World Cup qualifying
Assessing the Octagon with 2021 over and just two windows remaining
November 17, 2021
THE OCTAGON or “Ocho” will now head into the final two windows with each team playing three times in January/February and then three times again in March. Each team has played eight games heading into 2022 and after the November window, we can see a clear separation between the top half and the bottom half.
The top half consists of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Panama – in that order. Just two points separate leading Canada from fourth-place Panama. A five-point gap separates Panama from the bottom half where Costa Rica sits with nine points, Jamaica with seven points, El Salvador with six points, and Honduras with just three.
It is not impossible for Costa Rica to move into the top four, but for now it seems like current top four are the most likely to finish in the top four. We just don’t know their places.
As most know by now, the top three qualify for the World Cup while the fourth-place team has to go to an intercontinental playoff – where it could likely be the underdog.
Between Canada, the USA, Mexico, and Panama you have a four-team race for three spots.
Here is a look at each team and why their fans should feel both optimistic and concerned over their current standing.
January Window: @Honduras, USA, @El Salvador
March Window: @Costa Rica, Jamaica, @Panama
Canada is atop the group, is playing well, has yet to lose, and the 2-1 win over Mexico capped a six-point window and created a sense of euphoria the country has never seen about its men’s national team in well over a generation. The team is loaded with talent with Alphonso Davies perhaps the best player in all of CONCACAF, Jonathan David/Cyle Larin comprising of the best forward tandem, and Tajon Buchanan another budding player full promise. Everyone is stepping up and on Tuesday it was Alistair Johnston who made a big play to create Larin’s first goal over Mexico.
Schedule-wise, Canada is done with Mexico and doesn’t have an away trip to the United States. A lot of the heavily lifting has been done.
Canada seem is riding a wave of positivity that seems destined to carry it to Qatar and then in a spot to build up its team ahead of co-hosting the tournament in 2026.
Canada has performed well thus far but has been doing so mostly at home. Of its eight games, five have been in Canada. While it has earned draws on the road against the USA, Mexico, and Jamaica (certainly very strong accomplishments), it will now have to play four of its final six games on the road in Central America. Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama are tough places to play and a hiccup or two should be expected.
There are also a bunch of other things that should cause concern. In each of the upcoming windows, the team is going to have to travel a lot. 1) Assemble in Canada, 2) travel to Central America and play game one 3) return all the way to Canada for game two and 4) travel back to Central America for game three. On top of the travel, the fluctuation in temperature between Canada in the winter and Central America could be eighty or ninety degrees.
Scenes in Edmonton pic.twitter.com/R7aecVjRWs— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) November 17, 2021
While four games are on the road, one of the home games is against a U.S. team that is a regional power that has won both the Gold Cup and Nations League in 2021 while beating Mexico three times.
Also, combine this with the fact that for the January window, Canada’s MLS based players will still be offseason and that makes it harder considering the Canadian team, while boasting an strong XI, is still not as deep as the U.S. or Mexico yet.
January Window: El Salvador, @Canada, Honduras
March Window: @Mexico, Panama, @Costa Rica
The United States team is generally improving. Without question, the team is in a much better start than it was a year ago. It’s starting lineups now typically boast an average age of under 23 so a learning curve was expected. For years, American fans have been stressing the future of this team. But the talk now is turning into something substantive on the field. And the team is also getting deeper. It won the Gold Cup with mostly reserve players and then against Mexico this past window, there was no Gio Reyna, no Sergino Dest, Christian Pulisic had to come off the bench, and John Brooks was left off the roster due to form. The U.S. team can miss chunks of its main group and still compete well.
The good news for the U.S. team is that the team seems far more likely to continue to improve than to regress. After a draw against Canada, the U.S. team looked comfortable playing at home against teams that it should beat with wins over Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Mexico. The team is playing home games like it did when players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Carlos Bocanegra carried the team through very strong qualifying cycles in 2006, 2010, and 2014.
That is very important when you consider the two home games in January are against El Salvador and Honduras, which are struggling to compete in the Octagon. If the U.S. team can compete like it should, it should rack up points in January. When you look at Panama’s tough window in January, there is real opportunity for some big separation.
The United States has three brutal road games remaining. Heading to Canada is going to be no fun and the U.S. team has never won a competitive game away at Mexico or away at Costa Rica. After a loss on the road to Panama, can the U.S. team find a way to eke out points in any of its four toughest road games? The game against Jamaica wasn’t reassuring.
