On Thursday, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, the ‘Octagonal’, kicks off. Here’s our in-depth preview of that ahead of then.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
After a summer of waiting, the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, is set to officially kick off later this week.
On Thursday, September 2nd, 8 of CONCACAF’s finest will take the field to compete against each other, beginning their last journey towards the 2022 World Cup.
It’s been a long road to get here, one that has seen a pandemic, multiple format changes and several delays, but we’re finally here, ready to kick off a landmark moment for Men’s football in the region.
When Canada, the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and Honduras take the field on Thursday, they’ll begin a half-year sprint towards Qatar, where 3.5 of these teams will look to be the sides to make history for their countries, getting them to a platform that many can only dream of one day reaching.
Because of all that, it promises to be a special occasion. After a year without any sort of CONCACAF competition, it has returned with gusto this year, and the start of the Octo is just the cherry on top of what has already been a good year of football in the region, where we’ve already seen the first 2 rounds of qualifiers, the Nations League finals and the 2021 Gold Cup all get played earlier this year.
But next to the Octo, those competitions all pale in comparaison, as this will be the holy grail of soccer for many of these teams. Given the World Cup implications, all 8 teams will be playing with their best players, something that didn’t always happen in the other competitions, meaning that this will be a ‘best-on-best royal rumble’.
So with that in mind, here’s our in-depth preview of the Octo, as we dive into what to expect from this unique mini-tournament of sorts, one that promises to be memorable for so many reasons.
And to start, it’s important to explain – what exactly is the Octo?
Due to the name, the Octo, an 8-sided shape, it’s an 8-team round robin where every team will play the other 7 teams both home-and-away over the next 6 months, for a total of 14 games.
After that, the top 3 teams will head straight to the 2022 World Cup, while the 4th placed team will be facing off against a representative from either Oceania, South America or Asia in the intercontinental playoff, a 2-legged series, where the winning team will also head to Qatar.
To get here, the top 5 teams in CONCACAF as per FIFA ratings last fall, the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras, all had byes to this round, leaving the other 30 FIFA-mandated teams in the region to enter the first round, where they were split into 6 groups of 5.
In that first round, each team played the other just once, with the winner of each round passing to the second round. Those teams would be Canada, El Salvador, Panama, Curacao, Haiti and St. Kitts and Nevis, who then paired off in a two-legged series, with the winners all joining the aforementioned 5 teams in the Octo.
Canada, Panama and El Salvador would then go onto win those series over Haiti, Curacao and St. Kitts and Nevis, respectively, allowing them to progress to the Octo, where we find ourselves today.
Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see if there will be an early advantage for the 3 teams who’ve already played 6 mostly do-or-die competitive games to get to this point, even though the other 5 teams are supposedly ‘higher-ranked’ than them.
But while one wonders if there could’ve been a way to avoid a bye to this round for those 5 teams altogether, it’s worth noting that considering what the alternative was, this is actually a pretty good format.
Before, the format was decent, as the final round used to be called the ‘Hexagonal’, aka the Hex, where 6 of CONCACAF’s finest would fight for those same 3.5 spots, meaning that the fight just to get into that round was a bloodbath, as there were often 2 or 3 good teams missing out.
Previously, every team entered at some point before the Hex, in one of the 4 rounds that preceded the Hex. It was a pretty reasonable format, even if the 4th round, the one right before the Hex, would often see some wild matchups and really competitive groups.
Then, everything turned on its head for the 2022 cycle. To save time for the proper completion of the first-ever Nations League, which was only introduced a few years ago, CONCACAF decided to cut down on those early-round qualifiers for the big teams.
Instead, they introduced a bye for the top 6 teams via FIFA Rankings in June of 2020 to qualify straight for the Hex in September of 2020, leaving the other 29 teams to enter a mini-tournament, the winner of which would get a chance to play the 4th-placed Hex finisher for a spot to contest the intercontinental playoff.
Basically, it was a ridiculous format, as the top 6 teams in CONCACAF had a cozy fight for 3.5 spots, while the other 29 had to fight to the death just for a chance at a .5 spot.
Plus, by using FIFA rankings instead of CONCACAF’s or Elo rankings, it was ensuring that the historical top 6 in CONCACAF would participate in the Hex, instead of the best teams in recent years, making some wonder if the region just wanted to see certain teams compete in the ‘best-on-best’ games.
