Right off the bat, for all of our readers in Asia: I’m sorry, but we’re skipping the AFC this week. I know, I know, we shouldn’t. I understand. However, with the CAF ending their current round of qualifiers AND UEFA ending the group stages in this window, the AFC doesn’t have any comparatively important or exciting matches. You could make the argument that Australia has the toughest schedule of all the AFC teams (home v. Saudi Arabia, @ China), but they’re also leading their group and that’s not exactly the m.o. of this series.
Instead, we’re focusing on a CONCACAF team, a CONMEBOL team, a CAF team, a UEFA team and a whole UEFA group that can make pivotal and/or final changes to their chances to make Qatar ‘22.
CONCACAF: United States
Why should you watch the U.S.? Simply put: it’ll be the first time the region’s two biggest teams play each other in the Octagonal. One of the greatest rivalries in international football plays out in Cincinnati this week: Mexico and the United States.
It’s hard to remember a better summer the U.S. had when it came to this rivalry than 2021. The USMNT had still been in a terrible drought when it came to title matches against Mexico. The last title they had won over their southern rivals came in 2007 in the Gold Cup — where an Andres Guardado goal in the 44’ was met with a 62’ Landon Donovan penalty and a 73’ wonder volley from Benny Feilhaber in a 2-1 win for the Yanks.
They subsequently lost four trophies. First came a 5-0 thrashing in the 2009 Gold Cup Final. Then came a demoralizing loss in the 2011 Gold Cup title match — where after goals from Michael Bradley in the 8’ and Donovan in the 23’, Mexico went on to score four unanswered goals to lift the trophy again.
Mexico took a break from beating the United States in Gold Cups and decided instead to beat them in the now-defunct CONCACAF Cup in 2015. I remember this game vividly. I was watching in a New Hampshire lake house over Indigenous People’s Day weekend. The teams traded the only goals of regular time within five minutes of each other — first Chicarito in the 10’, then a Geoff Cameron header in the 15’. The final 20 minutes of that game were chippy and intense with dirty fouls and posturing from both sides — in other words your typical US v. Mexico game. In extra time, Oribe Peralta scored for Mexico in the 96’. Bobby Wood answered in the 108’ by slipping a goal under the legs of keeper Moisés Muñoz. And then, just on the doorstep of the penalty shootout, Paul Aguilar hit a wonderful volley to win the trophy and the rights to compete in the 2017 Confederations Cup — where they finished 4th.
Mexico had picked things back up in the 2019 Gold Cup, taking the title back from the U.S. after both teams missed each other in the finals in the 2015 and 2017 tournaments.
That was current manager Gregg Berhalter’s first tournament. You could argue that even after three years at the helm, he hasn’t improved. His style as a coach has been confusing and outright shambolic at times throughout his tenure and it seemed things would be right back on that track in the summer of 2021. First came the CONCACAF Nations League — a tournament that serves no greater purpose than to just add another title to the North American international football calendar, much like its UEFA counterpart. The U.S. met Mexico in the final of that tournament after not winning any game against El Tri since 2018. The match went to extra time, where an extra time penalty from Christian Pulisic gave the USMNT their first title over Mexico in 14 years and produced one of the coldest photos ever taken.
And wouldn’t you know it, they met in this summer’s Gold Cup Final as well. That was a pretty mundane 0-0 affair throughout full time with Berhalter replacing that Nations League side with a number of MLS players he favored. With the game being played in Las Vegas, fans could expect a result for Mexico. Afterall, the U.S. hadn’t beaten Mexico in back-to-back games since 2007 and had never won consecutive trophies over them either. All that changed when a header from former Syracuse University (sue me) and current Atlanta United center back Miles Robinson headed home the winner to make it the summer to remember for American soccer fans.
