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World Cup berths on the line this weekend

Can Mexico celebrate like they did when they upset the U.S. in 2010? (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley)

Can Mexico celebrate like they did when they upset the U.S. in 2010? (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley)

The history of women’s soccer in the CONCACAF region will change forever this weekend. Over the first six World Cups only the United States, Canada, and Mexico have represented the confederation in the World Cup. With the field bubbling to 24 for next year’s rendition in Canada it was always a guarantee that at least one debutante would come out of the region.

Friday’s first semifinal will place either Costa Rica or Trinidad & Tobago in the 2015 World Cup. After that the United States will play Mexico for another spot. The losers meet Sunday for yet another World Cup berth. And the loser there is not out either but instead into a playoff against Ecuador for a spot in the finals.

Let’s have a look at what is at stake for each team over the next few days.

United States: For the second straight cycle the United States have Mexico as the final hurdle to reach the World Cup. Four years ago they fell in the greatest international upset so far in women’s soccer. They had to dust themselves off and beat Costa Rica just to earn their way into a playoff against Italy. Things are easier this time with the 3rd place match now a direct path to the World Cup.

But Jill Ellis’s side is hardly interested in what happens if they lose to Mexico. In a pair if friendlies last month the U.S. pasted Mexico 8-0 and 4-0. Neither were as close as the score indicated. Nothing short of another emphatic victory Friday evening will suffice. The U.S. will then be heavily favored to win the title Sunday especially because their opponent will be two days removed from what will be by far the biggest win in their program’s history.

The group stage was hardly smooth sailing for the United States. They lost Alex Morgan to injury and were too predictable and inefficient in their attacking. But they’re where they want to be and figure to be celebrating a trip to another World Cup by the end of Friday. They also have a chance to get through the event without conceding a goal.

Mexico: Mexico was on the other end of that marvelous upset four years ago when they went ahead twice in the first 27 minutes and successfully defended a 2-1 lead for the final 63 minutes plus stoppage time.

Things have changed since then though. Mexico flamed out in the World Cup group stage, ending on a draw when New Zealand scored in the 90th and 94th minutes (they would have been eliminated even with a win.) They did not qualify for the Olympic Games in 2012. And their foray into NWSL has not been particularly successful. Only four players are guaranteed to return for 2015 and Mexico coach Leo Cuellar is calling for Mexico to launch its own women’s league.

The qualifying tournament has not gone to plan either. They opened with an upset loss to Costa Rica and had to rally from 1-0 down against Jamaica just to stay alive to the semifinals. They were supposed to win Group B and avoid the United States until the mostly meaningless final, but they ceded that to Costa Rica and now find themselves facing the need to play nearly perfect to repeat their exploits of 2010 – which it should be noted took place in Cancun.

The good news is that even if they lose to the U.S. they will be favored to qualify in Sunday’s 3rd place match. And Cuellar may have some decisions to make if they can keep the U.S. match close. Does he go all out to win it and risk burning the team’s physical and mental reserves ahead of Sunday?

However they do it, nothing short of leaving Philadelphia as qualifiers will suffice for Mexico.

Costa Rica: The Ticas entered the tournament as favorites to qualify behind the United States and Mexico. That is a good bit of pressure for a country that has never been to the World Cup. But they were the last team standing on the outside ahead of Germany 2011 and have played themselves into a favorable position to be in Canada next year. Their opening win over Mexico allowed them to win Group B and bypass the United States in Friday’s semifinals.

In reality here’s what has to happen for Costa Rica not to qualify. They would have to lose to T&T, then lose again to the U.S./Mexico loser, and then lose a two-leg playoff to Ecuador. The pressure is on, but Costa Rica should not be satisfied if they’re not in Canada.

Trinidad & Tobago: The young T&T squad won itself a legion of fans with its gutsy performance in a tournament-opening, 1-0 loss to the United States. Then they backed it up by beating Haiti and Guatemala to earn a spot in the semifinals. It was essentially the goal when Randy Waldrum took over the team on a volunteer basis. Now they will have three tries to take it to the next level and become the least likely participant ever at the Women’s World Cup.

The team arrived in the United States so short on resources that Waldrum sent out pleas on Twitter which prompted an immediate and impressive move to raise money for the team. Hopefully they have done enough to convince the folks back home to do more if they wind up having to go to Ecuador.

Gone but not forgotten:  Jamaica did not make it out of their group, but it was not due to lack of effort.  Their team speed kept Mexico off balance early in their semifinal deciding match.  Considering the program was shuttered less than a decade ago it was a strong showing for Jamaica.  Here’s hoping they can continue moving forward and become a competitive side in CONCACAF.

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