A few stray thoughts as the first round of World Cup qualifying for CONCACAF comes to an end, and the second round rapidly — and by rapidly, we mean Saturday — approaches:
You have to hand it to Puerto Rico — and to former Revolution midfielder Isaac Angking
There weren’t many who rightly gave El Huracán Azul much of a chance to come out of Group F, given the fact that they had been drawn from Pot 4 and were, at the time the groups were drawn, ranked No. 178 in the FIFA rankings.
But what did we learn about Puerto Rico?
One, it wasn’t blown out, not even by Trinidad & Tobago. In fact, Puerto Rico came from behind to draw the Soca Warriors, 1-1, thanks to the first of Ricardo Rivera’s team-high three qualifying goals on March 28.
The only loss it suffered came at the hands of St. Kitts & Nevis, and that was a 1-nil score line on March 24. In addition, it thumped the Bahamas, 7-0 — to be fair, everyone except T&T thumped the Bahamas — and beat Guyana, a Pot 3 side, 2-nil behind first-half goals by Rivera and former Revolution homegrown midfielder Isaac Angking, who scored his second goal of the group stage Tuesday, this time from the spot.
You have to be happy about those performances by Puerto Rico, which scrapped its way to seven points out of the 12 on offer in what was, from its perspective, a relatively tough group: it only allowed two goals by teams ranked higher, and managed to score three.
And even though it didn’t advance, you have to consider it a rather successful qualifying effort, in theory, given that Puerto Rico scored 10 goals, two more than its 2014 qualifying effort of eight goals, where it, too, won twice. And to do it with two fewer matches, plus as it came off a poor (0-4-0) Nations League qualifying campaign, plus 2-2-0 in Nations League Group C… that has to open up some eyes about the work Dave Sarachan and Co. are doing in San Juan.
And to give Angking — a player without a club — as well as Providence City’s Kevin Hernández a three-minute run-out as an amateur player on Tuesday is a testament to the belief that talent can be found anywhere and have the opportunity to represent your homeland.
Second round matchups look intriguing
Here are the three second round ties, which will kick off Saturday and cap off the Octagonal on Tuesday:
Canada vs. Haiti
Curacao vs. Panama
El Salvador vs. St. Kitts & Nevis
With the exception of St. Kitts & Nevis, all five advancees came out of the first pot when the group stage draw was made. And when one looks at all six teams, one can easily see that Canada unleashed hellfire and brimstone in the group stages with 27 goals scored.
Did the Canadians waste all their goals? The hope here is no, especially given Tajon Buchanan’s role in the national team: a continued high profile will go a long way for him, even against opponents of this nature. If the Canadians can get past Haiti — a team that wiped the floor in Group E, scoring 13 goals — they’ll have incredibly tough competition in the Octagonal.
But let’s look at the other teams still alive among those playing over the next week:
Panama scored 19 goals, while Curaçao — which edged Guatemala in Group C on goals for — scored 15. El Salvador, out of Group A, potted 13. Granted, and to be fair, these teams didn’t necessarily see the best defenses here.
And quite a few of those six put up solid crooked numbers. I think, though, that we see some closer score lines Saturday.
How does Haiti approach the second round?
Obviously, Haiti will go for it against Canada. The World Cup, of course, is the goal and should be for every country. It hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1974.
But what if the Canadians throttle Haiti in Saturday’s game with no chance of a comeback Tuesday? I would have to think tactics change, or at the very least, the personnel moving forward does.
Of the six teams involved in the second round, only Haiti has extra games to play if it wants to qualify for the Gold Cup; Canada, Panama, Curaçao, and El Salvador already have their spots in the tournament booked, while St. Kitts & Nevis didn’t qualify via Nations League. Haiti has Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on July 2, and should it advance — spoiler alert: it should — it would get either Bermuda or Barbados in the final qualifier before advancing to Group A.
I would think Haiti rests key players Tuesday should Canada rout it Saturday, but if Haiti’s in it at home, one would think they’d go all out in Bridgeview — COVID and all — on Tuesday.