But then, the pandemic hit, forcing CONCACAF to rethink their format. After several ideas were floated around, included an expansion of the Hex, an elimination of it, and some other interesting ideas, they decided to go with the Octo, along with the first 2 rounds that preceded it.
They kept the bye for the top 5 teams, of course, but it gave a chance to the other 30 teams that didn’t get the bye a chance to at least compete for that final round, instead of having to go through that gauntlet.
So although it’s a bit disappointing that all of this happened in what appears to be the last World Cup cycle where 32 teams will qualify to the big dance, as FIFA is expanding to 48 teams for the 2026 tournament, overall things ended up pretty well with this format, which should hopefully translate nicely into the Octo.
The Magic Number:
Otherwise, it’s worth pointing out what these teams will need to be one of the 4 teams that proceed from this round, be it one of the 3 who will go straight to Qatar, or the brave side who must face that intercontinental playoff.
By researching past rounds like this, an average of 1.5 points per game mostly gets a team to the top half, which is what teams will want to do to stay alive here.
Looking at past final rounds in CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and AFC, anywhere between 1.4 to 1.6 points per game seemed to do the trick in order to finish in the top half, so for anyone dreaming of top 4 here, 21 points looks like the number to strive for.
To finish in the top 3, it’s a bit tougher, as 25+ points seems to be the bar to strive for, which out of 14 games, that’s pretty much 8 or 9 wins, which is going to be a big ask of teams.
Just to get to 21 points, that would mean winning all of your home games and losing all of your away games, or some sort of combination like that. That will make draws hard to stomach, because even though they get you a point, in a short time like this, the teams that win will shoot ahead of those who get stuck with a couple of draws.
And given how good teams are at home in CONCACAF, as well, with their various forms of home-field advantage, it’s going to really then come down to a battle of who does the best on the road, while also taking advantage of their home games.
Because of that, it’s going to be a grind for 21, a mantra a lot of managers will surely be repeating to themselves over the coming weeks.
And speaking of FIFA Rankings, here’s how they’re looking for the CONCACAF teams heading into the start of the Octo (Overall FIFA Rankings are in bold)
And for a look at how things are trending as of late, here’s Elo’s ratings for CONCACAF teams heading into the Octo, which prefers favours recent performance (L is rank in CONCACAF, G is rank in world)
And moving on, here’s a look at all of the teams participating in this Octo, as we’ll take a look at what to expect from each of these sides in this round.
Nickname: Les Rouges
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 59/39
World Cup Appearances: 1 (1986)
And to start, as our hometown team, we’ve got Canada, who are looking to make all sorts of noise this round, a stage of qualifiers they haven’t reached since 1997.
To do so, they had to take care of business in the first 2 rounds of qualifiers, having not been given a bye to the Octo, but that didn’t faze them.
First, they ran the table in the 1st round, picking up 12 out of 12 points, scoring 27 goals and allowing just 1 against across 4 games, all dominant victories. Then, they went onto the 2nd round and dispatched Haiti without too much worry, winning 4-0 across 2 legs.
So heading into this final round, the optimism surrounding this Canadian team is high. They had a good Gold Cup, too, making the semi-finals for the first time since 2007, even despite missing several key regulars, highlighting their improved depth as a program.
It feels like a far cry from the days where Canada was a forgotten program in CONCACAF, struggling to make it past the first few rounds of World Cup qualifiers and often exited Gold Cups without a whimper, showing how quickly things have changed for them in recent years.
Thanks to players making noise in Europe, such as Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin and Stephen Eustaquio, Canada has quickly become one of the top CONCACAF presences abroad, making it hard to ignore the talent coming through their ranks.
Along with veterans such as Atiba Hutchinson and Milan Borjan, who have been on the scene for decades, and a huge rush of talent at the MLS level, such as Mark Anthony Kaye, Kamal Miller, Lucas Cavallini and the Europe-bound Tajon Buchanan, this Canadian team is one of the best in CONCACAF, on paper.
But despite all of that, they’re also the team with the most to prove. Every other team in this stage has been here at some point in the last decade, leaving Canada and their 24+ year final round drought as the big outlier in this group.
If anything, that’s just a sign of how quick their turnaround from CONCACAF afterthought to veritable threat has been, but it’s now up to them to prove how legitimate it is.
They’ve been slowly doing it, but having only made the World Cup just once in their history, this is a chance to cement their arrival to the upper echelon of this region, a perch they should be able to stay at for a long time based on some of the talent that they have coming through.
