The Road to the World Cup: CONCACAF

May 15, 2015 - Eric Dodd

Nearly four years ago Saki Kumagai, Japan’s 20 year-old center-back, rifled the winning penalty kick into the top left corner of Hope Solo’s goal to seal victory for Japan over the United States in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final.  That moment gave Japan its first FIFA Women’s World Cup, winning against one of the giants in women’s soccer.  The celebrations from the Japanese matched this momentous occasion. By falling to Japan in penalty kicks, the United States missed its opportunity to reassert itself as the premier women’s team in the world.  Blank stares and looks of despair marked the faces of the United States’ players as they grappled with the reality of just how close they had come.

However, the end of each World Cup signals the beginning of the next campaign and renewed hope for the 136 women’s national teams that entered the qualifying process for the 2015 tournament. The landscape of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup will look slightly different than the 2011 version.  The 2015 World Cup is much larger, expanding from 16 to 24 teams.  Due to this expansion, two more groups needed to be added to the field. The additional groups forced the creation of the round of 16 knockout stage. Apart from the 8 additional berths to be earned, the traditional qualifying system for the World Cup remained largely the same. FIFA’s six continental confederations hosted qualifying tournaments to determine which teams gained entry into the FIFA Women’s World Cup.  

FIFA World Cup berths are not distributed evenly across the six confederations. They are distributed by FIFA to reflect the overall quality of the region. These allotments are often redistributed after a World Cup cycle ends to try and keep pace with the changing landscape of world soccer.  Below is a breakdown of the additional 8 berths awarded throughout the confederations.

*The teams that earn half-berths in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL enter into a playoff to decide who earns that final berth. (FIFA Confederations)

Each confederation has a different system and level of complexity for producing its representatives at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Our region, CONCACAF, has a particularly complex qualifying process. In the Caribbean there are so many teams, many of them quite poor in both a fiscal and soccer sense, that a more local preliminary round of qualifying is needed. This helps eliminate some of the weakest teams while also allowing some of the poorest teams an opportunity to advance without breaking the bank on expensive travel throughout North America. However, it does add extra steps to qualifying in this region. Europe, which has more financial and soccer parity, can avoid those steps.

This cycle’s qualifying campaign was also marked by the notable absence of Canada, another traditional soccer powerhouse. FIFA awards an automatic World Cup berth to the host nation so there is no need for the Canadians to compete in qualifiers.

    CONCACAF is divided into three regions, North America (NAFU), Central America (UNCAF), and the Caribbean (CFU).  The NAFU countries, Mexico and the US, automatically advanced to the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which ultimately decides which 3.5 teams will represent the region. The team that earns the half spot must enter a playoff with the team that earns the half spot in CONMEBOL (South America).

To begin qualifying, Central America split its seven member nations into a group of 4 and a group of 3 for La Eliminatoria. The teams played in a round robin format with the winners of each group advancing to the final round of qualifying.

La Eliminatoria

Guatemala and Costa Rica won their respective groups and gained entry into the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship. Costa Rica eased through without much of a test with a 4-0 victory over El Salvador and a 3-0 victory over Nicaragua.  Guatemala was not nearly as dominant.  However, an opening game 1-0 victory over Panama and then a 3-2 win over Honduras sealed the victory as only Belize stood between Guatemala and first place in the group. Guatemala won 5-0, Belize’s most closely contested game of La Eliminatoria.

The Caribbean Football Union had 21 member nations begin the qualifying process which prompted a much more extensive qualification tournament. The host, Trinidad & Tobago was given a bye to the second round while the 20 remaining teams were split into five groups. The group winners advanced to the second round of the Caribbean Cup and were joined by the two best second place teams. (Teams that advanced are highlighted in green below.)

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The teams highlighted in red below met with some of the harsh realities of Caribbean soccer and were forced to withdraw from the tournament before play began. Dominica was first to announce its withdrawal after several players encountered difficulty securing visas. Both Anguilla and Guadeloupe withdrew due to outbreaks of the Chikungunya virus, a largely non-fatal but highly unpleasant mosquito-spread virus that has recently made its way to the Caribbean.

