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Five things we learned from the third round of 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying

Why it’s time to be excited about Montserrat and more from 2019-20 CNL Qualifying.

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall Visit The Caribbean Day 5 Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The third round of 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying didn’t tell us which 10 teams are going to the 2019 Gold Cup, or exactly how the 34-team field is going to be split between the three tiers of next year’s CNL. But we can say that Curacao, Haiti, Cuba, Canada, Jamaica, and Martinique should be feeling pretty confident about their chances of making the 2019 Gold Cup (the prize for the top 10 teams in this tournament). Also, it will be a surprise if at least five of them don’t make the cut for CNL’s League A (the prize for the top six) - and no great surprise if all six are in CNL’s top tier come the end of the final round of qualifying.

We also know that it’s going to take a minimum of seven points from this competition to even be in the running for a Gold Cup spot, so all the teams incapable of getting to seven points in March’s final round of qualifying are out of contention for a berth at next summer’s CONCACAF showpiece tournament. That means 13 teams are already eliminated from Gold Cup contention.

And we know that it will take nine points at least to crack the top six in the table and make CONCACAF League of Nations League A alongside the pre-qualified teams (USA, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago - all also pre-qualified for 2019 Gold Cup). So the race for League A spots is down to 14 teams, with the aforementioned current top six (Curacao, Haiti, Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, and Martinique) holding a distinct advantage over the field.

Put a little more simply, there are now three small groups in the hunt for one or both of the main prizes on offer from this qualifying tournament. Let’s call those groups the Frontrunners, the Chasers, and the Longshots.

The frontrunners are the six teams currently on nine points after three games: the favorites to claim the double-prize of a Gold Cup and League A berth.

Frontrunners: top 6 after 3 rounds of 2019-20 CNL Qualifying; 9 points each

Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
1 Curacao 3 3 0 0 21 0 21 @ Antigua and Barbuda, 3/25/19
2 Haiti 3 3 0 0 17 1 16 vs Cuba, 3/24/19
3 Canada 3 3 0 0 14 0 14 vs French Guiana, 3/26/19
4 Cuba 3 3 0 0 14 0 14 @ Haiti, 3/24/19
5 Jamaica 3 3 0 0 12 1 11 @ El Salvador, 3/23/19
6 Martinique 3 3 0 0 9 2 7 @ Guadeloupe, 3/23/19

As the only teams with nine points after three rounds of qualifying, the frontrunners are also the only teams mathematically capable of getting more than nine points out of this tournament. So the only way any one of them can be caught is if they lose in the final round.

Even a point from their last game of CNL Qualifying will see each of the top six through to the 2019 Gold Cup and League A of 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League. And to drop out of the top six entirely, a frontrunner would not only have to lose, but also fall behind a non-top six team on goal difference - for the current top four, at least, that is an improbable coincidence of circumstances.

If one of them stumbles, there are eight teams currently on six points that have varying chances of getting to nine points and an appropriate goal difference to claim a top-six finish. Those eight are also very much in contention for a top-10 finish, which is still worth a Gold Cup berth (and a place in CNL’s League B).

Chasers: positions 7-14 after 3 rounds of 2019-20 CNL Qualifying; 6 points each

Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
7 Bermuda 3 2 0 1 14 3 11 @ Dominican Republic, 3/24
8 St Kitts and Nevis 3 2 0 1 11 1 10 @ Suriname, 3/23
9 Dominican Republic 3 2 0 1 8 1 7 vs Bermuda, 3/24
10 Nicaragua 3 2 0 1 8 2 6 @ Barbados, 3/24
11 French Guiana 3 2 0 1 7 2 5 @ Canada, 3/26
12 Belize 3 2 0 1 5 1 4 @ Guyana, 3/23
13 El Salvador 3 2 0 1 5 2 3 vs Jamaica, 3/23
14 Montserrat 3 2 0 1 4 2 2 @ Cayman Islands, 3/22

One or two of the chasers might conceivably sneak into the top six in the final round of CNL Qualifying. But the most realistic ambition for each of them is target positions 7-10 in order to take one of the four Gold Cup berths available to a team that doesn’t qualify for CNL’s League A.

