Mexico and Costa Rica have already advanced in the World Cup, and now the Americans are looking to join the two CONCACAF nations in the round of 16.
“I think the CONCACAF teams are gaining quite a bit of respect in this tournament,” U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi said Tuesday, one day after Mexico joined Costa Rica in advancing to the World Cup’s knockout stages. The United States was seconds away from being qualified for the round of 16, as well, but surrendering a late goal against Portugal means the Americans now will need the right result – or combination of results – to secure a spot on the final day of group play.
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Regional pride is probably a bigger deal for Zusi and teammates such as Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. As opposed to the German-Americans on the team, they’ve lived with how soccer in North America is largely disrespected.
It’s true on the Mexico side of the border, as well. After scoring in Monday’s impressive 3-1 victory over Croatia to help advance his country, striker Chicharito Hernandez stood up for CONCACAF in an interview with ESPN’s John Sutcliffe.
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“The thing is, all the people think that CONCACAF is easy,” Chicharito said. “And you see first of the group to Costa Rica, United States almost getting through … CONCACAF is there.”
Zusi said he wasn’t sure why the CONCACAF teams have performed so well here in Brazil.
“I think location might have a bit to do with it,” he said. “It’s obviously a hot place to play and CONCACAF teams are used to that. That could be or it could not be.” Hernandez said he believes the region is “growing up,” and it helps to have so many players from the region playing in the top European leagues.
When it comes to the World Cup, the relationship between the United States and Mexico always has been trickiest.
Their rivalry rages any other time. There may be some Mexico fans who live in the U.S. who find a way to root for their adopted country when it plays other opponents, but for the most part it’s as simple as Ohio State vs. Michigan.
In the World Cup, though, there is value to the other side doing well. The number of World Cup bids assigned to each federation is not static. It is based on the number of teams in the federation and its relative strength. As recently as 2002, the playoff spot that got Mexico into this World Cup was not available; it only was awarded to CONCACAF in 2006 – in part because both teams got out of the group stages in Japan/South Korea.
So it’s a little bit like the phenomenon in U.S. college football, in which fans of the Southeastern Conference chant “S-E-C” whenever one of their member teams does well. “CON-CA-CAF” fits that rhythm equally well.