The last round of World Cup qualifying saw the U.S. put on three very different performances. The first match against Jamaica saw the Yanks cruise to a comfortable 2-0 win off a brace from FC Dallas youngster Ricardo Pepi. Berhalter saw their upcoming game against Panama as not much of a challenge — especially with a tough match against Costa Rica ahead of them. So, he decided to implement seven lineup changes. The U.S. lost 1-0. That game against Costa Rica in Columbus, OH saw the U.S. return to what was a relatively similar lineup from the Jamaica game — with Manchester City keeper Zack Steffen replacing New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner in net and Hoffenheim loanee defender Chris Richards taking over at left center back for Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman. After being tied at 1-1 since the 25’, an own goal from Los Ticos in the 66’ gave the U.S. an important three points.
This pivotal two game stretch is going to be a turning point for the U.S. and their World Cup qualifying campaign. Those familiar with CONCACAF will know how tough it is for most teams to get results in away stadiums. In 2018, the U.S. failed to qualify as a result of being the only team to have drawn 0 games at home while simultaneously being the only team to have lost twice at home. That first home loss was a 2-1 defeat to Mexico and came thanks to a Rafa Marquez goal in the 89’ at their usual fortress in Columbus. That second home loss was a 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica that seems to have been dismissively blamed on a seemingly pro-Costa Rica crowd at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey as opposed to the U.S. being foundationally defective.
The Yanks haven’t lost at home yet — and they shouldn’t start now. The roster is missing a number of Gregg’s MLS pals and replaces them with some of the U.S.’s best European talent. Plus, Christian Pulisic is back in the lineup. It’s time for “Captain America” to make a dramatic return.
Schedule: Nov. 12 — home v. Mexico (Cincinnati, OH) // Nov. 16 — @ Jamaica (Kingston)
With two games to go in the group stage of qualifying, Spain face two incredibly tough last games to decide whether they make the World Cup at all.
They’ve managed to dispatch two of the teams in their group — Kosovo and Georgia — with ease, picking up full points in every game. However, their battles with Greece and Sweden have been less fortuitous and the worst part is — they play both of them to close out the group stage.
Their match against Greece opened their World Cup qualifying campaign thanks to a tight game that ended in a 1-1 draw. It was a phenomenal defensive effort from the Pirate Ship as they were able to plunder Spain’s chances of taking full points.
In Sweden back in early September, La Furia Roja really thought they were on to something when midfielder Carlos Soler fired home a volley at the far post just four minutes into the match. It only took Sweden about 30 seconds for striker Alexander Isak to fire a missle into the lower right corner of the net to tie the game. Just after halftime in the 57’ Viktor Claesson controlled a low cross — sending it past a diving Unai Simon to put the Blågult up by a goal. That 2-1 scoreline was all that was needed for Sweden to clinch full points.
So, here’s where things stand. Sweden leads with 15 points, followed by Spain with 13 and Greece with 9. The group winner automatically qualifies for the tournament while second place is forced to play in a two-legged playoff. Technically, only Spain and Sweden can qualify for the top spot, but all three can finish second. Greece will need help from Sweden even if the Greeks manage to beat Spain. It all seems to come down to that November 14th match between the Blue-yellows and the Red Fury.
It’ll all take place at the Estadio de la Cartuja in Sevilla — where just a few months ago, the two sides met in the group stages of the Euros. In the same building, Spain held 75% possession and took 17 shots, easily outclassing Sweden’s four.
The game ended 0-0.
That game had a number of the best Spanish players the national team had to offer playing for their country in a home stadium in front of cheering fans.
Here’s a brief list of players this team is missing:
- Defenders: Marcos Alonso, Sergio Reguilón, Raul Albiol, Eric Garcia
- Midfielders: Marco Llorente, Pedri, Sergi Roberto, Thiago Alcantara
- Forwards: Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres, Mikel Oyarzabal, Adama Traore, Gerard Moreno, Iago Aspas
Sweden, meanwhile, have brought back Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Spain is done, aren’t they?