Finally, there are seven teams on four points who need a win and some combination of favorable results to maybe sneak into the top 10 and grab a spot at the 2019 Gold Cup.

The longshots definitely can’t get into League A, and they’ll need quite a bit of good fortune to get into the top 10. With regard to the latter ambition, their greatest cause for optimism is the fact two teams currently in the top 10 - Bermuda and Dominican Republic - play each other. So at least one top-10 team is definitely going to drop points in the final round. For a team on seven points to take advantage of that, it will require a win in its final game of CNL Qualifying and assistance from a few other results: hence the longshot designation.

Longshots: positions 15-21 after 3 rounds of 2019-20 CNL Qualifying; 4 points each

Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
Position (out of 34) Team Played Won Drawn Lost Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Next Game
15 Guyana 3 1 1 1 11 4 7 vs Belize, 3/23
16 Suriname 3 1 1 1 6 2 4 vs St Kitts and Nevis, 3/23
17 St Lucia 3 1 1 1 4 2 2 vs Aruba, 3/25
18 Barbados 3 1 1 1 5 5 0 vs Nicaragua, 3/24
19 Aruba 3 1 1 1 3 3 0 @ St Lucia, 3/25
20 Guadeloupe 3 1 1 1 3 6 -3 vs Martinique, 3/23
21 Dominica 3 1 1 1 2 5 -3 vs Bahamas, 3/26

CNL Qualifying is at rest until March. Here are five thoughts inspired by what we have seen in the tournament so far, and what we can hope to see in the final round:

Curacao is for real

Curacao was the top Caribbean qualifier for the 2017 Gold Cup, marching in to the region’s top international tournament as the Caribbean Cup champion. But that designation didn’t mean a great deal once Gold Cup started: Curacao lost all three of its Group Stage games without scoring a goal, including a 2-0 loss to the team it had bested in the Caribbean Cup final, Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz went all the way to the Gold Cup final; Curacao went home.

When it came time to seed teams for 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying, Curacao’s run to 2017 Gold Cup was a fading memory. The team was ranked in the second tier of seeds, 11th overall in the 34-team field: a shot at making this year’s Gold Cup, but not among the favorites.

Curacao has since made light work of its CNL Qualifying task: opening with a 10-0 home win over Grenada, then beating US Virgin Islands 5-0, and trouncing Guadeloupe 6-0 at home in the most recent round of games. The win over Guadeloupe is the most significant because Guadeloupe is a team the pre-qualifying rankings thought likely to be better than Curacao.

As things stand now, Guadeloupe is definitely not going to make League A of CNL and will need quite a bit of luck to get a Gold Cup berth. Curacao is top of the overall standings with maximum points from three games and a +21 goal difference.

In March, Curacao will play on the road against Antigua and Barbuda. It will be the heavy favorite to win that game also, and confirm its current status as the top team in CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying.

The reason for Curacao’s success in the 2017 and 2019 Gold Cup qualifying cycles is primarily that it has made good use of its diaspora, calling up a number of seasoned pros born outside the island. Eloy Room, Leandro Bacuna, and Cuco Martina are perhaps the highest-profile members of the squad, but a typical Curacao roster these days is comprised almost entirely of players contracted to top-flight and second-division clubs around Europe (mostly, but not exclusively, in the Netherlands).

Further, there has been effort put in to keep the squad active and tested since the last Gold Cup. Curacao can’t necessarily afford the most active national-team schedule, but last October the team traveled to Qatar for a friendly during the international window (and won, 2-1). In March, it hosted a pair of friendlies against Bolivia (winning one and drawing the other).

Curacao has only had a stand-alone national team since 2011 - previously it was part of the Netherlands Antilles team. Until the trip to Qatar, it had never played a non-CONCACAF opponent. But Curacao has now distinguished itself as one of the more ambitious men’s soccer programs in CONCACAF.

From a standing start - Netherlands Antilles soccer hasn’t been particularly relevant in CONCACAF since the 1960s - Curacao is not merely expected to qualify for its second consecutive Gold Cup, but it will be disappointed if it doesn’t do so in style: unbeaten and top of the 34-team qualifying table.

