leading in both.
That’s good news for Haiti, who would’ve been leapfrogged but now can expect a slightly less daunting draw when they enter qualification in early June.
I’ll be back next week, continuing to cover this wild region. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, Americans, and your weekend, non-Americans!