US-Mexico the Nations League Final we expected, but not how we expected
Plus: Deon McCauley on Belize's last WCQ chance
Welcome to Getting CONCACAFed. Today we’ll look back on the CNL Final Four, look at the potential last World Cup qualification match of a Concacaf legend and glance at the weekend’s WCQs in the region.
It’s the final we expected, but we didn’t get there how we expected.
Mexico fans chuckled at the United States’ struggles to get into the Concacaf Nations League final, with Jordan Siebatcheu’s 89th minute header the difference in a tightly contested match with Honduras.
They weren’t laughing a few hours later, with Costa Rica similarly troubling El Tri and Mexico needing a Guillermo Ochoa save in sudden death to get into the final.
“It obviously was very tough for us to beat Costa Rica. We went to penalties. It was very tough for the U.S. to beat Honduras. The goal from the U.S. came very late,” Mexico manager Tata Martino summarized after the match.
With Mexico in great form under Martino and the U.S. having an unprecedented number of players based in top clubs, the duopoly atop Concacaf seems to have returned, but clearly that doesn’t mean they can steamroll the other top teams in the region.
Martino’s tactical shift, going to a 3-4-3 in the first half and then shifting to his typical 4-3-3 later in the game, didn’t work. Mexico had few dangerous moments against a Costa Rica team that was able to cover its weaknesses at the back and stymie the El Tri attack.
“When a team has a chance twice in the first half and once in the second, that’s never a finishing problem,” Martino said when asked if his players needed to be more deadly in front of goal. “Our issue was more linked to the build-up play than with finishing.”
Both Central America teams were able to frustrate their North American opposition’s efforts to create chances but did so without simply parking the bus and praying like teams often are tempted to do when facing one of the Concacaf giants.
Honduras manager Fabian Coito said before the match that Honduras had identified some of the United States’ weaknesses and would look to exploit them.
The surprise was that Los Catrachos came out with a more aggressive look than expected, putting attack-minded Alex Lopez and Deybi Flores, who tries to get to every area of the field, in the midfield to start and a two-forward front of Alberth Elis and Anthony Lozano. That led to plenty of scoring chances, though the shift was noticeable when Honduras went to the more traditional look, bringing on Bryan Acosta and Edwin Rodriguez in the 64th minute. From there, it was buckling down and looking for the shootout, but clearly Honduras will have aspirations of not only defending well at the Gold Cup and World Cup qualification but also winning a fair share of games in the Octagonal.
“I think that’s Concacaf,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “We’re not taking anything for granted, we’re not taking any performance for granted. We’d liked to have scored more goals and won more comfortably, but that’s not reality.
“You’ll see all sorts of difficult results and difficult games, and that’s part of it. We played the second-youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a competitive match tonight, and these guys need that experience. So, I’m really pleased with how the game went and really pleased we had to go through this because it’s a great learning experience.”
The semifinal struggles also taught, or reminded, fans that qualifying for the World Cup won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be.
With the pandemic forcing a delay, the timing of the Nations League Final Four isn’t incredible, but this competition is one of the only ways to increase the level of the teams that aren’t giants in the region.
Those same giants often complain about having to play teams in the region so often at the expense of using FIFA dates for friendly matches against more challenging teams. How else, though, are other teams in the region supposed to raise their own level? With regular games, incentive for long-term plans and progress, and the potential of landing in an expanded World Cup, more and more countries should soon be nipping at the heels of the region’s best.
“The truth is Costa Rica is a tough team,” Mexico right back Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez said Thursday night. “I’m going to be honest with you, the competition is very even in Concacaf. We’ve been raising our level, every country. That makes me happy as someone in Concacaf. I think we’re all representing our region proudly.”
Mexico and the U.S. likely will be flying the flag for the region as the top two teams at Qatar 2022. One of them will be the inaugural Nations League winner. Just because they’re the top teams, though, doesn’t mean other teams don’t have their own aspirations, their own talents and their own opportunities to make life tough for the powers.
🇧🇿 - Belize captain Deon McCauley not planning to go quietly
Readers who donated at least $50 to help victims of the volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were able to assign me a topic to write about in the newsletter. Scott Ferguson donated and said, “If you haven't covered the Belizean legend Deon McCauley yet, I feel his journeyman career needs some coverage.” I thought, what better time to catch up with McCauley than before Belize’s match with Nicaragua on Friday.
Deon McCauley is not done.
