That the U.S. will face Canada in the final of the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifier is about as surprising as a sunrise.
Only once have the two neighbors failed to meet in the championship game of the tournament when both participated. And only once has either one failed to advance to the World Cup.
By reaching the final again this year, Canada and the U.S. have again secured spots in next summer’s tournament in France, leaving little more than pride and bragging rights at stake Wednesday.
But a lot more will be on the line in the third-place game between Panama and Jamaica since the winner will earn its first World Cup invitation.
“We're trying to create some history,” Jamaica coach Hue Menzies said. “We're still on track."
So is Panama, which shut out Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico in the group stage to reach the tournament’s final four for the first time. Goalkeeper Yenith Bailey, a midfielder only a year ago, was in goal for both games although her best performance may have come against the U.S., when she stopped 12 shots in the only game she lost. She sat out Sunday’s semifinal loss to Canada.
It has been a breakthrough tournament for Panama, which was ranked 141st in the world when the last World Cup was held. Now it could find itself playing in the next one.
Much of the credit for that goes to Victor Suarez, the team’s Argentine-born coach who has led an aggressive youth movement. Eight of Panama’s players, including Bailey, 17, and 13-year-old defender Sheyla Diaz, are teenagers. Only two are older than 25.
“It’s something new,” Suarez said in Spanish. “The continuity of the women’s team was missing. We are in a process. We’re in the middle of a renovation.
“We’re getting close to being the best we can be. But this has to happen step by step.”
When the Panamanian men’s team qualified for its first World Cup last fall, President Juan Carlos Varela declared a national holiday. A win for the women Wednesday might not have the same impact at home but it will be just as historic.
“If the path is open, we have to fight for that goal,” Suarez said. “We have to be confident in what we’re trying to do.
“Working with the girls on the mental part, the emotional part, is really difficult for us. The best way is to focus on the opportunity we have.”
A historic opportunity is also within the grasp of Jamaica, which has made an even more dramatic climb to get within a win of a World Cup berth. The team, 119th in the FIFA rankings a year ago, rolled unbeaten through two rounds of Caribbean qualifiers, outscoring opponents 41-4, to reach the CONCACAF Women’s Championship.
It then proved that was no fluke by holding Canada to a goal through 80 minutes of a 2-0 loss, beating Costa Rica 1-0, then blitzing Cuba 9-0 to reach the final four for only the second time. It lost to the U.S. in a semifinal game.
“We came ready to play five games and we're playing five games. So it's a big plus for our program,” said Menzies, who runs a soccer club in Florida. The team’s success, he added, is “changing the mentality of how people perceive us. So we're making a difference."
The World Cup quest won’t end for whichever team loses Wednesday since the fourth-place finisher in the CONCACAF tournament will advance to a two-leg November playoff with Argentina, the third-place team in the South American qualifier, where another World Cup berth will be up for grabs.
Neither team is making plans for that just yet.
“We’re not going to think about the playoff when we haven’t even played the game with Jamaica,” Suarez said.