The Cold Never Bothered Them Anyway
The wait is almost over. The final matchday of this 3-game window has come and gone, leaving us with the last 3-game series at the end of March, when we’ll know who’ll going be to Qatar to compete in the World Cup. We now know of two teams that won’t be going for sure, so let’s take a look back at what happened this Wednesday.
Last time, I said Costa Rica was right back in the race to qualify after being written off due to a sluggish start. Now, they’re alive and well in the thick of things. Costa Rica overcame Andre Blake stopping Celso Borges’s penalty, which at time seemed very costly. Their veterans keep stepping up, as it was the same Borges who assisted Joel Campbell on the lone goal to beat Jamaica 1–0 in Kingston. Jamaica actually out-possessed and outshot Costa Rica, but it was the Ticos who were able to find the back of the net. Costa Rican coach Luis Fernando Suarez deserves credit, as he’s been able to get a lot of more out of this squad than previous coaches. Costa Rica does need a change of the guard and to develop some young players, but in the meantime, their veterans are getting the job done and are well within striking distance of not only the 4th spot, but the 3rd and last direct spot to qualify. The problem is 2 of their last game are against Canada and the United States. The games are at home, but these two teams could be resting their starters since they may have qualified by then. However, nothing is guaranteed, so the Ticos will have to be up to the task. With this loss, Jamaica is officially unable to qualify for the World Cup. Their disappointing results continue and they’ll have to play for pride and spoiler at best.
Mexico continues to disappoint even though they won tonight. Panama was difficult to breakdown, as they are very organized and Mexico is struggling with their creativity and playmaking ability. Panama did have some chances, but mainly defended and did well for most of the game. Mexico got a spark from Alexis Vega as he was very active, but the squad selection by coach Tata Martino is still very questionable as there are too many members from the old guard who aren’t producing like Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado. Mexico took another hit when Hirving “Chucky” Lozano had to be subbed off due to suffering an injury that required that he be taken straight to the hospital. They caught a break shortly after when Panama committed a foul in the box. Mexico was awarded a penalty, which Raul Jimenez put away to score the lone goal on the night. Results wise, coach Martino and Mexico can breathe a bit easier, but this team continues to disappoint production wise. 2 of their last games are at home with one being against El Salvador and a visit to Honduras, so Mexico should get the results they need to qualify. Panama now has Costa Rica breathing down their neck as they’re now only separated by one point. Panama has 2 games left with one being at home against Honduras, but still has to come play in the United States, and then closes at home vs Canada, so the road to Qatar will be very bumpy.
Canada’s hot streak continues and their win over El Salvador showed that things simply tend to go your way when you’re doing things well. El Salvador almost didn’t play today after the players spoke out against their federation for failing to pay some bonuses and expenses they had initially promised to cover. Unfortunately, the Salvadoran federation doesn’t seem to have learned their lesson from a couple years ago, when failure to pay promised bonuses and salaries led to some players being so upset that they accepted money to lose games. It was a dark moment for Salvadoran soccer, and it looked like this was a thing of the past, especially after a couple players said they were approached by someone else offering to do the same thing in 2016, but they rejected the offer. The players then said they would take the field Wednesday night out of love for themselves, their families and the fanbase.
El Salvador came out and gave Canada almost everything they could handle in the first half. The teams went in to the half time break scoreless which was a testament to the Salvadoran effort. In the second half, it seemed that El Salvador just ran out of gas and Canada got a jolt from their substitutions. Coach John Herdman continues to push the right buttons as Cyle Larin had an assist on the first Canadian goal less than 10 minutes after coming onto the field. Larin sent in a ball to veteran Atiba Hutchinson. Hutchinson headed a ball that went off the post then came back towards him, but first went off Salvadoran defender Eriq Zavaleta, then off Hutchinson again, and finally went in to give Canada a 1–0 lead. Talk about a lucky bounce. El Salvador made a final push right before stoppage time and had some chances to tie, but Jonathan David stole a ball off a throw-in, ran towards the goal and chipped the ball over the goalkeeper to seal the win for Canada. The Canadians now have 25 points and are still 4 points ahead of second place United States, so it’s now a matter of if and when Canada will qualify for their first World Cup since Mexico 1986.
For their part, the United States closed out this window in frigid St. Paul, Minnesota. They went up against lowly Honduras who would receive the honor of being awarded the Wooden Spoon if they were an MLS club, since they will most likely finish in last place. The main headline in this game was the game time temperature. You knew it would be cold, but it was hard to feel warm just watching the game as it dipped down to 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the second half with a wind chill of -12. This alone served as a big advantage over Honduras who are used to playing in the heat of their home stadium in San Pedro Sula. Could the US bounce back with a solid performance after losing in disappointing fashion on Sunday? The resounding response was yes.
One player we got to see tonight was Luca de La Torre. I can now see why some fans were asking for him to get minutes, as he was active throughout the game and seemed to distribute the ball well. It should be noted that it helped Honduras allowed so much space for American players to run as they pleased. It’s almost unheard off, as Honduras is usually physical and tends to defend in a manner that can be suffocating. However, this Honduras squad is a shell of those we’ve seen in recent years. It’s not an exaggeration to say the States at times seemed to be scrimmaging due to the ease in which they passed the ball back and forth along with winning any contested ball. As much as the new players give a chance to play differently, all 3 goals on the night came via good old dependable set pieces. It just doesn’t feel right when the US wins and not one of their goals comes off a set piece.
The first goal was a header by Weston McKennie. McKennie is without a doubt the most consistent US player as he is always active, fighting and involved in anything the US does. One player the US was glad to have back was Tim Weah as I felt he was greatly missed vs Canada and he was consistently creating chances, sending in crosses and had some shots on goal tonight. Kellyn Acosta started and deserves credit for those set pieces resulting in goals as all his services put the players who scored in good position to do so. The second goal was tapped in by Walker Zimmerman after Jordan Morris initially whiffed on it.
The proof of how cold the temperature was when Honduras took out starting goalkeeper Luis Lopez due to hypothermia symptoms. Lopez has been one of the lone bright spots on Honduras, and his replacement was active in the second half as the US continued to pressure and create chances. Christian Pulisic didn’t start, but came off the bench and scored the third and final goal of the night. If there was anyone who needed something positive tonight, it was Pulisic who was largely invisible in the previous 2 games and you could see it, as he celebrated the goal with a very relieved facial expression. It’ll be important for this to carry over into the next games the US has, as Pulisic will be key to a strong finish and qualifying for the World Cup. The US had a solid effort all around which resulted in a 3–0 win. For Honduras, they have been eliminated from the World Cup and will try to avoid the embarrassing feat of losing all their home games. There’s just one problem, the one home game they have left is against Mexico who will be very hungry to not only win, but play well as they’ve been disappointing recently.
Well folks, we’re almost at the end of the road. From the beginning I thought the US, Canada and Mexico would qualify but to mine and everyone’s surprise, Canada is the top dog and with the results they’ve achieved, this is the result of hard work instead of it being a fluke. The next 3-game window will feature the biggest rivalry game in the game: Mexico vs the United States. Due to co-hosting the next World Cup and possible changes to the qualification process, this could be the last game between these two at Estadio Azteca for a long time. Only 5 points separate the second place US from fifth place Costa Rica, which means this is setting up for an exciting finish that will probably come down to the final minutes of the last game which is nerve wracking for the fans of the teams involved, but awesome for the casual or neutral fan. Buckle up folks, it’s going to be a crazy finish.