Player to Watch: Alphonso Davies
And a big reason for that belief surrounding the Canadian team right now? The presence of Davies, who at 20 years of age, has already won everything you can win for Bayern Munich, playing a huge role as their starting left back the past few seasons after moving over from MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps.
There are not many players in the world, let alone CONCACAF, who have started and won a UEFA Champions League final, yet Davies has already done that before hitting the legal drinking age in the US, showing his special talent as a player.
That’s why he’s already known as the best player in CONCACAF right now, and he’ll look to prove that this Octo, helping bring Canada to heights they haven’t reached in a long time.
Honourable Mentions: Jonathan David, Cyle Larin
Underrated Player to Watch: Stephen Eustaquio
But while someone like Davies will steal the headlines, keep an eye out for Eustaquio this Octo, as the 24-year-old is one of Canada’s best players for a reason.
Playing in more of a defensive role, he doesn’t always get the plaudits that he deserves, but people are starting to realize his value, as he’s played a big role in Canada becoming a very solid defensive team, keeping clean sheets in 6 of their 11 games this year, conceding more than 1 goal in a game just once over that span.
Plus, he’s starting to find his offensive touch, which is scary for opponents who have to mark him in a box-to-box role. At the Gold Cup, he had 3 goals and 1 assist, all while continuing to do the defensive work that he’s known for, so if he keeps up that form, it won’t be fun for opponents to have to deal with him in these games.
Honourable Mentions: Mark Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea
Projected Finish: 3rd.
Nickname: Stars and Stripes
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 10th/17th
World Cup Appearances: 10 (1930, 1934, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
But just south of Canada, we’ve then got their noisy neighbours, who are one of the top teams in CONCACAF for a reason, and they proved that this summer.
By winning both the Nations League and the Gold Cup, they proved that they’re the team to beat in CONCACAF right now, putting a target on their backs.
It’s a far cry from where they were just a few years ago, when they surprisingly missed out on the 2018 World Cup, snapping a streak of 7 straight qualifications to the World Cup, a move that sent shockwaves through the country.
Since then, though, they’ve recovered nicely, amassing a deep group of young talent unmatched by anyone in CONCACAF, and as seen this summer, this isn’t just a group that wants to compete in the future, they’re ready for the here and now.
Led by stars such as Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest, who have quickly become the faces of this US team, they’re surrounded by players on the cusp of breaking out (or who have already broken out) such as Gio Reyna, Brendan Aaronsen, Mark McKenzie and Yunus Musah.
Because of that, they’re going to be dangerous in this Octo, as they’re one of the teams best suited to the congested schedule and the triple matchdays, giving them the depth to pick up a lot of points.
The one worry with them? The US has struggled to play away games in CONCACAF in recent years, and that remains a problem heading into this Octo, as they hosted the 2019 and 2021 Gold Cups, along with the 2021 Nations League, meaning that they’ve just played 2 competitive away games in CONCACAF since the end of the 2018 World Cup cycle, which isn’t ideal.
They’ve got the talent, though, which should give them an edge in these games, but there have been a lot of talented players who have tried to win away in CONCACAF and have failed in the past, so that’s the big thing to watch with this American side.
Player to Watch: Christian Pulisic
And headlining that talent remains the 22-year-old Pulisic, who is the crown jewel of this US program, a veteran of 38 caps already.
Fresh off of a season where he won the UEFA Champions League, he’s also in good form, too, having played a big role in Chelsea’s European triumph last year, both as a starter and a super sub.
So although he has a spotty injury past that’ll be interesting to monitor in these games, when he’s fit, he’s one of CONCACAF’s best players for a reason, and he will play a big role in any success the US picks up this Octo.
Honourable Mentions: Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams
Underrated Player to Watch: John Brooks
But while Pulisic is the name everyone talks about on this US team, and for good reason, keep an eye out on the 28-year-old Brooks, who has been flying under the radar not only with the National Team, but also at the club level with VFL Wolfsburg, where he helped the club qualify to the Champions League last season.
On a US team filled with offensive pieces, there’s a lot of question marks about their defence, and although they’ve started to answer those questions with their play this year, keeping clean sheets in 6 of their 8 competitive games in 2021, the play of solid defenders such as Brooks is a big reason for that.
So although the US might be scoring goals for fun at times, Brooks will make sure that they keep the ball out of their net at the other end, giving them the platform required to win games instead of ending up in chaotic high-event matches.
