The CONCACAF (that’s the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) World Cup Cup Qualifying came to an exciting conclusion last night that soccer fans across the region are still buzzing about this morning. And say what you want about soccer but if there is one thing it does right, it is how all major competitions handle the final match day. The result is some of the most dramatic moments in sport, including what we witnessed in the final 10 minutes of action last night.
In soccer, most (if not all) major competitions have figured out how to really ensure drama and great sporting theatre. And it is simple. On the final day of the group stage of any competition, the matches that are linked to each other all kick off at the same time. So for example, if Team A needs a win while needing Team C to lose by 2 goals or more (and they aren’t playing each other), neither team can adjust their pre-game strategy since the other game is going on at the exact same time. Then when the games are underway, goals in one match send shockwaves to the other creating ridiculous real-time emotions.
Remember the final day of the 2011 MLB season? The crazy one where the Red Sox, Rays, Braves, and Cardinals all flip flopped around in real-time to determine the baseball wild card spots? The day where the Rays tied it on their final out and won it in extra innings while the Red Sox lost it in the 9th to Baltimore? Well soccer sets this up on purpose and time and time again we end up with crazy finishes due to the results in multiple simultaneous matches. It’s awesome.
Back to last night. USA vs. Panama. Costa Rica vs. Mexico. Both kicking off at 9:30 EST. If Panama wins and Mexico loses, Panama advances in the World Cup qualifying while eliminating Mexico. If Mexico ties or wins, they advance. With USA and Costa Rica both booked to Brazil, we did not expect much drama. We figured Mexico would finally play with urgency to get their point and the USA would likely tie Panama. No drama there and Mexico would advance.
So let’s skip ahead. Mexico did in fact NOT show up and Costa Rica took a 2-1 lead midway through the 2nd half. Meanwhile, Panama and USA also moved to a tie at almost the exact same time. With 25 minutes to go in both matches, Mexico looked like they would escape catastrophe and advance based on Panama not winning.
20 minutes later, with Panama looking to go to their very first World Cup, everything would change.
With Panama’s late goal, that put them in position to advance and the unthinkable – Mexico not going to the World Cup – was only 5 minutes + stoppage time away from reality. Panama as a country was ready to party like never before. As an American fan watching all of this, I kind of found myself rooting for it. Look how happy those people are!! And our arch rivals Mexico would be out? I’m cool with that, even though I keep trying to convince myself that I want to see our boys pull it out in the end. But man would I feel terrible for the good people of Panama.
2 minutes into stoppage time and with the Mexico/Costa Rica match winding down with no further news, everything changed again.
Suddenly – at the 11th hour – it once again flipped. Mexico was in. Panama was out. Qualifying spanning the better part of 2 years all coming down to stoppage time. Mexico, as you would imagine, was elated despite yet another lackluster performance from their own side. If you ever wanted to hear Mexican announcers screaming God Bless America during a soccer match, well here you go. And it is fantastic.
It is not over the Mexican side as they now head to playoff with New Zealand, but they live on while Panama remains devastated to come so close yet come up just a couple of minutes short. And even though the USA would add another goal to win the match, I couldn’t help but feel sad for the emotion I was seeing out of the Panamanians. I mean just look at this!!
They are definitely a growing soccer nation of CONCACAF though and I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see them break through for 2018. In the meantime, let’s continue to enjoy the drama soccer regularly sets up for us. Summer of 2014 can’t get here soon enough.