The 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship kicks off Thursday with a doubleheader from Cary, North Carolina. The opener features Trinidad and Tobago against Panama, followed by the United States versus Mexico.
Group B opens Friday in Edinburg, Texas. The first matches in that group are Costa Rica against Cuba, followed by Canada versus Jamaica. FOX Sports will air the entire tournament on FS1 and FS2, with matches also available via FOX Sports Go.
The top two finishers in each group advance to the semifinals in Frisco, Texas, on Sept. 14. The semifinal winners qualify for the 2019 World Cup. The losers play for third place, also good for a trip to the World Cup. The team finishing fourth gets one more shot, in a home-and-home playoff against Argentina next month.
Here are three things to watch over the next two weeks:
USWNT: Chemistry at center back
Tierna Davidson has an ankle fracture and is not with the team, leaving Abby Dahlkemper as the likely partner for Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense. On paper, this is a beautiful pairing. In 10 combined seasons in NWSL, they have eight Best XI nods and four Defender of the Year titles between them. The last five NWSL Championships have seen one of the two start in central defense, four times for the winning side.
But the history of Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper in central defense together has been less than the brilliant act it ought to be. Chemistry has been oddly lacking, especially notable against quality attacking sides. Whether anyone in this tournament outside Canada is good enough to put that to the test remains to be seen. Either way, it will be a good opportunity for them to work together and try and establish some rhythm. Davidson had clearly passed Dahlkemper on the depth chart, where Sauerbrunn has been on top for several years.
That is not the only area Jill Ellis will want to examine during a tournament that has high stakes, even as it figures to be one the United States rolls through without issue. The front three of Mallory Pugh, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe was a magical one until Pugh, and then Rapinoe, got hurt. Earlier this year, that trio was a virtual lock to start any important match together. It seems less of a lock with most of the year passed without all three on the pitch together, but there is a good chance it remains Ellis’ preferred starting group.
Others on the comeback trail from injuries include Kelley O’Hara and Sam Mewis. O’Hara is a starting outside back when healthy, while Mewis may well have missed this roster had NWSL teammate McCall Zerboni not broken her elbow. Mewis was a regular in midfield before her injury last November. On the outside back discussion, how much time will Casey Short get behind O’Hara and Crystal Dunn, especially with Emily Sonnett having seen time as a mostly stay-at-home right back?
Who else will go through?
The U.S. are defending champions but Canada also won this tournament last time the two teams played, in 2010. Canada did not appear four years ago, having secured an automatic bid to the 2015 World Cup as host. The Canadians are being tapped as the surefire second-best team in the region and a virtual lock to qualify.
On the surface, there does not appear to be much preventing Canada from doing just that. This is, however, their first tournament of consequence under coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller. If all goes to form, they will have a showdown against Mexico in the semifinals for a World Cup spot. But Canada has yet to take the final step from dark horse contender to legitimate world power. It remains to be seen if their midfield can stack up against the best on the planet, and whether they are deep enough up top to score.
Mexico authored the greatest upset in the history of this event eight years ago when they knocked off the United States in Cancun and left the U.S. teetering on the brink of missing the World Cup. The Mexican program has not moved forward from that day. They are 0-10 against the United States with all but two games decided by three or more goals. In April, the U.S. outscored Mexico 10-3 across a pair of friendlies.
Costa Rica, featuring former MAC Hermann Trophy winner and NWSL Rookie of the Year, Raquel Rodriguez, qualified in 2015 but have been on a poor run of form lately. Most expect a third place match against Mexico.
What of the minnows?
Four years ago, Trinidad and Tobago became the darlings of Concacaf when then head coach Randy Waldrum put out a public plea for assistance with travel, meals, and equipment for the trip to qualifying. They wound up on the brink of qualification three times — losing on penalty kicks to Costa Rica, then to Mexico in extra time of the third-place match, and then in the last minute of extra time to Ecuador in the intercontinental playoff — and ultimately had to watch the World Cup from home.
Unfortunately, four years has not done much to help the cause as players have sent similar tweets about the team being underfunded since arriving in the United States. And the presence of Canada in this tournament, unlike in 2014, knocks them down another place in the pecking order.
Cuba are in the Concacaf Championship for the first time and precious little is known about the team. Jamaica and Panama would be surprises to get out of the group.
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