Watching USA-Canada in Kansas City and then Mexico-El Salvador in Dallas on Sunday gave us a taste of what fun we are in store for over the next nine months.
Or, depending on your point of view, the nervous moments that await.
Concacaf's World Cup 2022 qualifying tournament -- the Octagonal -- kicks off in September, and it's going to be a blast. Twelve games over seven days in September, October, January and March; eight games over five days in November.
Anyone who believes it will be a cakewalk for the USA or Mexico didn't watch them on Sunday.
The USA and Mexico beat Canada and El Salvador, 1-0, to win their Gold Cup groups, but the scorelines don't tell the whole story.
Canada and El Salvador dominated Concacaf's giants. Both teams lacked one thing: finishing.
After conceding a goal to the USA in the first 20 seconds, Canada slowly found its footing and dominated the game after the first-half water break.
“I think we had enough shots, we got into enough good areas,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “I don't think we were threatening enough when we got in and around that penalty area. There were moments we just had to serve the ball into the box."
The good news for the USA, which looked lost for much of the game, is that it was missing all its big stars preparing for the 2021-22 European club season. They should be back on Sept. 5 when the USA opens its Octagonal home schedule against Canada in Nashville.
Canada doesn't have the depth of talent the USA has, but it was missing its two young stars who could have both made a big difference on Sunday.
Jonathan David, who is right now before than any center forward the USA has, was held out of the Gold Cup to prepare for French club Lille's Ligue 1 title defense. Alphonso Davies was in the Canadian camp for the Gold Cup but returned to Germany, where he plays for Bayern Munich, after suffering an ankle injury. (There is real concern whether Davies will be ready for the September qualifiers.)
The USA will host Canada three days after opening the Octagonal in an away game against El Salvador. Normally, the game would be played at the Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador, but the recent decision by El Salvador's Ministry of Health to ban fans at all sporting events for the next 90 days due to the country's Covid-19 situation has the Salvadoran federation exploring its options about playing El Salvador-USA and El Salvador-Honduras three days later elsewhere.
El Salvador-USA will still be an away game for the USA if FIFA allows the match to be played with fans in the Washington, D.C., area, Houston or Los Angeles. Salvadoran fans will be motivated to support La Selecta after its remarkable showing against Mexico on Sunday night.
Mexico took the lead on a goal by Luis Rodriguez in the 25th minute but came under siege in the second half. Canada's problems, frankly, were creating enough good chances. That wasn't a problem for El Salvador, which had bad luck. The closest it came to scoring was in the 71st minute when Alexander Larin hit the post with a free kick.
The architect of the Salvadoran revival is Hugo Perez, who was born in El Salvador and played for the USA in the 1983 World Youth Championship, 1984 Olympics and 1994 World Cup. He coached El Salvador's U-23s in Olympic qualifying in March and took over the senior national team in April after Mexican Carlos de los Cobos stepped down midway through the opening round of World Cup qualifying.
Perez has loaded El Salvador with players who grew up in all levels of the U.S. soccer system (high school, youth national team program, college and pros). At one point in the second half, El Salvador had five American-born players, including Perez's nephew, Joshua Perez, and Joaquin Rivas (photo), who was born in San Salvador and raised in Las Vegas, on the field.
Perez said didn't like how El Salvador played against Mexico in the first half. But the second half was a different matter.
“We played really well," he said. "We touched the ball more and I truly liked what the players were doing. We are not going to celebrate this. We obviously wanted to win, but we have more to come.”
Next up for El Salvador is Honduras or Qatar in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, but Perez could have just as well been talking about the opening of the Octagonal against the USA.