The withdrawals meant that the competition to advance as one of the top two second place teams had become unbalanced. Prior to play beginning, the Caribbean Football Union decided the top second place team from the four team groups and the top second place team from the three team groups would advance. Confused yet?

2014 Women’s Caribbean Cup First Round

The field was now set for the final round of the Women’s Caribbean Cup. Two groups of four would compete with the top two teams from each group advancing to the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship.  

2014 Women’s Caribbean Cup Final Round

Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti, and Martinique joined Guatemala and Costa Rica as qualifiers to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship where the United States and Mexico stood waiting. At last, the final stage of qualification was set to begin.

With the adjusted amount of World Cup slots for 2015, the top three teams from this tournament automatically advanced to the FIFA Women’s World Cup.  The fourth place team headed into a playoff with a team from CONMEBOL (South America) to decide who would win that final qualification spot.

2014 Concacaf Women’s Championship Group Stage

At the conclusion of the group stage Costa Rica, USA, Mexico, and Trinidad & Tobago were moving on to the semifinals. The United States had little trouble dispatching the three other teams in Group A. The United States’ 1-0 opening victory against Trinidad & Tobago was a flattering scoreline for the Caribbeans as the US held a 29-7 advantage in shots. Trinidad & Tobago do deserve some credit for keeping it close, as the States’ next opponents, Guatemala and Haiti, fell 5-0 and 6-0 respectively.

The path had been much more daunting for Trinidad & Tobago and Costa Rica due to the UNCAF and CUF qualifying they had already endured, but all four teams now stood at the precipice of qualification. Each team had secured at least half a world cup qualification spot. The winner of the semifinals matchups and then the winner of the third place match would all secure qualification to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  The loser of that third place match would go play Ecuador in a home and away playoff series for a final chance at qualification to the World Cup.

Costa Rica was matched up against Trinidad & Tobago and the US was to play Mexico in the semifinal pairings. The US managed to handle Mexico without much difficulty, handing the Mexicans a 3-0 loss behind two goals from Carli Lloyd and a goal from Christen Press (USA vs MEX highlights). Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago ended extra time deadlocked at 1, after goals from Carolina Venegas (CRC) and Lauryn Hutchinson (T&T). The game was forced to go to penalty kicks to decide a winner. Costa Rica rattled off three consecutive scores while Trinidad & Tobago sputtered with three consecutive misses to send Costa Rica through to their first ever World Cup (CRC vs T&T highlights).

Costa Rica and the US were now qualified for the World Cup and only had continental bragging rights left to play for in the final.  The real drama surrounded the third place game where Trinidad & Tobago met Mexico.  Once again, the game went into extra time but there would be no penalties as Charlyn Corral scored in the 104th and 106th minutes, securing a 4-2 win for Mexico and their place at the World Cup (T&T vs MEX highlights).

After suffering two gut-wrenching defeats Trinidad & Tobago headed into a home and away playoff series against Ecuador.  The first game was played in Quito, Ecuador and after ending 0-0 things looked very promising for the Caribbean representatives as they headed back to home territory for the deciding game.  Unfortunately for the unlucky Trinidad & Tobago team, it was the Ecuadorians who would celebrate on December 2, 2014 after a 91st minute header from Monica Quinteros sent the Ecuadorians through to the World Cup with a 1-0 win in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago (T&T vs ECU celebrations and goal).  

CONCACAF qualifying was then completed with Canada, USA, Costa Rica, and Mexico having won the right to represent the confederation at the World Cup.  On June 6th these teams’ journeys toward becoming world champions will commence again as the 2015 edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup begins.  Everyone else will have to watch from home and prepare for 2019. 

Let's hope there is more of this in Canada...the epic USA comeback against Brazil....because we can't get enough. Want more Women's World Cup Coverage? Make sure to download issue 2 of Amplified Soccer Athlete!