Mexico and the USA to Join Canada at 2022 World Cup
The last three matchdays of the CONCACAF 2022 World Cup qualifying competition were played out this March window. Just five teams remained in contention for the top four slots after El Salvador, Honduras and Jamaica were eliminated during the January break.
Canada, sitting at the top of the standings and four points clear of the USA and Mexico, began the window with one foot over the finish line. Mexico and the USA were in perfect position for taking second and third place. However, Panama and Costa Rica, only four and five points adrift, were still in range to upset the apple cart with some well-timed wins if the competition's top dogs didn't hold their nerves.
Only the top three teams could claim the automatic berths for the 2022 tournament. Only one could take the runner up prize of a spot at the inter-confederation playoffs in June - a last roll of the dice to win a ticket to Qatar.
In the end, Canada, Mexico, and the USA claimed their places at this year's World Cup, and Costa Rica secured the fourth place ticket to the playoffs. So, how did the action pan out…
Canada began the window with an unbeaten record in the tournament, which had seen the squad go from strength to strength. The team's first match of the break was against Costa Rica, who they beat 1-0 at home during their last meeting back in November 2021. For the game on the 25th, Canada travelled to Costa Rica. From the get-go, the match promised to be a tough one - a hostile crowd were in the stands and the Costa Rican team launched into an aggressive attacking game from the start. The Canadians absorbed the pressure from Los Ticos and managed to dominate possession, but, in the 34th minute, a red card for Mark-Anthony Kane upset the teams' rhythm. Costa Rica capitalised on the setback and fired home the opening and winning goal. Canada defended well for the rest of the game but couldn't change the match's outcome. With the win and the three points on the table, Costa Rica ended Canada's winning streak and crept into fourth place, within three points of the USA and Mexico.
Up against Jamaica on the 27th, Canada was back on form; in front of a home crowd, they routed the Reggae Boyz 5-0. It was a dominant and confident display, and the convincing win gave the team their ticket to Qatar. On 28 points, six clear of the USA and Mexico, The Reds secured their first appearance at a World Cup in thirty-six years - to say the crowd went wild is a fair understatement.
Going into their final match of the break and having already qualified, Canada only needed to win points to ensure they ranked as high as possible for the upcoming World Cup draw. At the end of qualifying, the highest FIFA ranked teams will be pitted against more favourable teams during the group stage of the November tournament. However, against a physical and aggressive Panama, the Canadians ended their campaign with another loss. The Panamanians pressed Canada relentlessly, leaving little room for generating many serious scoring opportunities. In the end, it was Panama's Gabriel Torres who scored the winning goal and the only one of the game, with a volley into the back of the net in the 49th minute. Regardless, Canada still finished top of the table, wrapping up a remarkable campaign that saw them rise to the top and beat Mexico and the USA, two nations with the most World Cup appearances of the confederation.
Mexico and the USA
On 21 points each, the USA and Mexico began the break in second and third place, with the USA leading by goal difference. The first match of the outing was a head-to-head between one another. Both would have welcomed a win for the distance it would have placed between them and rising Costa Rica. However, in a frustrating game that saw Mexico dominate but fail to create decent opportunities and the USA create dangerous chances but fail to finish, the match ended in a goalless draw. Each was awarded just one point for their efforts.
The second matchday of the window was a far more positive affair for both teams. The USA took on Panama at home and thrashed them 5-1. With four goals in the first half from Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira, the match was practically sewn up at the interval. A fifth goal, and a brace for Pulisic, in the 65th, sealed the deal. Panama's Anibal Godoy managed a consolation goal in the 86th, enabling the team to leave the field with a bit of dignity intact.
Mexico also took the three points for their win against Honduras. However, it wasn't a pretty win or a quality one. Honduras were happy to sit back and defend. Mexico, struggling with pitch conditions, lacked form. The match's only goal came in the 70th minute, a header from Edison Alvarez off of a deflected ball. Nonetheless, the Mexicans maintained their position on the table and kept a distance between themselves and Costa Rica.
The final matchday of the tournament was a mixed bag. Mexico went up against El Salvador at home and hit the ground running. The team dominated the match and created plenty of opportunities, and within the first 17 minutes of the game, they had scored their first goal - a neat corner kick from Uriel Antuna. Confidence brimming and their eighth consecutive World Cup appearance just one win away, they scored again from a penalty just before halftime. Though they created further chances in the second half, El Salvador came alive to shut them down. Even so, El Tri took the win and booked their ticket to Qatar.
The USA squared up to Costa Rica on their final day but lost out 2-0. The Stars and Stripes team were pressed hard by a determined and physical Costa Rica from the beginning of the match. And, though the Americans still managed to dominate possession, they couldn't break down Los Ticos' defence, especially keeper Keylor Navas. Costa Rica stepped up their efforts in the second half and was rewarded with the opening goal courtesy of a powerful header from Juan Pablo Vargas. Less than ten minutes later, Costa Rica's Anthony Contreras doubled the teams' lead. Though they took back some control, the USA couldn't claw the points back. However, despite the loss and finding themselves in third place on equal points to Costa Rica, the team maintained their qualifying position and booked their tickets on goal difference.
Having started the March window in fifth place on 16 points and just out of qualifying position, Costa Rica upped their game for the final three matches. In an impressive run with wins against Canada, Jamaica and the USA, the team almost scored a last-minute berth at the World Cup - the USA just managed to hold onto their ticket. However, ending the tournament in fourth place, having displaced Panama, the Costa Ricans won themselves a spot at the 2022 World Cup playoffs.
The team will now play the OFC's representative New Zealand at the playoffs in June. The winner of the single-leg match will qualify for the World Cup.
The draw for the knockouts of the 2022 World Cup is complete; tournament groups have been decided! Check out which teams are lined up to do battle in Qatar.
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