Honourable Mentions: Sebastian Lletget, Gio Reyna
Projected Finish: 1st.
Nickname: El Tri
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 9th/15th
World Cup Appearances: 16 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018)
Going down the list, we then have the historical giants of the region, Mexico, who are entering this Octo looking to make their 8th consecutive appearance at the World Cup.
So although they’re reeling after missing out on 2 major trophies to the US this summer, they’re still the team to beat, as they’ve dominated this stage of proceedings like no one else ever has before these past few decades.
With a ferocious home atmosphere whenever they play in Mexico, usually at the famed Azteca, they intimidate and steamroll opponents at home, but are talented enough to pick up results on the road, which makes them a formidable opponent to face off against.
Backed by the strongest league in CONCACAF, Liga MX, they’ve got a deep player pool, but combine that with stars such as Hirving Lozano, Raul Jimenez, Jonathan Dos Santos, to go along with some quickly rising prospects such as Diego Lainez and Santiago Munoz, making them a team to watch.
Because of all this, they’re probably the team to beat right now, no matter what the US did to them this summer, because, for all the hoopla surrounding the US, Mexico just has this aura whenever they play in big CONCACAF games that’s hard for most teams to overcome.
Plus, head coach Tata Martino’s seat is hot right now after those losses to the US, so they’re going to have the added boost of wanting to prove that those wins by the US were just flukes, so they’ll be out for blood this Octo, which is scary for the rest of CONCACAF.
They’ve got some issues to work out, as they’re already losing their home advantage for one game as they’ve been banned from playing with fans in their home opener against Jamaica due to homophobic chants, something that they’ve struggled to crop out, but if they can find a way to avoid any further bans, it’s going to be tough sledding for the other 6 teams that will have to travel to Mexico to play at the famed Azteca.
Player to Watch: Hirving Lozano
And although Mexico’s big strength comes from the depth of their team, as they just have a player pool almost unmatched by most teams, maybe other than the US, they’ve got stars, too, and none shine brighter than Lozano.
He’s a doubt to start qualifiers as he recovers from a back injury, but if he makes it back in time, the 26-year-old Napoli product will have a lot to prove this Octo, showing that despite the rise of players such as Pulisic and Davies, he’s still in the conversation to be one of the top players in CONCACAF.
A speedy winger that can destabilize opposing defences, he’s a tough player to mark when he’s in form, making him a potential x-factor for the Mexican offence when he returns to full health.
Honourable Mentions: Raul Jimenez, Hector Herrera
Underrated Player to Watch: Jesus Corona
Otherwise, keep an eye out on the versatile Corona during this Octo, as the 28-year-old Porto winger will be key for Mexico in these games.
With his ability to play as both a winger and full back, he’s a handful to deal with on the flanks, as he can hurt you both offensively and defensively, making him a good option to pair up against good wide players such as Davies, Pulisic and others.
A veteran of 56 caps, he’s a key part of this Mexican side, and he’ll look to prove that once again in the Octo.
Honourable Mentions: Andreas Guardado, Rogelio Funes Mori
Projected Finish: 2nd.
Nickname: The Reggae Boyz
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 50th/64th
World Cup Appearances: 1 (1998)
Moving down, we’ve then got one of the other risers as of late in CONCACAF, and that’s Jamaica, who has been one of the better teams in the region these past few years.
Having made the finals of the Gold Cup in 2015 and 2017, making up for missing the Hex in the last cycle of World Cup qualifiers, Jamaica is looking to use that positive momentum to help return to the World Cup for just the 2nd time in their history this cycle.
Thanks to some very intriguing dual-national recruits, they’ve built up quite the formidable squad to do so, as well, making them one of the top sides in the region heading into the Octo.
With recent commits playing in the English Premier League such as Michail Antonio, Leon Bailey and Ethan Pinnock, joining veterans of this Jamaican side such as Andre Blake, Kemar Lawrence and Alvas Powell, this team is filled with top-end talent and solid depth, which is exactly what you need in this sort of environment.
Along with a rocking home environment, and a penchant for picking up timely road victories, it’s made them one of the teams to watch this Octo, as they most definitely have the credentials to sneak up on teams and make a good push for the top 3 spots.
Reeling after a tough elimination from the 2021 Gold Cup, bowing out to the US in the quarter-finals via a late goal, they’ll be fired up for this, as well, so don’t be surprised if Jamaica gets off to a hot start, proving their status as a top CONCACAF team.
