Long considered minnows by the international soccer community, the countries representing CONCACAF have been anything but just under 10 days into World Cup 2014. CONCACAF, the confederation which governs soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, has historically engendered skepticism from European and South American nations, and looking at FIFA's World Rankings, it's easy to see why.
Out of a total of 207 nations, CONCACAF's highest position comes courtesy of the United States, currently ranked 13th. Other CONCACAF nations participating in the World Cup come much lower, with Mexico occupying 20th, Costa Rica 28th and Honduras 33rd. With only 32 nations participating in the World Cup, it's understandable that some would view CONCACAF teams as pushovers. And yet, with the World Cup nearing Matchday 3, CONCACAF nations have thus far exceeded expectations, with Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica not only undefeated, but acting as bracket busters, unexpectedly earning results against Brazil, Ghana, Uruguay and Italy, respectively.
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Considering CONCACAF's historic inability to crack the World Cup, with no team from the federation ever managing to make the tournament's semifinal round, it's worth asking exactly what's behind the rise of CONCACAF.
While it's tempting to point towards tournament favorites under-performing, the reality is that CONCACAF nations have excelled partly because the 2014 World Cup emulates the CONCACAF qualification process so well. With long trips across North and Central America and the Caribbean, imperfect pitches, dodgy referees, faint-inducing weather and an aggressive, sometimes turgid grind to results the norm, CONCACAF teams are largely used to the factors that European favorites are struggling to overcome. While Italian players reported hallucinating near the end of their match against England, CONCACAF nations are more experienced dealing with entire matches played in unwelcome weather.
That said, it would be unfair to point towards weather and travel conditions as the only differentiating factor. Over the last few years, CONCACAF nations have begun exporting more and more players to notable European teams, while also developing promising youth systems. The seemingly impenetrable talent gap between CONCACAF and more prominent confederations, while still significant, has begun to fade.
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An explanation also lies in the tactical approaches taken by coaches from CONCACAF nations and their more prominent colleagues. So far in this World Cup, CONCACAF coaches have approached matches in an aggressive style that's a departure for teams that would historically tend to sit back and play as defensively as possible. Similarly, more prominent teams have generally chosen not to modify their tactics for matches against CONCACAF nations, instead relying on the talent gap to drive them forward. So far, that hasn't worked. Mexico approached their match against Brazil the same way they did in their Olympic Final in 2013, and yet, Brazil seemed unprepared for their attacking effort. Italy was similarly guilty against Costa Rica, assuming they would be able to control the pace of the match against a team they thought would play fairly defensively and narrow.
All in all, there's promise in CONCACAF performances so far in World Cup 2014, but as we all know, we're still in the first stages of the tournament, and there are plenty of opportunities for teams to fall back on their laurels. That said, if CONCACAF keep up their level of play, there's no reason to believe a CONCACAF team won't go deep into the tournament.