There are further challenges ahead - winning a game at Gold Cup, for a start. But Curacao has already demonstrated that its presence at the last Gold Cup was no fluke. It’s presence at the top of the CNL qualifying table is no accident: Curacao’s men’s national team is taking itself seriously, and it is methodically developing a squad that will seek to challenge CONCACAF’s top tier in Gold Cup, CNL League A, and the next cycle of World Cup qualifying.

Root for Guadeloupe to beat Martinique

The top six teams in the CNL Qualifying table control their own destiny. They each have won their first three games of the tournament and they are the only teams in the competition with nine points after three rounds. That means they are the only teams in the competition that can get more than nine points after four rounds. So as long as they don’t lose their last game of the tournament, all six are going to the 2019 Gold Cup and CNL League A.

Therefore, to really open up the last round of games, in terms of maximizing what is at stake in the greatest number of matches, one of the current top six needs to lose. And it needs to be a member of the current top six who would realistically be vulnerable to dropping far down the table it it were to lose its last game: i.e. not Curacao.

Curacao is the least likely of the current table-toppers to lose its footing in the top six, regardless of what happens in the final round of games - since it has such a large goal difference (+21) that it’s improbable it will suffer a combination of results that sees it overhauled in the standings by six teams.

The most likely of current top six to get bounced down the table by a last-round loss is Martinique.

If Martinique were to lose to Guadeloupe, it will leave a top-six place very vulnerable indeed. Martinique’s goal difference is currently modest (+7) and will only be lower with a loss in the last round. Bermuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua would all definitely finish above Martinique in the table if they win their last game of qualifying and Martinique loses to Guadeloupe (Bermuda and Dominican Republic play each other in the last round, so only room for one of them in that analysis). And there are several other teams (French Guiana, El Salvador, Belize, and Montserrat) who would have a renewed interest in making the top six if Martinique stumbles.

Guadeloupe has not been great so far in CNL Qualifying, and is already out of contention for a top-six finish. But a win would give it a shot making the top 10 and Gold Cup. Playing at home, after a long break to think about what went wrong before, against a familiar rival: don’t count Guadeloupe out of this game, regardless of how inept it may have looked in earlier rounds.

And if you’re rooting for maximum excitement in the final round of CNL Qualifying, you’re rooting for Guadeloupe to beat Martinique on March 23.

El Salvador is in trouble

El Salvador was considered the fourth-best team in CNL Qualifying by the pre-tournament rankings. It has been in a slow-motion decline ever since.

In the first round of the competition, El Salvador very nearly lost to Montserrat - requiring two second-half goals (the last in stoppage time) to turn a 1-0 deficit at half-time into a 2-1 win. The second round brought a competent but hardly emphatic 3-0 home win over Barbados. And in the third round, El Salvador did not respond well to the challenges presented by a rainy night on the road and lost 1-0 to Bermuda.

Two wins and a loss is not necessarily catastrophic for El Salvador, but the wins have been modest and the loss was to a team it was expected to beat. The one CNL Qualifying game it must play in which it is not the clear favorite to win is still to come: at home against Jamaica on March 23.

El Salvador looks to be in some danger of being shut out not just of the top six but the top 10 of this competition. It’s goal difference is low (+3), meaning it likely needs not just to beat Jamaica but to win by a lot of goals to stand much chance of even breaking into the top 10.

And beating Jamaica by a lot of goals seems improbable for a team that has managed just five total against Barbados, Bermuda, and Montserrat.

At the start of this tournament, missing out on CNL League A would have counted as a disappointment for El Salvador. Missing out on Gold Cup, however, was hardly worth contemplating - the team had games against Montserrat, Barbados, and Bermuda before it even had to think about an opponent that might beat it. But El Salvador has not been playing up to its reputation so far in CNL Qualifying and its reputation looks set to suffer accordingly.

The team has qualified for the last six editions of Gold Cup and made the quarterfinals at three of the last four - but without a win over Jamaica and some luck, El Salvador is going to miss out on the 2019 Gold Cup and play 2019-20 CNL in League B.

Montserrat is in the mix

Talking about international soccer teams in terms of the populations of the nations they represent is about as useful as discussing club sides in terms of their average attendance. Ultimately, the number of citizens in a country or fans in the stands doesn’t go a long way toward explaining results between two teams of 11 players - it mostly helps illustrate how many people might be interested in those results.