That puts an unusual amount of pressure on the team to win its remaining home games – which are very doable, but the team can’t slip up. Massive squad rotations worked in the road trip to Honduras but didn’t against Panama. The U.S. team needs to enter March in a strong position because that window is its hardest of qualifying.
The U.S. team is young and that has paid off, but the remaining part of the schedule is a test of maturity. Winning the toughest road games in this region is hard. Just, look at the beating Mexico took in November if you’re looking for proof.
January Window: @Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama
March Window: USA, @Honduras, El Salvador
Mexico had a brutal November window. They had tough road tests against the United States and Canada and came up short against two emotionally changed opponents in hostile environments. Fair enough.
But despite that, Mexico is in strong position when you look at the standings. Just three of its first eight games have been at home. It only took a beating in its two hardest games. Compared with the United States – which has its hardest road games coming up – Mexico was also able to draw at Panama, win at Costa Rica, and win at El Salvador. Those seven road points more than offset the two losses in November to put it on pace to qualify.
Azteca is a brutal place to play and Costa Rica, Panama, and El Salvador will be heavy underdogs. Hosting the U.S. team can be tricky as the U.S. team should be confident and has draw there the last two cycles. But by the time the third window rolls around, Mexico will have momentum and will be looking to go in for the kill against its archrival.
Games aren’t played on paper. On paper, Mexico should be favored in most of its upcoming games. But Mexico’s toughest opponent isn’t another CONCACAF team. It’s Mexico. This team can beat itself when it is down and the November window set the stage for a winter of discontent where fans are angry with head coach Tata Martino. The players say dumb stuff to the press and are visibly frustrated on the field (this was visible against the U.S. in Cincinnati and against Mexico in Edmonton).
Distraught Mexico twitter is the best Twitter https://t.co/HmJGxHTl57— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) November 17, 2021
All it’s going to take is a stumble out of the gate in January and the normally supportive home crowd could turn angry at its own players. Mexico’s passion for its own national team cuts both ways and the self-destruct button is within reach.
January Window: @Costa Rica, Jamaica, @Mexico
March Window: Honduras, @USA, Canada
Who is hotter than Panama now? The November window was epic for Panama which rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Honduras 3-2 on the road. Then at home to El Salvador, Panama was down 1-0 in the second half but defeated Hugo Perez’s team 2-1 to complete a perfect six -point window.
A team that can will itself to win through a belief in itself is always a dangerous team. The players are all very emotional and are able to score goals when needed. They are seemingly never out of any game and the team rotates effectively – so they’re not reliant on any one or two players.
The team has been boosted in large part by two wins – a 1-0 home win over the United States when the U.S. was just off. Then a staggering 3-0 win over Jamaica on the road. But Panama also drew at home to Costa Rica and drew at home Mexico (which are below what the U.S. and Canada did to the same opponents). It also lost on the road to El Salvador. Panama’s most recent wins were against the two worst teams in the Octagon and Panama needed epic rallies for those wins.
Panama has a harder schedule than the United States, Mexico, and possibly Canada. If it can win at Costa Rica or Mexico, only then will they have the inside track towards a top three finish.
The team has a wave of positive emotion right now but the biggest detriment to momentum is time. Two months until the next qualifier will halt that momentum and Panama will have to press forward with its talent. While Panama is good, it doesn’t have the talent of Canada, Mexico, or the United States.
Soccer is tough to predict, and predicting CONCACAF is almost impossible. One bad bounce, one bad call, one big mistake can change everything.
Despite the problems Mexico had in November, it has the right schedule ahead to not just qualify but to finish atop. Four out of six games at Azteca has it just where it wants to be. It has already completed its three toughest road games in the USA, Panama, and Canada. El Tri also has a decent number of points on the road. November’s scheduling was just too tough. Tata Martino might be embattled, but Mexico should find the remainder of the schedule winnable. It's in a much stronger position than people realize.
The United States doesn’t have an easy schedule like Mexico, but the January window is favorable. The team is improving, and the young players are gaining experience a fast rate.
Canada has put itself in a great position. The four road games and travel are difficult but it will become easier for the players to take if they sense a World Cup ticket is getting close. They might have some hiccups, but they have enough talent and experience to cross the line.
Panama seems like the odd team out here. The schedule is tough, their momentum will dissipate with the two-month break. Panama is a good team, but a bit behind the other three.
For that reason, I’ll predict the top four order of 1) Mexico, 2) United States, 3) Canada, 4) Panama