Mexican players stay warm under blankets during a WCQ against Canada in Edmonton in November. (Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Traditionally, there are plenty of potholes, U-turns and surprises on the road to a World Cup, regardless of what part of the globe you compete.

In Concacaf, it might double or triple.

Needless to say, qualifying for Qatar has become that much more challenging and difficult in the age of COVID.

Still, the bottom line is the same:

You do everything within your power to secure a home victory and those precious three points.

Damn beautiful soccer, full speed ahead. It’s about the beautiful three points and surviving to play another important game another day.

As someone who has covered and watched qualifying matches on in Concacaf, England, Finland, Iceland, Luxembourg and Samoa, I have put together some of the trapdoors and challenges of WCQ.

Don’t get Concacaf’d

Over the decades, the USMNT has been “Concacaf’d” by opposing teams plenty of times.

The list is long, whether it was a Central American foe the game in the middle of a jungle (Guatemala in 2000), fans and radio stations playing loud music outside the team’s hotel (too many times to mention), playing in front of hostile crowds (Costa Rica and sometimes Estadio Azteca) or even being told the wrong kickoff time.

Walter Chyzowych, the coach of the U.S. team, remembered how poor the conditions were in Mexico during 1978 WCQ, in his 1982 book, The World Cup.

“The bus that was to take us to the training round arrived one hour late,” he wrote. “Upon arriving at the field, the gate was locked, and the players were forced to climb the wall. The team had a 35-minute workout before darkness set in — hardly enough.

“We were told the game would be played at noon the next day. Prior to departure, the kickoff time was changed to 3 p.m. Upon arriving at the stadium at 1:30 p.m., the Canadian referee, in a rush, informed us that we had 30 minutes to prepare for kickoff, which was apparently now at 2 p.m. After a frantic dressing and taping scene in the American locker room, the team made the official kickoff time without a warmup and was down 2-0 within 20 minutes.”

Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better

No doubt the U.S., with some 330 million-plus people, has the largest population in the region.

But doesn’t mean the Americans automatically will roll over their opponents.

But Concacaf can be difficult.

Yes, I know how many people there are in the United States and how many talented and up and coming players this country has.

While the USA has grown by leaps and bounds embracing soccer (I remember when some writers called it a Communist sport, forgetting that the rest of the world played the game), it is not the No. 1 sport in many nations. A prime example is Costa Rica, which has a population of 5.2 million. Yet, the Ticos keep returning to the World Cup every four years and continue to be a regional power.

Regardless of what you call it, football, soccer, a passion to these players and people.

Do the Americans have passion about the beautiful game?

Yes.

But it pales in comparison to many of our neighbors to the south.

That’s what drives them. That’s what keeps them going.

Besides, defeating the USA is any competition would be a big, big deal.

When USMNT players exchange war stories of international matches with their teammates on European teams, their colleagues can’t believe some of the tales.

Yes, Concacaf is hard.

It is difficult to pull off a triple play

In the first three-match windows in September and October, no team, including group leader Canada and Concacaf giant Mexico, swept all three games. It’s not easy winning three games within a seven-day span with so much on the line against opponents who have so much on the line.

We’ll see if this holds true during the January window.

Teams rarely will have its perfect Starting XI

If a team does have every front-line player to start a match, it probably is a rare occurrence. Between players being injured, serving suspensions and coming in and out of form, and some tactical decisions made by the coach and COVID-19, it just doesn’t happen.

Translated: teams need depth.

The USMNT has plenty of depth and it allows the team have quality reinforcement waiting in the wings to come off the bench.

This could go a long way in the third and final game of a three-game series, especially playing against a team with not the same depth.

Weather conditions

Teams have used their natural conditions as weapons of advantage for decades and it will never go away.

Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean have their heat, humidity and altitude, depending on the venue.

The USA and Canada have their colder cities. The Americans are hosting El Salvador and Honduras in Columbus, Ohio and St. Paul, Minn. during the winter window. The USMNT and Canadians will play their match in Hamilton, Ontario. (unsolicited two cents to fans going to those games: wear your ultra, triple-layered thermal underwear and some really warm gloves).

Anything for an advantage.

But as we have learned, Mother Nature has the first and last words on everything.

If my memory serves me correctly, a storm came out of nowhere when the USA played a qualifier in Grenada in 2004.

Depth really matters

As in a deep bench for a game and a depth chart for the long haul.

And it’s not necessarily strength in numbers, but in how many players can make a difference.

In a perfect world, you want quality with that quantity.

The USMNT appears to have both during this qualifying run. We’ll see if that translates into a ticket to Qatar this November.

Five substitutions

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Football Association Board permitted clubs and national teams to use five substitutions instead of the traditional three. It is not known how long this will last.

That change has allowed coaches more flexibility in making changes during matches.

It also has given teams with more depth greater advantage during the late stages of the match.

Hmmm. That word depth keeps popping up, doesn’t it?

Injuries and taking a knock

Some teams’ depth is so thin, or they rely on one player to be the playmaker or leading scorer that losing him could be a devastating.

Every player plays with some sort of injury or a knock. They’re not injuries, but something that could ….. or turn into a problem somewhere down the road.

It could slow a player down just for a split second. And as we all know, sometimes that is all an opponent needs to score a vital goal for a win or to turn the momentum around.

The X-factor

When you’re not expecting it, injuries can pop out of nowhere, altering coaches’ plans and sometimes a team’s destiny.

When a player is injured prior to a match

If a player incurs an injury in a match, it can upset plans. The best coaches and teams find ways to overcome these obstacles. To be fair, sometimes it can be impossible to replace a vital player.

The XXX-factor

COVID-19, or particularly the Omicron variant, is that factor.

Players, coaches and staff can take the best of precautions, but someone who is asymptomatic can be soccer’s Typhoid Mary because the variant is so contagious.

And in a team environment, it can spread like wildfire.

Which brings us back to having enough depth.

Traditionally, there are plenty of potholes and U-turns on the road to a World Cup.

Qualifying for this year’s competition in Qatar has been an intriguing ride with so many matches thrown together into a short space of time.