KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Win the region's qualifying tournament via the most dominant year in your program's history, or stumble to a losing record in massively disappointing fashion and sneak into one of the tournament's final berths through the back door of an intercontinental playoff.
It doesn't matter at the World Cup draw.
That was the strange, harsh, unfair lesson driven home to CONCACAF's four qualified nations on Friday. The region's top Hexagonal finishers, the United States and Costa Rica, were handed intimidating matchups against several of the world's most fearsome powers, while stragglers Mexico were handed a manageable draw that their woeful 2013 performances hardly deserved and third-place Honduras lucked into one of the least difficult groups – at least on paper.
The Catrachos won the lottery every non-seeded nation in the draw was hoping for when their name was pulled in Group E alongside Switzerland, the least highly regarded member of the seeded teams in Pot 1.
Ecuador's presence in the group added a capable, but hardly overwhelming, adversary from the talent-heavy South American region. And France, while a past World Cup winner stacked with classy players, do not currently inspire the same dread as their previous editions.
“I'm feeling good about it,” Honduran international and former Sporting Kansas City star Roger Espinoza told KICKTV's Jimmy Conrad in a post-draw interview. “It's not easy any time you get to go to a World Cup and play against any team; obviously the best teams in the world are on it. But I think I like my group – tough teams, but teams that I think we can challenge.”
Long accustomed to bullying most of CONCACAF, Mexico made their 15th World Cup qualification as difficult as possible. A stunning run of underachievement saw them narrowly outpace Panama to fourth place in the Hex, a humiliating finish that was only redeemed by their thumping of overmatched Oceania champions New Zealand in last month's two-legged playoff.
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And yet, they have a relatively straightforward path to a sixth consecutive World Cup Round-of-16 appearance, even in spite of the presence of host nation Brazil in Group A. Cameroon – who sit at 51st in the most recent FIFA World Rankings – and Croatia possess skill, savvy and top-flight experience, though early reactions from the El Tri camp suggest that they feel confident about both matchups.
One slightly worrying factoid for Mexico fans: In three tries, their team has never won against an African side in World Cup play.
Similar to the United States, the order and location of El Tri's matches may prove nearly as key as the opponents themselves. New coach Miguel Herrera must have his side prepared for the opener against Cameroon in muggy Natal, because a setback would leave them in a dangerous position for their next contest against Brazil. And the closer against Croatia in Recife at least requires less travel mileage than a trip to the sprawling nation's interior.
With all four of North America's representatives placed in the same Pot 3 beforehand, the draw essentially unfolded as a zero-sum game for the CONCACAF quartet, as Mexico's and Honduras' luck dramatically increased the likelihood that Costa Rica and the US would be hard done by.
Los Ticos have been lumped into Group D with England, Uruguay – who crushed their World Cup hopes in the intercontinental playoff four years ago – and 2006 champions Italy, who had narrowly missed out on a seeded spot and thus became one of the Pot 4 land mines that everyone wanted to avoid.
Speaking to media at the MLS watch party at Sporting Park on Friday morning, Real Salt Lake and Costa Rica striker Alvaro Saborio was both courteous and defiant, expressing an eagerness to take revenge on Uruguay.
“It's a very difficult group, some former champions – they're very much heavyweights and we have to respect them all,” he said. “We wanted to play Uruguay, because of what had happened in the past.
“We wanted very good opponents because at the World Cup, you compete against the best.”
Saborio and his Tico teammates will open with Uruguay in Fortaleza, then meet Italy in Recife, two tropical venues where wet weather conditions could influence proceedings. They might have preferred to take on heat-fearing England in a similar spot but will instead do so far to the south, in temperate Belo Horizonte.
Past Costa Rican World Cup squads have shown themselves capable of standing toe to toe with the world's elite. Yet this time around they, like the USMNT, might find themselves deferring to a more primal form of motivation.
“It's not a bad spot to be the underdog,” said Saborio's RSL teammate and US international Kyle Beckerman, “going in when nobody really believes we can get out of this group and just have that 'us against the world' type of mentality.”