Player to Watch: Michail Antonio
It feels strange to highlight a player that has never played in CONCACAF as a player to watch, but Antonio is that good, as the 31-year-old West Ham striker and scorer of 50 Premier League goals is one of the best strikers in England, let alone in CONCACAF.
So although it might take some adjusting for him to get used to the rigorous travel and intense venues that this region offers up, especially given his spotty injury history, if he can get up to full speed in these games, watch out.
A talented striker that knows how to finish in many ways, he can hurt you if you leave him alone in the box, so teams will have to be wary of his presence every time that he’s on the field in this Octo.
Honourable Mentions: Leon Bailey, Andre Blake
Underrated Player to Watch: Ethan Pinnock
Otherwise, a player with just 1 CONCACAF cap is also the underrated player to watch here, because much like Antonio, the 28-year-old Pinnock has shown intriguing pedigree at the Premier League level.
As part of a Brentford team that is newly promoted to England’s top division, he’s gotten off to a hot start to life at that level, helping Brentford pick up 1 win and 2 draws in their first 3 games.
A versatile defender that can play as a centre back and as a full back, he should bring a presence to a Jamaican backline that is missing someone like Wes Morgan, their long-time veteran at the back who retired from professional soccer recently.
Honourable Mentions: Kamar Lawrence, Kemar Roofe
Projected Finish: 4th
Nickname: Los Ticos
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 44th/49th
World Cup Appearances: 5 (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014, 2018)
Moving on, we’ve then got the team that has probably represented CONCACAF the best globally in the last decade, and that’s Costa Rica, who almost made the semi-finals in 2014, and put up a good fight in 2018.
For a team that hasn’t won a Gold Cup or CONCACAF Championship in 32 years, they haven’t always been able to translate that sort of success to CONCACAF competition, but when it comes to events like this, they always show up.
So although their golden generation is starting to age out, with players such as Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, Keylor Navas and Kendall Waston all on the wrong side of 30, they’ve got plenty of experience and quality, and that’ll make them an outside threat for those top 3 spots in these games.
A very technical side, they can hurt you in plenty of ways, as they just play a veteran-savvy game that can be hard to beat, as they’ll lull you into a false sense of security before applying a sucker punch.
Plus, they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Navas, who has won the Champions League 3 times, and is arguably still one of the top 10 goalkeepers in the world even though he’s about to turn 35 later this year.
Backed by some good home support, that experience and of course, Navas, it should make Costa Rica an interesting team to watch.
They’re not the same Costa Rica of old, as they showed in a surprise quarter-final upset at the hands of Canada in this year’s Gold Cup, but as they showed in the group stage, where they beat Jamaica and Suriname, they’re no slouch, either.
So if you have a must-win game and Costa Rica is the team that lies in front of you, don’t expect an easy victory, as they have all the tools to push for a top 4 spot in this Octo.
Player to Watch: Keylor Navas
And when you have someone like the 34-year-old Navas, you can have that sort of belief, as he’s coming off a very good season at PSG.
His place at the Parisian club is a bit unsure right now, as they signed Gianluigi Donnarumma to replace him despite his heroics the past few years, but if they keep him around, he’d be a good weapon for them in the Champions League, where they’ll be expected to contend seeing some of their other summer signings, including Lionel Messi.
But no matter what happens to him at the club level, you just know that Navas will find a way to come up big whenever he puts on that Costa Rica shirt, making him one to watch in these games.
Honourable Mentions: Randall Leal, Joel Campbell
Underrated Player to Watch: Celso Borges
Elsewhere, the veteran Borges is a player to keep an eye on, especially as Costa Rica’s most-capped player with 138 appearances for his country.
Despite recently turning 33, he’s been in good form this summer, too, scoring 2 goals at the Gold Cup despite mostly playing as a defensive midfielder, showing that he’s still got a lot in the tank.
So although he might not find that same offensive proficiency in these games, he’ll be doing a lot of dirty work in midfield for Costa Rica, who will look to keep a solid defensive foundation, led by the likes of Navas and Borges, as they’re both very important pieces on this team for a reason.
Honourable Mentions: Francisco Calvo, David Guzman
Projected Finish: 5th
Nickname: Las Catrachos
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 63rd/61st
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1982, 2010, 2014)
Moving down, we’ve then got Honduras, who after a strong boon in the first half of the 2010s, where they made the World Cup in back-to-back editions in 2010 and 2014, missed out on the 2018 edition of the World Cup, as they saw a golden generation age out at the wrong time.