Schedule: Nov. 11 — @ Greece (Athens) // Nov. 14 — home v. Sweden (Sevilla)
One of the giants of African football is on the brink of missing its second straight World Cup. The CAF is finishing up their second round of qualifying this week and the last match of the group for Cameroon serves up a battle between two major sides on the continent.
First, they take on a Malawi side already eliminated from the World Cup. The most interesting anecdote for this game is that it’s being played in South Africa, not Malawi. The Bingu National Stadium in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe failed to meet requirements set forth by the CAF for acceptable conditions for World Cup qualifications. After other stadia in the country also failed, the Malawi FA was forced to pay the South African FA for the use of Orlando Stadium, home of the Orlando Pirates, for qualifying matches.
But while that game should be a relative breeze, the same can’t be said for their match against Ivory Coast. The teams are separated by one point with Les Éléphants of Ivory Coast in first and Les Lions Indomptables of Cameroon in second. It’s clear which side has an advantage in this match — and unfortunately for the Indomitable Lions, it isn’t them.
Long gone are the days where the brilliance of Samuel Eto’o could provide more than enough spark to launch Cameroon into the World Cup. These days, the talent pool is considerably smaller. The defensive unit has been hurt through the absence of Andre Onana thanks to a doping ban. The midfield relies heavily on the exploits of players like Napoli’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Hellas Verona’s Martin Hongla. Their strike force rotates between Lyon striker Karl Toko Ekambi, Al-Nassr forward Vincent Aboubakar, and Bayern Munich backup striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
Compare that to just some of the names on this Ivory Coast team — keeping in mind they’re missing players like Wilfried Zaha and Gervinho, who were both called up last time:
- Defense: Serge Aurier (Villarreal), Eric Bailly (Manchester United), Odilon Kossounou (Bayer Leverkusen
- Midfield: Franck Kessie (AC Milan), Ibrahim Sangare (PSV), Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro (Lazio)
- Attack: Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal), Maxwel Cornet (Burnley), Sebastien Haller (Ajax)
All in all, it comes down to this: Cameroon are one of the strongest sides in African football history. They’re one of only 13 teams to have qualified for the World Cup — and they’ve qualifies more times than any other nation. Since they first qualified in 1982, they’ve never missed back-to-back World Cups. They’re on the brink of doing that this weekend if they don’t beat Ivory Coast. But history isn’t even on their side: the Lions haven’t bested the Elephants since 2014 during qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Even after meeting them in qualifying, Cameroon drew Ivory Coast in the group stage of that tournament and lost to them — seeing them finish bottom in the group while the Elephants won their second tournament title. Cameroon will need luck on their side and it remains to be seen if they will truly remain Indomitable.
Schedule: Nov. 13 — @ Malawi (Orlando Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa)// Nov. 16 — home v. Ivory Coast (Yaounde)
I spoke with a Peruvian I know through soccer and they put it very simply to me: if Peru loses these two games, it’s over. The World Cup dream is dead.
Let’s catch you all up to speed. After making the 2018 World Cup — and having not that much impact — Peru have slowly become a squad in transition. A number of the players on the team are younger as the older generation who helped qualify for Russia begins to age out.
It’s left Peru in a tough position: currently second to last in the table with six games to go. Luckily for them, they are only six points behind third place Ecuador — with a tight middle pack ahead of them.
Los Incas haven’t had an easy qualifying campaign. They’ve only managed three wins (@ Ecuador, v. Venezuela, v. Chile) in 12 matches dating back to October of 2020. Add to that only two draws against Uruguay and Paraguay and it’s been a truly awful qualifying session for them. In the last two rounds of qualifying, the team managed a 2-1-3 record, with two of those three losses finishing 1-0.
That transition has really hurt them at times. 13 members of their 27-man squad are over the age of 30 — with many of them at least 32-years-old. Jefferson Farfán is 37-years-old and is serving as team captain right now. Paolo Guerrero is absent from the team after undergoing knee surgery recently, but he is 37 and received a call up in October. Looking elsewhere, the team is being well served by European talents like Celta Vigo midfielder Renato Tapia and Saint-Etienne defender Miguel Trauco.
