CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying starts this Friday for the traditional regional powers. In prior years, all teams joined qualification quickly, though those perilous two-legged elimination rounds made way for a winnowing process this cycle. CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying provides increasing forgiveness for poor results each round, and with just a single round to navigate before the Hex (and its 3.5 World Cup berths), the US and Mexico have another World Cup in sight.
Most CONCACAF analysis is distilled to the US and Mexico battling for supremacy, but this past Gold Cup indicated a reinvigorated region. Jamaica upset a disjointed US in the semi-finals, and Mexico failed to convince on its way to the championship, finishing second in the group stage and needing extra time to win in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. Could another team crash the duopoly?
I analyzed the ELO ratings over the past five years for the 12 teams remaining in qualifying. This time period starts immediately after the 2010 World Cup, and includes the 2013 Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, three Gold Cups, and all qualifiers for these tournaments. Each dot below represents a team’s ELO score (Y-axis) after a game.
Results from this past year show any discussion of regional powers should include Costa Rica (red square in the above chart). Their quarterfinal appearance in the 2014 World Cup was the best performance from a CONCACAF team since USA in 2002. After a Jonathan Bornstein header and Uruguay kept them out of the 2010 World Cup, Costa Rica improved by 79 ELO points, among the best progress in the region.
Panama (purple diamond) also increased its standing. Though it missed the 2014 World Cup in heartbreaking fashion, Panama made the semifinals of the past three Gold Cups. It’s 86 ELO point gain from start of this time period is the biggest improvement in the region. A strong performance in this cycle could see Panama make the breakthrough. Honduras (light blue diamond) rounded out the CONCACAF spots in the past two World Cups, but are mired in a slump this past year and have dropped 125 ELO points in this time frame. Their recent results illustrate the problems: Honduras barely advanced over French Guiana in the third round of qualifying, and went winless in their Gold Cup group stage.
Below is a snapshot of the three groups for this qualifying round. The US, Mexico, and Costa Rica should all advance. Other than St. Vincent, the remainder of the sides have a decent chance to advance to the Hex. In particular, Group A features tightly clustered battle for second place, while Group B includes Costa Rica, Panama, and an improved Haiti. This is the first step for teams looking to emulate Costa Rica and become stronger in the region.