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Costa Rica Beats Italy: CONCACAF Pride at an All-Time High

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Before delving into this post, a hearty tip of the cap and congrats to Costa Rica for following up its win over Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup with a tidy, comprehensive 1-0 victory over Italy Friday in Recife. The win eliminated England — terrific in its own right — and also set off a deluge of dispatches on social media with CONCACAF fans crowing like SEC football fans during the BCS Championship Game. Granted, it’s not the best parallel to be drawn since everyone, even begrudgingly, respects “SEC Speed” whereas CONCACAF has a ways to go to win over the world. Costa Rica moving into the knockout rounds isn’t going to stop other federations from grousing CONCACAF receives 3.5 World Cup berths every four years.

Regardless, Costa Rica’s win pushed CONCACAF’s record to 4-1-1, pending Honduras’ game with Ecuador later today. Honduras is the only CONCACAF team to have lost so far at the 2014 World Cup.

Before we go overboard, let’s remember CONCACAF teams dating back to the first World Cup in 1930 have (by my unofficial count) have a combined winning percentage hovering around 30 percent. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, CONCACAF teams were 10-24-12 (not including this World Cup), although that’s lopsided by the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad Tobago combining to go 1-9-3 at Germany 2006.

CONCACAF might not have even ended up with four teams in the field if  Mexico hadn’t finished fourth in the Hexagonal, playing New Zealand in a playoff to book its passage after an otherwise disastrous qualifying campaign. And it’s worth remembering once you get past the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica the rest of the CONCACAF region isn’t over-flowing with soccer powers. Unless the World Cup expands beyond 32 teams, it’s doubtful CONCACAF will be able to lobby for more spots.

Beyond that’s there’s the percentage of teams advancing out of group stage from each region (1990-2010)

  • CONMEBOL: 74 percent
  • UEFA: 65 percent
  • CONCACAF:  53 percent
  • AFC:  27 percent
  • CAF: 23 percent

Still, Costa Rica’s two wins so far in 2014 are impressive regardless if (pure speculation) they were aided by travel/heat/long club seasons, etc. Perhaps, as crazy as it sounds, Costa Rica is a little better than the World Soccer press lets on. It smacked Uruguay, getting back into the game on a set piece goal and then executed a high-energy, high-pressing gameplan to nullify the passing wizardry of Andrea Pirlo, grinding the Italian offense into a series of hopeless longballs. That takes skill and talent, not simply some outside geographical forces or a temperature reading.

Mexico’s 0-0 draw with Brazil was eye-opening too, mainly for Guillermo Ochoa’s heroics in goal. El Tri still need a result vs. Croatia to ensure passage into the Round of 16 for the sixth straight tournament. The U.S. took care of Ghana, but still has work to do vs. Portugal and Germany to advance.

The best performance from CONCACAF might end up going to American referee Mark Geiger, who’s been lauded for performances in Colombia/Greece and Spain/Chile. Let’s not forget, CONCACAF officiating on the whole tends to make the NBA’s look good by comparison.

For now, of course, it’s still fun to wave the CONCACAF flag. These occasions don’t happen very often.

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