Belize’s all-time leading scorer has played for the Jaguars in every World Cup qualification cycle dating back to 2010’s effort to make it to South Africa. Ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualification match against Nicaragua, McCauley is reflective but focused on the task at hand.
“Every day, I think about my career with the national team,” he said this week from Nicaragua. “I'm very happy with the career that I've had here, and I was able to accomplish a lot.
“I may or may not be in another World Cup cycle, but that’s how it goes” the 33-year-old forward continued. “I’m not giving up yet, but it has been very, very, fruitful years with the national team program, and I'm happy that I'm still here and I'm still able to compete at the highest level. I try to help the country to do great things now and in the future if possible.”
If tonight is McCauley’s last World Cup qualifier, it will be a somewhat abrupt end to a long story. McCauley has netted 18 goals in World Cup qualification, with his 11-goal haul in the 2014 cycle putting him as joint top scorer worldwide along with Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie.
But Belize is in Group E, which turned into a four-team group when Saint Lucia withdrew in March on the eve of qualification starting. Their final match of the first round is tonight.
The Jaguars sit on three points, as do Nicaragua and Haiti, but with both those rivals playing twice this window, the group looks to be nearly out of reach for Central America’s only English-speaking nation.
“Honestly, I think FIFA and Concacaf should do something about about it, and at least make an exception for our group and let two teams go through to next round, because, it's unfortunate that St. Lucia withdrew, but, I mean, it's not our fault,” said McCauley, who also suggested a playoff for best second-place or a similar solution, though that doesn’t look to be in the cards.
That adds to the frustration Belize already was feeling after going to Haiti, where the team bus was ‘greeted’ by gunmen who held up the Belize bus and let it pass only after negotiations with the driver and others aboard.
“It's tough to try to motivate (the team’s young players) again to get back into, like, ‘game mode,’ so they can like start thinking about the game again. Nobody wanted to leave the hotel, even to go train. We basically had to train by the pool. If it was left to me, I would’ve decided not to play the game, but FIFA and Concacaf did their job and sent somebody in to assess the situation and we were able to play the game with enforced security.”
“No human being wants to go through something like that with machine guns pointed at you,” he continued. “You only have one life to live, and to not know if you’re going to live after a scary moment like that, it’s shocking.”
It’s the most startling experience of a long World Cup qualification career for McCauley, but 2021 hasn’t been all bad. He continues to coach a youth team in the Atlanta area, where he lives with his wife. The couple welcomed a baby this year and McCauley also added a trophy to the mantle, winning the UPSL with Ginga Atlanta, a moment that took him nearly full circle in his club career, lifting the semi-pro trophy at Silverbacks Stadium, where he suited up with the Atlanta Silverbacks in 2014.
“That was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life, in my career,” he said of the title. “I was talking to someone and said, ‘Man, it was sweet to win the national championship in the stadium that I signed my first professional contract in the U.S. in.”
Though time may be working against him, he’ll be looking for similar moments with Belize. You can’t doubt his commitment. The national team had to go into a bubble for more than a month, with the Belize government still debating procedures for reopening and restarting sport. McCauley was there the entire way, as he has been for Belize since 2008.
Other things to watch in World Cup qualification
I’ll have a newsletter Tuesday looking at that day’s pivotal matches that will largely decide who makes it through to the second round, but with matches Friday and Saturday, there’s still a bit of maneuvering taking place beyond Belize’s last gasp.
Both Guatemala and the DR are favorites tonight but can’t afford a slip-up as they chase Curacao and Panama, respectively.
Groups A and F are the wild ones (and the winner of those two will play each other, so it’s possible a real underdog or two gets into at least the second round. St. Kitts and Nevis is in the driver’s seat in Group F and if they beat Guyana tonight and Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, they’re into the next round. If not, things can get wild.
The matches Saturday don’t look competitive, and unless you’re a real sicko or a fan of one of the teams, there may not be much in it for you.
Haiti, Trinidad and El Salvador all have true road matches but all should roll, as Canada should past Aruba (though Aruba was able to get its first win under interim manager Stanley Menzo during the week against the Cayman Islands!) and Panama should past an Anguilla side already ranked worst in the confederation and dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad (four replacement players traveled to Panama to bolster the group).
Next week is when the good stuff happens, and I’ll have you covered then, plus Nations League final reaction and thoughts on TUCA FERRETTI TO JUAREZ in Monday’s newsletter for premium subscribers.