For decades, CONCACAF, (the Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football), has been dominated by two sides. Mexico is the winningest side, with three CONCACAF Championships and a further eight Gold Cups. The other is the United States, with seven Gold Cup trophies. Canada is the only other nation to have won the Gold Cup, while various Central American nations won prior tournaments. However, Caribbean nations have almost always struggled for success.
This is due to several factors: for a start, the federations of Caribbean islands (and CONCACAF in general) have dealt with rampant corruption. The most famous instance came when Trinidad’s Jack Warner, the former FIFA vice-president and CONCACAF president, was fined millions for wrongdoing. It’s reported that, among other things, he stole bonuses from Trinidad’s players and took emergency aid money that was intended for Haiti.
Another problem is the weather. Tropical storms are unfortunately frequent in the Caribbean, and hurricanes have become a massive problem. This results in poor infrastructure, as fields often become damaged and unplayable, sometimes being used as shelters during storms. Puerto Rico is one of many islands aiming to improve this with their new stadium plans.
Arguably the biggest reason Caribbean nations struggle is because soccer simply isn’t their biggest sport. The US presence in the Caribbean resulted in the popularity of baseball, with many players – particularly from the Dominican Republic – going pro in America. This is beginning to change, however, with the interest in soccer picking up.
The Dominican could be paving the way for Caribbean nations to be successful again. Victory against Guatemala in the CONCACAF U20 Semifinals not only clinched a spot in the final. It ensures they’ll be at the Olympics in 2024 and the U20 World Cup in 2023, a massive step forward.
The Dominican Republic joined FIFA in 1959, but have yet to play in a major tournament. In 2020, they participated in Group B of the CONCACAF Nations League but were unable to advance out of their group. Before that, they twice participated in the Caribbean Cup, failing to make it out of their group both times.
Part of the Dominican’s struggle is trouble recruiting dual nationals. When 19-year-old Spanish-born Mariano Díaz, at the time on Real Madrid’s reserves, scored on his debut, it looked like the Dominican had their star of the future. Díaz then retired from the national team with hopes of playing for Spain, which he still hasn’t achieved.
Another former Real Madrid player, Raúl de Tomás, was a potential Dominican player but he was never called up and recently made his Spain debut at the age of 27. Right now, the Dominican should focus on 19-year-old Kevin Paredes of Wolfsburg, who has represented the US at youth level. Edgar Pujol, an 18-year-old center-back on Real Madrid, is another intriguing option.
Road to the Final
This year, the Dominican qualified for the knockouts automatically, skipping the group stage because they topped their qualification group. In the Round of 16, the Dominican beat El Salvador in a thrilling match that saw three penalties awarded and a last-minute equalizer disallowed.
Next up was Jamaica, who had struggled in the group stages but beat previously-undefeated Haiti. Jamaica fielded a strong starting lineup, with players from Chelsea, Reading, and Wolverhampton. However, the Dominicans dominated and came out with a relatively easy 1-0 win, with another goal called back for a close offside.
This meant they reached the semifinals, where they would face giant-killers Guatemala, who had already defeated two of the favorites, Canada and Mexico. Guatemala looked set for the final after taking an early 2-0 lead, but the Dominican tied the match before winning on penalties.
Now, the Dominican will play the United States in the final. The US has won the last two editions of the tournament and is undefeated so far. Led by Philadelphia’s trio of Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Paxten Aaronson (who I highlighted in an earlier post,) the Americans are heavy favorites for the final. Don’t count the Dominican out, however.
Players to Watch Out For
Angel Montes De Oca has been the team’s top scorer this tournament, with three goals in three matches. He did miss his penalty kick against Guatemala in the shootout, but his form this tournament has been very good. His goal against Jamaica sent the Dominican to the semis. He currently plays for defending champions Cibao FC in the Dominican’s first tier.
Inter Miami’s Edison Azcona has been clutch for the Dominican. His goal against Guatemala was the equalizer that sent it to penalties (where he scored) and he also found the winning goal against El Salvador. Azcona is slowly working his way into Inter Miami’s first team and could be a fixture in the Dominican side for years to come.
Another Inter Miami player, Israel Boatwright, scored the first goal against El Salvador and has been a key figure in the Dominican defense. In addition to his goal, his assist against Jamaica led to a spot in the semis. You can criticize Inter Miami for many things, but you can’t take away their talent for finding some of the Caribbean’s top prospects.
Even if the Dominican Republic doesn’t win the U20 Championship, what they’ve done is massive for the sport’s development, both in the Dominican and the Caribbean. This shows the talent of the available players while increasing potential interest from dual nationals. Making the Olympics and U20 World Cup also means that the players will have chances against higher-quality opposition while giving more attention to their league and players.
This could be the start of a new era of soccer in both the Caribbean and the Dominican, with more talented players than ever before as well as more exposure. There’s still unfinished work in this tournament, however. Don’t expect the Dominicans to be looking towards the future when they take the field in the final.
Image courtesy of Redacción, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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