But they head into the Octo optimistic that they can return to the World Cup, as they’ve continued to be one of the top teams in CONCACAF as of late, putting up a solid shift at the Nations League, finishing 3rd, before doing well at this summer’s Gold Cup.
Plus, with arguably the most feared home venue in CONCACAF, in San Pedro Sula, they’ve also got a home advantage like no one else in the region, giving them the belief that they have what it takes to get the points required to at least finish in the top 4.
Having missed out on the World Cup via the intercontinental playoff the last cycle, there’s no reason why they can’t maintain the belief of being able to return to those heights, if not higher, this time around.
Led by a solid group of players in their primes such as Alberth Elis, Bryan Acosta, Anthony Lozano and Romell Quioto, along with some veterans of CONCACAF such as Boneik Garcia and Maynor Figueroa, they’ve got the sort of typical CONCACAF team that can be so hard to play against, especially on their home pitch.
So although they might not be Honduras of 10 years ago, the Honduras of today is still a very solid opponent, and they’ve got a good combination of a deep squad and some good top-end talent.
With that, and their home-field advantage, no reason why they can’t dream of usurping the likes of Canada, Jamaica and Costa Rica for a top 3 spot, showing why they’re one of the underrated powers of this region.
Player to Watch: Alberth Elis
And helping boost their belief is the presence of the 25-year-old Elis, who has been one of CONCACAF’s best players the past few years, helping give Honduras the sort of star power to be a difference-maker in big games.
Fresh off of a move to Ligue 1, where he joined Bordeaux, he’s also doing pretty well at the club level, and will look to make his mark in one of Europe’s top circuits now.
So although he won’t feature in the first set of games as he recovers from injury, Honduras will be happy to have him back in the fold when he’s healthy again, as he’ll give a big boost to their hopes.
Honourable Mentions: Anthony Lozano, Bryan Acosta
Underrated Player to Watch: Romell Quioto
But until Elis returns, keep an eye on the 30-year-old Quioto up top for Honduras, as he’s been in excellent form for club and country these past few years.
Ever since a move to Montreal last year, he’s looked like a whole new player, becoming a true MLS star in Canada, and he’s translated that form over to his country, scoring some big goals at the Gold Cup this summer.
So although this is Elis’s team, don’t discount Quioto’s importance to this team’s offence, as he’s expected to play a big role.
Honourable Mentions: Boniek Garcia, Maynor Figueroa
Projected Finish: 6th
Nickname: La Selecta
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 64th/74th
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1970, 1982)
And nearing the end of the list here, we’ve then got one of the more intriguing teams of this Octo, and that’s El Salvador, who arrive at this stage having gone through quite the journey to get here.
After being all but assured in the spot in the Hex under the old format last year, they were forced to go through qualifiers in the new format, which wasn’t ideal considering their form was pretty inconsistent last year.
With some surprising results against minnows such as Montserrat, they just didn’t look like a top 10 team in CONCACAF, let alone a top 6 one, making some wonder if they’d get this far.
But fast forward to now, thanks to some changes such as the hiring of Hugo Perez and the high-profile recruiting of some important dual-nationals, this El Salvador team is on the upswing again.
They rolled through qualifiers, and put up a pretty good shift at the Gold Cup, where they showed plenty of good things en route to the quarter-finals, where they narrowly lost to a really good Qatar side.
So heading into this Octo, confidence is high surrounding this group. Much like some of the other teams in Central America, they’ve got a lethal home-field advantage, and with a solid group of players such as Alex Roldan, Alexander Larin, Eriq Zavaleta and Darwin Ceren, they’re a team that will fight for every possible point.
Along with Perez’s coaching, who has them playing an up-tempo brand of soccer, they’re going to be a tough team to deal with, making them an outside shot for a spot in the World Cup.
They’ll be in tough against some of the teams in this final round, no doubt, but seeing where they were just 2 years ago, they’re in a pretty good spot, and things are looking up for the future now, too.
Player to Watch: Alex Roldan
Otherwise, our player to watch is one of their newest dual-nationals, Roldan, who joined El Salvador for the Gold Cup, even scoring on his debut.
Just 25, it feels like a long time ago that he was almost left without a club, but it was just 2 years ago that the Sounders almost cut Roldan after winning MLS Cup in 2019.