But for every rule there is an exception. Montserrat’s estimated population is around 5,000 and that is worth noting because that is an exceptionally small country to be in contention for a place at the 2019 Gold Cup.

It is true that Montserrat is the 14th-placed of the 14 teams that still have a shot at making Gold Cup, but given it started the tournament ranked 29th out of 34 teams in CNL Qualifying, it is already massively outperforming expectations.

Also, while there have been upsets and surprises among the higher-ranked seeds, the bottom tier of CONCACAF’s rankings has mostly lived down to its reputation.

There were eight teams seeded fourth and last in the pre-tournament rankings: Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, and Montserrat. The seven that are not Montserrat have combined for a total of five points between them in CNL Qualifying so far: Turk and Caicos upset St Vincent and the Grenadines in the last round of games; Anguilla tied Bahamas; Cayman Islands tied St Lucia. Montserrat has won six points on its own, and can count itself unlucky not to have seven.

The team shrugged off the disappointment of losing at home to El Salvador in the 94th minute by beating Belize, 1-0. It then went to Aruba and came back with a 2-0 win.

It will play Cayman Islands in the final round of qualifying, and can count itself favorite to win that game.

If Montserrat does win against Cayman Islands, it will have nine points and a positive goal difference (pretty much equally surprising to pre-tournament expectations) - and that adds up to a shot at cracking the top 10 and making it to Gold Cup.

Yes, it will need some luck. El Salvador is above in the table and this column just spent some time suggesting El Salvador isn’t going to get to the 2019 Gold Cup - Montserrat’s chances are a little lower even than those of El Salvador. But perspective is everything: El Salvador was supposed to canter into Gold Cup and it is stumbling; Montserrat wasn’t even expected to be in contention for more than a point in qualifying, but it has six and a shot at something it wasn’t supposed to get close to.

And it is not such a stretch to imagine the circumstances by which Montserrat might make it to the Gold Cup. First, it must beat Cayman Islands - not a foregone conclusion, but not at all improbable or even unlikely. Montserrat went toe-to-toe with El Salvador; it has beaten better teams than Cayman Islands in this competition: it can get three points in the final round of qualifying.

It also needs some results to got its way, but that isn’t necessarily a stretch either. Jamaica to beat or tie El Salvador? Could very well happen. Canada to beat or tie French Guiana? The most likely outcome of that match-up, one would expect. Bermuda and Dominican Republic play each other in the final round of games, so at least one of those teams isn’t getting to nine points. St Kitts and Nevis will be on the road in Suriname for its last game of qualifying - not an easy road trip for the Sugar Boyz.

That’s all Montserrat needs: a win over the lowest-ranked opponent it will play in this tournament and three or four not-implausible results to go its way.

It’s a longshot, but not nearly as a long a shot as the suggestion Montserrat would be in contention for a Gold Cup place heading in to the final round of CNL Qualifying.

Have a glance at the Living in Montserrat blog for another view of the team’s progress in the tournament.

Expect the unexpected in March

All the teams in CNL Qualifying have to wait until March for their last games of the tournament. That is change from the first three rounds of the competition, which were played during the international breaks in September, October, and November.

The frequency of games during the first three rounds is surely part of the explanation for why the likes of El Salvador and Montserrat are right next to each other in the standings. A monthly match for three months allowed for momentum to develop: positive, in Montserrat’s case; not so positive for El Salvador.

For the smaller nations in CONCACAF particularly (those that will usually sit idle during international breaks because what national team is eager to schedule a friendly with Montserrat?), CNL is doing exactly what it was intended to do before it has even started: the qualifying tournament alone has offered a string of regular fixtures, providing incentive and opportunity for regular national team camps, and for players to develop chemistry and teams to develop momentum.

But now there is a four-month break. Teams stuck in a rut - hi, El Salvador - have a chance to regroup; teams buoyed by the unusual glut of games - what ho, Montserrat - will go back to their day-jobs (and a team like Montserrat, comprised largely of players from England’s amateur and semi-professional leagues, will have a lot of players with day-jobs).

The break will hinder some sides and help others. We’ll find out which is which in March.