But the squad selection is really curious for manager Ricardo Gareca. A good portion of Peru’s best talent plays in MLS and yet they were only able to bring along defenders Alexander Callens of NYCFC and youngster Marcos López of San Jose Earthquakes. Others like Edison Flores and Yordy Reyna of D.C. United, Andy Polo of Portland Timbers and Raul Ruidiaz of Seattle Sounders were left off the list due to injuries. Even with these handicaps, Gareca only brought three forwards with him — with Farfán being one of them.
These are must win games ahead, and luckily they are winnable. A revenge game ahead at home against Bolivia should be better than their 1-0 loss in the reverse fixture and a trip to Caracas shouldn’t bring forth any trouble.
But the thing is — Peru has no real ability to rest on their laurels right now. If they drop points of any variety in these very winnable games, it makes qualification difficult if not impossible. Gareca, the man who led this team to a 3rd place finish in the 2015 Copa America, a 2nd place finish in the 2019 Copa America and a World Cup for the first time in 36 years is on the hot seat. If he can’t manage to pull off wins in these — let alone bring Peru within sniffing distance of a qualification spot by the time this is over, the feeling is that his time could be done. Ahead of them are two easily winnable games — and they need to take advantage of any chance they can get.
Schedule: Nov. 11 — home v. Bolivia (Lima) // Nov. 16 — @ Venezuela (Caracas)
UEFA: Group G’s The Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey
Here’s just a very simple rapid fire situation that could happen.
The Netherlands (1st, 19 pts), Norway (2nd, 17 pts), and Turkey (3rd, 15 pts) could all finish in any combination of first, second, or third in their group.
Starting with the 3rd place team, they’ve done comparatively the worst when it comes to qualifying, but they’ve managed to stay in it. Sure, the draws against Latvia and Montenegro weren’t great results, but that draw with Norway was a resounding positive. Plus, that 6-1 loss against the Netherlands in October gets soothed by the fact that they smacked the Dutch 4-2 earlier this year.
Norway have been plugging along — their only loss coming at the hands of Turkey and a disappointing 3-0 scoreline. Though, they’ve held a 3-2-0 record in their last five games, most notably holding The Netherlands to a 1-1 draw in September. Erling Haaland is doing what he does best, bagging five goals in six matches — though they come infrequently. One second, he’ll chip in three of the goals in a 5-1 win over Gibraltar, but it took him four WCQ matches to score anything at all. Even Haaland himself admitted it saying he doesn’t “score enough” right after that hat trick game.
The Netherlands have been the most dominant team, but just like the others, they too have one loss — the aforementioned 4-2 defeat to Turkey. That was their first game in World Cup qualifying and they’ve gone 6-1-0 ever since. In those six wins, there’s only been one game where they haven’t been able to score multiple goals and they’ve score at least three goals in all but two of those wins. Memphis Depay and his 9G/6a in 8 games statline is all you need to know about whether or not the Oranje can produce up front, but Davy Klaassen and his 4G/4a in 8GP and Donyell Malen and his 3G/0a in 5GP are equally terrifying to opponents.
So who has the upper hand in all of this? Turkey. Having played their second game against the Dutch in September and their second against Norway in October, they avoid having to play either side. Instead, they have cupcake matches against Gibraltar and Montenegro on the cards. Meanwhile, after Norway plays Latvia and Holland plays Montenegro in their first games, it’s down to both of them on the final day.
The Løvene of Norway and the Oranje of The Netherlands have it all to play for:
- If it’s a draw, and Holland won their last game, they’re in.
- If Norway wins both games, they’re in.
- If Holland loses one game and draws the other, and Norway can’t do better than a win and a draw, then Turkey passes both teams and makes the World Cup automatically.
Buckle in. It’s gonna be a fun ride to the finish.