He managed to stick around, though, converting from a midfielder to a right back, and now he’s one of the best in MLS, playing a starting role on one of the best team’s in the league this year.
So with his ability to play multiple positions, that makes him really valuable to this El Salvador team, giving them a Swiss Army Knife to play around with tactically.
Honourable Mentions: Alexander Larin, Narciso Orellana
Underrated Player to Watch: Joaquin Rivas
Otherwise, keep an eye out on Rivas, who had a bit of a coming-out party at the Gold Cup, scoring a nice brace against Qatar.
Playing for FC Tulsa in the USL, the 29-year-old might not be a player that pops out at the eye right away, but as he showed in that game, he can be dangerous in the box when given space, and looks like a player that could do some damage at a higher level.
So for a team where there are many questions about where the goals might come from, with their improved chance-creation under Perez, someone like Rivas can be a player who can thrive in the service his team is starting to put up now.
Honourable Mentions: Eriq Zavalaleta, Darwin Ceren
Projected Finish: 7th
Nickname: Los Canaleros
Fifa Rank/Elo Rank: 74th/73rd
World Cup Appearances: 1 (2018)
Lastly, and most certainly not least, we’ve got Panama, who do enter as one of the 3 teams that represented CONCACAF at the last World Cup, which are Mexico and Costa Rica, having qualified for their first time in memorable fashion back in 2017.
Having bowed meekly out of the 2018 World Cup without a win and just 2 goals to their name, though, they’re looking to come back stronger this time around, and that’ll start with a good shift in the Octo.
They’ve done well to get to this point, having navigated the first 2 rounds without much problem, even dispatching a heavily-favoured Curacao team in the 2nd round, showing that on their day, they’re still a team that you can’t sleep on.
That proved to be true at this summer’s Gold Cup, where they narrowly lost to Honduras in a thriller, and drew a very good Qatar team, just missing out on the knockout stages.
More importantly, though, they played some very good soccer in that game, showing the kind of offensive instincts that teams aren’t used to seeing from them, especially given their reputation as more of a defensive grinding team.
But now, that’s changing. With a group of players such as Yoel Barencas, Jose Calderon, Alberto Quintero, Anibal Godoy and Eric Davis, they’ve erased fears that this Panama team would just age out after 2018, as they’ve managed to transition the team to some younger faces.
So with the distinction of being the southernmost team present in this Octo, much as many of the other teams at this stage, they’ll look to use a combination of their distinct home-field advantage and sneaky-good team to snatch some results here.
No doubt, heading into this Octo, they’re certainly the biggest underdogs, but as they showed in 2018, where they qualified directly to the World Cup ahead of the US and Honduras, that sort of label doesn’t bother them, making them a team to keep an eye on here.
Player to Watch: Yoel Barencas
And helping lead this squad along is their #10, the 27-year-old Barencas, who certainly showed his quality on the wing for Panama this Gold Cup.
A creative wide-player, the Leganes man of over 50 caps can hurt you in many ways, but his main specialty is dribbling and setting up teammates, making it hard to mark him.
For a team who has been a bit loose defensively this year, he’s played a big role in helping them finding a bit of offensive life now, and that should continue into this Octo.
Honourable Mentions: Jose Calderon, Alberto Quintero
Underrated Player to Watch: Anibal Godoy
But while Panama hasn’t been the defensive force of old, that’s not for a lack of trying, and some strong play from the 31-year-old Godoy would go a long way towards helping fix that, as you feel like the veteran of 105 caps still has a role to play for his country.
As a regular on a very defensively solid Nashville team, he’s shown to be quite the disruptor on his day, and Panama will need to see a lot of that in these games, especially seeing some of the teams that they’re going up against.
If Panama does qualify for the World Cup again, you feel like them figuring things out defensively would be a reason why, and having an in-form Godoy dominating proceedings would probably be a good place to start.
Honourable Mentions: Rolando Blackburn, Eric Davis
Projected Finish: 8th
So now, all that’s left is for teams to kick off on Thursday, starting a long journey that will either end in elation or heartbreak for those involved.
Of course, the goal is for elation, but either way, with how fierce the competition looks, there is bound to be some heartbreak for some good teams.
But with how close things are looking, there promise to be some good games on tap over the next 6 months, helping announce the return of these qualifiers in a big way.
As 8 countries look to be the ones to bring glory to their folks back home, it’s going to be a special inaugural edition of the Octo, adding to the lore of Hex’s and other final rounds past.
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport