RECIFE, Brazil - The CONCACAF region is making some noise at this year's World Cup.
Yes, you read that correctly. Through five matches, a confederation long regarded as one of the world's weakest has recorded a sparkling record of 3-1-1. Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica all won their opening matches, and El Tri notched an impressive 0-0 draw against hosts Brazil on Tuesday. Only Honduras failed to crack the win column, losing 3-0 to France.
Admittedly, it's early in the tournament, and five matches makes for a small sample size. The U.S. and Costa Rica in particular face daunting schedules the rest of the way, as both teams have two games remaining against European powerhouses. In the case of the U.S. they'll face Portugal and Germany, while Costa Rica is set to square off against Italy and England. This could all go sideways in a hurry.
Yet CONCACAF's start to the tournament remains impressive, and has exceeded expectations. The Yanks and the Ticos pulled off notable victories, with the U.S. edging African power Ghana 2-1 while Costa Rica surprised 2010 World Cup semifinalist Uruguay 3-1. Mexico's 1-0 win over Cameroon got its tournament off to a winning start as well, giving it some vital confidence that seeped into Tuesday's result against Brazil.
"Sometimes teams in CONCACAF, you could argue that they lack some discipline in the way they play," said ESPN television analyst and former Venezuela international Alejandro Moreno. "I think what you saw from Costa Rica was that they were very disciplined tactically, very well organized, very clear in the idea of what they wanted to do on the field.
"Same thing with the U.S. Yes, they hung on at times against Ghana, but you could see what the ideas were defensively. And now you see from Mexico a toughness and a commitment and a unity that wasn't quite there in qualifying. It was missing throughout the course of 2013. Now all of a sudden, that confidence has come back, and that self-belief has come back, and you see them getting results in the unlikeliest of scenarios."
"When you get better as a national team, you get more attention from abroad. It then allows players to go into more competitive leagues. Then that circles back and you bring that experience into the national team."
To put this in historical context, since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, only once has CONCACAF recorded more wins than the three it has already in 2014. That came in 2002 when Mexico, the U.S. and Costa Rica all won matches to go a combined 5-4-3. For the time period in question, that remains the only time the region finished a World Cup with a winning record.
So what to make then of this early run. Lines like, "Every team is improving," and, "There are no small teams anymore," have been thrown out so many times that they have taken up permanent residence in cliché-ville. But there is an element of truth to such explanations, especially as it relates to countries like Costa Rica and Honduras.
Moreno is of the opinion that Mexico's poor form at home during World Cup qualifying gave other teams in the region the confidence that they could handle tough environments.
"Now those teams believe they can go into big-time moments, big-time stadiums, get results, and truly not only just say it out loud, but show it on the field with performances that are tactically very sound, very organized and really disciplined in the way the play," said Moreno.
The steady influence of globalization has also helped. Both Costa Rica and Honduras have more performers playing abroad than they ever have. In 2002 and 2006, Costa Rica had just three foreign-based players on its World Cup roster. Now it has 14. Honduras has seen the number of players performing abroad increase as well, going from nine in 2010 to 12 in 2014. The breadth of experience gained by those players no doubt helps a squad when it comes to performing at a World Cup. And you could see how the likes of Costa Rica midfielder Celso Borges, who plays his club soccer in Sweden for AIK Stockholm, not only performed well on the field, but was by no means getting carried away with the result against Uruguay.
There has also been an accumulation of international experience over the years. Costa Rica has qualified for three of the last four World Cups, and the one time it didn't in 2010, it pushed Uruguay to the limit in a playoff. Honduras has managed to qualify for the last two World Cups, and showed well at the 2012 Olympics, when it fell to Brazil in the quarterfinals.
"It kind of goes hand in hand," said Moreno. "When you get better as a national team, you get more attention from abroad. It then allows players to go into more competitive leagues. Then that circles back and you bring that experience into the national team.
"I think the more exposure you have to different ways of working, different styles, different types of discipline, what it is to be a professional soccer player in a high-competition environment, all of these things have forced the Central American player to gain a level of discipline, a level of organization, on an individual basis, and now they bring it back to the national team."
Neither the U.S. nor Mexico is a stranger to group stage success at the World Cup. Mexico's play is surprising only when put into the context of the previous 16 months, a period when only a gift result from the U.S. allowed El Tri to even qualify for the World Cup. When it comes to the tournament proper, Mexico has consistently progressed to the knockout rounds, having done so in the last five World Cups. The second round has proven an obstacle that El Tri is unable to overcome. But overall, Mexico's performance in Brazil is nothing new.
The U.S. has alternated first-round eliminations with group stage advancement for the last five World Cups. But overall, the team has been rising steadily over that time period, thanks to similar growth in MLS. If the U.S. can somehow navigate its way out of an extremely difficult Group G, it would go down as the most impressive World Cup achievement -- at least in terms of group stage performance -- in the country's soccer history.
The growth of the game throughout CONCACAF -- and the region's early success at this World Cup -- is by no means a signal of impending world domination. UEFA and CONMEBOL, the confederations of Europe and South America respectively, still hold sway. But at minimum, CONCACAF ought to be compared more favorably to Africa and Asia. Since in 1994, the percentage of CONCACAF entrants to advance to the knockout rounds is greater (at 46 percent) than both the CAF (20 percent) and the AFC (25 percent). That should put to rest any notion of taking any World Cup qualifying spots away from CONCACAF.
Can the CONCACAF teams continue their run? That depends in part on how well they handle their early success.
"They've done very well. They've gotten the results," said Moreno. "Now that strength of character within a group has to show in that you have to do it again four days from now. You've gotten that taste of success, but you don't tell yourself, 'We've achieved something.' It's an ongoing process."
The story of how the CONCACAF contingent fares will be told in the coming weeks. In the meantime, its flag is flying higher.