The first legs of the preliminary round ties of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying are now complete, and we now have a much clearer idea of the relative strengths of the bottom ten CONCACAF national teams. These matches have gone quite some way in demonstrating just how stratified the level of quality of the national teams is in this region; even among the bottom ten teams there have been some lopsided results. Three ties are just about over, while two have all to play for.
First, the three ties that are all but decided. Belize, Dominican Republic, and Bahamas scored important road wins, and I feel confident about picking them to go through to the group stage. Of course, in the case of Belize, even if they clinch a likely aggregate victory in Honduras they may be excluded from the remainder of World Cup qualifying if the ongoing conflict between the Belizean government and the FFB isn't resolved to FIFA's liking. But I'll come back to that scenario when it actually happens.
The other two ties -- US Virgin Islands vs. British Virgin Islands and Aruba vs. Saint Lucia -- are finely poised. In both ties, the home team, a historically weak side even by the standards of CONCACAF minnows, faced a relatively more experienced side and achieved a famous victory.
USVI won only their second match in the history of their national team, while Aruba won their first official match in over 11 years. Moreover, both teams won their first leg matches by two-goal margins, which provides them with a margin of error in the away leg.
The situation is rather ominous for BVI, who have not scored in three matches, while USVI have not allowed a goal in three matches. USVI's 4-5-1 formation might be the best formation to play in an away match such as this. Before the series started, I felt that BVI were the stronger team and were likely to advance, but now I think that their protracted slump could allow USVI to go through to the group stages.
Aruba's two-goal lead is more precarious thanks to the two away goals that Saint Lucia scored in Oranjestad. Saint Lucia still have to score two goals without an Aruban reply to advance, but Aruba got very good production from their forwards and substitutes and just a single goal in Castries will make the Saint Lucian task extremely difficult. That fourth goal near the end could make all the difference; looking back over the last 10 years, Aruba have scored one away goal on two occasions in official matches, but have not scored two away goals since 2000. Saint Lucia also had a player sent off during tonight's match, I am guessing by his shirt number that he is a defender (still a reasonable assumption for national teams of this size) but at this moment I don't know how critical he is to the national team.
So heading into this weekend's decisive matches, I would say that Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Belize (barring administrative exclusion by FIFA), and US Virgin Islands look good to advance. The Aruba-Saint Lucia tie appears too close to call at this time.