Talking soccer with local cab drivers is a time-honored tradition of mine through my many travels abroad, and when I had a chance to ask a Costa Rican cab driver back in December what he thought of the recent World Cup draw given to Costa Rica, he was honest and realistic.
“In a group with three former champions, we can’t win,” the cab driver said. “But I just hope we earn some respect.”
The Ticos have done that and more after finishing unbeaten in, and winning, a brutal group featuring Italy, England and Uruguay. Costa Rica rolls into the Round of 16 as one of the best stories of this World Cup, and the leader of a CONCACAF trio that has helped the region enjoy a level of success few outside of North and Central America could have imagined.
Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States have combined 5-0-3 record in the World Cup group stage, and if not for late Portgal equalizer vs. the U.S. on Sunday, all three would already be in the round of 16. And that unbeaten record? It has come against a list of opponents that includes Brazil, Portugal, Italy, England and Uruguay.
Costa Rica’s quality shouldn’t have come as a surprise to American fans, who saw enough of Costa Rica in 2013 to know how tough the Ticos can be. The U.S. held off Costa Rica in the famous snow game in March of that year, edged the Ticos in a Gold Cup group match, then suffered a humiliating 3-1 defeat in San Jose last September.
As tough as Costa Rica was for the U.S. to deal with in 2013, few could have envisioned the Ticos beating Uruguay and Italy, and shutting down England on the way to a 2-0-1 group record.
Mexico being in the knockout rounds isn’t a huge surprise, having made the knockout rounds of the previous five World Cups, but the way El Tri qualified certainly was.
Miguel Herrera’s men have played with purpose and skill, defending well and attacking in that familiar Mexican style during the team’s best eras. The squad looks nothing like the one that struggled badly in World Cup qualifying, and nearly missed the World Cup altogether before being saved by the U.S., which beat Panama to send Mexico through on the final match day.
Mexico has made the absolute most of that second chance by rolling through the group stage to set up a round of 16 date with the Netherlands. El Tri will be the underdog in that match-up, but that label didn’t stop Miguel Herrera’s men from trouncing Croatia.
The U.S. has done its part, beating Ghana and outplaying Portugal in a 2-2 draw. Those results may ultimately not matter much of the Americans don’t advance to the round of 16. They will need a win or draw against Germany, or they will need help from the Portugal-Ghana match, where a draw would send the Americans through.
Things haven’t been all perfect for CONCACAF. Honduras has lost both of its group matches, and has been criticized for its physical play. The Catrachos are still searching for the first World Cup win in the country’s history, and Wednesday’s match against Switzerland will be Honduras’ last chance to contribute something to CONCACAF’s stellar World Cup.
Even with Honduras struggling, the region’s other teams have done enough to boost CONCACAF’s respect level considerably, and put to rest any notion that the region isn’t deserving of the 3.5 World Cup qualifying spots it currently receives.
Of course the fun is just beginning for CONCACAF. If the Americans advance, and the region’s top three teams reach the knockout rounds, the region could add a few more world powers to the list of teams that have learned at this World Cup that CONCACAF teams can’t be taken lightly.