GC Daily: Chance decides quarterfinalist in historic night of chaos

The W Gold Cup group stage is over, and it came to a dramatic end with a historic 'drawing of lots' deciding the final quarterfinalist in Houston, Texas.

GC Daily: Chance decides quarterfinalist in historic night of chaos
Two see-through plastic balls containing the fate of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico

Note: Welcome to Gold Cup Daily. A quick snapshot of the tournament's action from the previous day, some elongated thoughts, and the key details of group tables and next matches. With the group stage finished, we're going to take a day off on Thursday. Cheers.

Wednesday's Group C results:
Canada 3-0 Costa Rica
Paraguay 3-2 El Salvador

So, there we were...in Houston, Texas.

After three rounds of group-stage matches, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico had identical records in the 2024 W Gold Cup. One win apiece, two goals scored, four conceded, and four yellow cards. Deadlock.

As per Concacaf rules, if all these tiebreakers were even then the score would be settled by 'drawing of lots'.

Essentially chance. Luck. A random draw for one team to advance over the other.

One of Costa Rica or Puerto Rico was about to be knocked out by a 50/50 random call.

"No more yellow cards"

The drama began to drip before the Canada vs. Costa Rica match kicked off. Those paying close attention had calculated that if Las Ticas lost by a 3-0 scoreline and picked up one yellow card, then all tiebreakers would be level.

Little did we know exactly that combination of match events would occur over 90 minutes. Three headed goals, two from Shelina Zadorsky and another from Jordyn Huitema, capped off an unmarkable game in the air for the North Americans.

After half-time, Emilie Valenciano was shown a yellow for a sloppy sliding tackle that raked Huitema. The incident was reckless, especially as it could have been detrimental to Costa Rica's future in the Gold Cup.

But Costa Rica were out to win at all costs. Not willing to restrict their game for tiebreakers' sake.

"Before the game, we decided not to talk about yellow cards, we decided to face the game as every game we face," said Costa Rica head coach Beni Rubido, after I asked him about if he prepared for tiebreakers.

"We just said we have to win, this is the only way. Once we were in the game, we had 10 minutes left, we decided to tell the captains: 'Listen, no more yellow cards.'"

For the media in the stadium, and the Costa Rica staff, confusion swelled.

In those moments after the Canada-Costa Rica result it became clear that no one was quite sure what was happening. Rubido himself said that he had been told by a Concacaf official that there would be a "coin toss" if the tiebreakers were even, but he didn't know where or when.

1,375 miles away, in Southern California, Puerto Rico head coach Nat Gonzalez was probably feeling just as bewildered. In theory, he wouldn't even be present to learn his fate.

Even with 'drawing of lots' a certain, there were still two possible outcomes resting on the result of the Paraguay vs. El Salvador match.

If El Salvador won, then Costa Rica would advance as Group C runner-up, Puerto Rico would advance as the second-best third-place finisher and lower-stakes lots would be drawn to decide the seeding in the quarterfinals.

If Paraguay drew or won, then they would leapfrog Costa Rica into the runner-up spot and force a sudden-death elimination drawing of the lots.

Find me some see-through plastic balls

Concacaf officials began to swarm around the corridors of the stadium. Speaking to Costa Rican coaches and staff near the tunnel, it became clear they would not be going back to their hotel any time soon.

Whispers were traveling around of a 'coin toss' set to place after the final match of the group stage but it was speculative. I also learned that Concacaf would be making a statement after the group stage but until then, there was nothing.

In my opinion, it felt clear that without a prior plan for how to draw the lots, the crew on site had to get creative.

I watched one Concacaf official leave the stadium and return with a plastic bag filled with what looked like colourful plastic eggs, balls, or pom poms. About half a dozen or so staff buzzed in and out of the operations room intently. Some on phones, others texting or talking.

Another confederation staffer poked around the back of house boxes in the stadium's offices. Eureka. They discovered plastic see-through footballs with screw-off lids, possibly for hospitality suites.

Soon a big plastic bowl was being recovered from the very same stadium offices and the officials once again burrowed their way into a private room to discuss the procedure with their scavenged goods.

What the big plastic bowl's original purpose was, and what it was doing in the Houston Dynamo office, I don't know. But it became irrelevant. Now it was a vessel for two nations' destinies. An artifact of footy admin.

Next, the broadcast staff appeared. Cables, a tripod, and a camera bundled into the media conference room, that was still open to myself and others.

About 10 minutes later, the main Concacaf official appeared with the bowl. It was starting to happen.

To match the administrative chaos unraveling in the bowels of Eado soccer stadium in Houston, action on the pitch above stirred. Paraguay took an early lead via a contentious penalty call. Jess Martinez's goal meant they were advancing.

However, it swung back the other way. In the second half, El Salvador stormed ahead with two goals in 15 minutes – their first-ever strikes in the tournament – and fates changed drastically. Now Paraguay were set to be knocked out.

Sam Fisher scores El Salvador's first-ever W Gold Cup goal | Salvador Quijada

But the shock lead for La Selecta didn't last long. To the chagrin of the partisan El Salvadorian crowd, minutes after going behind, Paraguay drew level from the penalty spot yet again via Martinez.

As I was dashing to and fro, from down in the basement offices and to above on pitch level, I tried to learn what I could sneaking around staff and report back.

Regrettably, I actually missed El Savlador's second goal. I had to try and stay abreast of everything as it unraveled.

In the dying moments of injury time, Martinez completed her hat-trick with a thumping header at the back post while suspended high up in the air.

With both results concluded, it was confirmed, that we would be 'drawing lots' tonight in Houston with tournament elimination on the line.

All media and official representatives in the building crammed into the press conference room that had been filled with both television cameras and the cohort of match photographers.

There, Carlos Fernandez, Chief Football Operations Officer stood with Tamara Hall, a Concacaf match commissioner from Turks and Caicos. The latter was tasked with the surreal task of choosing who would advance.

The excitement in the room bubbled. No one had ever experienced anything like this. History was coming. Not since 2000 had there been a similar act of chance deciding fates in Concacaf.

Nervous energy emanated around the room as well, though. Hall looked quite timid and edgy. Pressing the palms of her hands into her face and taking deep breaths.

Fernandez softly uttered some words of encouragement to Hall, some advice to look at the cameras and show the name of the nation. After that, we were on. It was live on CBS Golazo Network.


The 'drawing of the lots' to decide who would advance to the quarterfinals | Courtesy of Concacaf

Upon seeing Hall select Costa Rica, that nation's staff and officials leapt in the air, clapped and then swiftly charged out of the press conference room without speaking to anyone. Likely to zip off straight back to their hotel after three hours of waiting.

Concacaf took no questions about the event, but allowed us to go up to the table and view the balls and the pieces of paper.

For all the excitement leading up, the drawing of the lots was an odd affair. Quick. Awkward. Unfair?

Puerto Rico played valiantly at the 2024 W Gold Cup, and are packing their suitcases thanks to misfortune from some second hand plastics.

Football being determined by football would have felt more right that what we witnessed on Wednesday night. But the comedic budget awkwardness of it all was charming in its own way. It was 'so Concacaf' as they say.

More than anything, it was a sly reminder of how silly this game we obsess about can feel sometimes. How down to earth it is. Tactile, childish.

It was also a reminder of how important it is to report on all that. To show up and be there to capture it. Everything you can. The stories, the moments.

What a surreal night of footy history. Lore and disorder.

NEXT: The knockout rounds