Mexico’s Andres Guardado celebrates with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez, right, after he scored his team’s second goal during the group A World Cup soccer match between Croatia and Mexico at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Monday, June 23, 2014. Mexico won 3-1. Center is Croatia’s Luka Modric.
AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Costa Rica finished second to the USA in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying a year ago, Mexico backed into the tournament after the U. S. pulled off an upset win in Panama on the last day of qualifying that put El Tri in a play-off against New Zealand for the half berth available after Honduras clinched the third automatic place. Both Costa Rica and particularly Mexico have made the most of their opportunities at the World Cup in Brazil and have advanced to the Round of 16, the second and single elimination phase, which gets underway this weekend when Mexico, second in Group A, plays Group B winner, The Netherlands, on Sunday. Brazil, Group A winner, plays Chile on Saturday.

The USA had a good chance to advance with at least a draw against Germany in its last group game that was scheduled for Thursday, June 26, and although Honduras is winless, it could advance with a win over Switzerland and a France defeat of Ecuador. Those games were scheduled for Wednesday, June 25.

The four CONCACAF teams have represented the region well; much respect was gained for the game in North and Central America and the Caribbean region. Costa Rica started the CONACAF ball rolling in Brazil when it surprised two-time World Cup champion Uruguay in 3-1 defeat, but four-time World Cup champion Italy was up next and all eyes were on the Ticos to see if the first-game victory was a fluke. Costa Rica confirmed that CONCACAF soccer has arrived and is for real and as it ran to a convincing 1-0 defeat of the Azzurri behind Captain Brian Ruiz’s 44th minute goal and sound strategy that stifled the Italians play last Friday.

Costa Rica defended smartly by limiting the space that Italy had to operate and attacking with effective combination plays. With a tie against winless England, the Ticos could clinch the top spot in Group D and play the second place team in Group C, which could be the Ivory Coast. School children in Cost Rica got the time off to cheer on their heroes, a trend that may continue as the Ticos march forward.

Mexico quickly put its torrid qualifying past behind it once it arrived in Brazil. When El Tri held the mighty guest and five-time champion, Brazil, to a goalless draw after beating a physical Cameroon team, it had its work ahead, as its next opponent Croatia was in the hunt for a win to advance. The Mexicans maintained their composed play and defeated the Croatians, 3-1, in Recife on Monday. Mexican forward Chicharito Hernandez, who came off the substitute’s bench to score El Tri’s third goal, told reporters after the game that qualifying from CONCACAF wasn’t easy, he said the world now gives CONCACAF more respect.

The USA vastly improved its play in a 2-2 heartbreaking tie with Portugal in hot and humid Manaus, in the Amazon region in the very north of Brazil. The Americans improved their game considerably since its 2-1 win over Ghana a week earlier. After rallying from a 1-0 deficit to lead Portugal, 2-1, on goals by Jermaine Jones (64th) and Clint Dempsey (81st) – and behind a Herculean effort from goalkeeper Tim Howard, who kept them in the game with breathtaking saves – their inexperience got the better of them and led to a series of defensive mistakes late in the contest that led to Portugal’s second and tying goal. Nani scored Portugal’s first tally within the first five minutes of play.

Honduras got off to a bad start with a 3-0 defeat to France, compounded by a 2-1 loss to Ecuador. The Hondurans have not won in eight World Cup games all-time, but Carlo Costly’s goal in the 31st minute was Honduras’ first in the tournament since the 1982 World Cup. Two strikes from Edam Valencia outdid Honduras. Other teams that have so far advanced to the Round of 16 are Colombia from Group C, France from Group E, Argentina from Group F, and Belgium from Group H.

Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell controls the ball during the group D World Cup soccer match between Costa Rica and England at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

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