USMNT: A Six-sided View of the Hexagonal

Six have entered. Three will leave. Who will do the samba in 2014? (image: ultra.com.mx)

Six have entered. Three will leave. Who will do the samba in 2014? (image: ultra.com.mx)

OTF’s Austin Fido casts an eye over the runners and riders heading into the second phase of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying…

The Hex is back! CONCACAF’s six-handed, just-about-everybody-wins-in-the-end, not-quite-as-competitive-as-they’d-like-you-to-think, World Cup Qualifying final round (except for whichever team has to play New Zealand) has returned for another three chapters of triumph and disaster. The last skirmishes in March produced a competitive race: just three points separated first and last place after three games.

But that’s about to change. The next set of matches will take us past the halfway point of this competition. No team will be mathematically eliminated from qualification this month, but we will have a pretty good idea of what is wheat and what is chaff in the current crop of CONCACAF World Cup wannabes by the morning of June 19th.

Here’s a look at each squad’s prospects in this sequence of matches, and beyond…

Costa Rica

Hex Points after 3 games played: 4

Goals For: 4   Goals Against: 3

June Schedule:

6/7 – vs. Honduras

6/11 – @ Mexico

6/18 – vs. Panama

Los Ticos warmed up for this round of the Hex with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Canada in Edmonton, but that was largely a run-out for the second-string. The reigning Copa Centroamericana (CCA) champions will expect to take a big step toward Brazil 2014 during June.

(Image: wikipedia.com)

(Image: wikipedia.com)

Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz are perhaps the biggest names in the squad, but there’s also emerging talent in players like Joel Campbell—the Arsenal prospect whose performances on loan at Real Betis got him a mention on Tuttosport’s “Golden Boy” long list in 2012. No, it’s not what you think—it’s for the best U-21 players in Europe. Get your mind out of the gutter.

And there’s Diego Calvo, who had the misfortune to make his international debut in the Colorado snow. His second cap was against Jamaica, where he provided a rather wonderful example of what he can do when the pitch is actually playable:

Nor should we forget Rodney Wallace. If he can bring his Timbers’ form to the service of his country, coach Jorge Luis Pinto will be indebted to Portland. Or at least to Caleb Porter.  A statue might be appropriate, but Porter seems a modest chap and he’d likely settle for a couple of tickets to Brazil.

Fourteen points should be enough to secure at least fourth place, and Los Ticos have no reason to fear a playoff with New Zealand, if that’s what it takes. June is their chance to separate from the pack and lay claim to automatic World Cup qualification.

Right now they have four points, and the aim must be to make it ten by the end of this sequence of matches. Anything less and the path to Brazil starts to look uncomfortable. Their last four games in the Hex include visits from USMNT and El Tri, and a trip to Honduras.

But this is a team in control of its own destiny. The schedule has decreed that now is the time for Costa Rica to rack up points. All they have to do is beat Honduras at home—just like they did in the CCA final in January. A draw in Mexico, if El Tri are still goal-shy in Azteca, would be nice. And they’ll need a win against Panama back in Estadio Nacional.

Honduras

Hex Points after 3 games played: 4

Goals For: 4    Goals Against: 5

June Schedule:

6/7 – @ Costa Rica

6/11 – vs. Jamaica

6/18 – @ USA

Los Catrachos are the boys most fancy as the likeliest to break the USA-Mexico CONCACAF duopoly enjoyed a great start to the Hex at Estadio Olimpico. Beating USMNT 2-1 was impressive, and fighting back from two goals down for a draw against Mexico showed fortitude.

(Image: wikipedia.com)

(Image: wikipedia.com)

But they folded in Panama City, going down 2-0 to a team that has the distinction of being the last visitor to win a competitive international match in Honduras. Panama won 2-0 last June in San Pedro de Sula during the third round of World Cup Qualifying. (NOTE: The Hex is technically the fourth round. CONCACAF qualifying takes a while.)

Honduras lost their pre-Hex warm-up in New York to Israel by the same score-line. No shame in losing to Israel, as they could yet deny Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal a trip to Brazil next year. But this loss adds to the suspicion that Los Catrachos are the Vancouver Whitecaps of CONCACAF: don’t lose at home, can’t win away – unless they play New York Red Bulls, that is. RBNY won’t be playing in the Hex though.

Don't be mad, Victor. It's just an opinion. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

Don’t be mad, Victor. It’s just an opinion. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

Honduras has played eight games this year and only won two (one of the wins was against Belize). Sure, they are overwhelming favorites to beat Jamaica on June 11 at home, and yes, they can ride home form all the way to World Cup qualification. But they’re not playing like the favorites for automatic qualification that we are told they are. And if they get taken down by Costa Rica on June 7, and roll over for USMNT on June 18, it may be time to start betting against Los Catrachos going to Brazil.

Jamaica

Hex Points after 4 games played: 2

Goals For: 1   Goals Against: 4

June Schedule:

6/4 – vs. Mexico (lost 1-0)

6/7 – vs. USA

6/11 – @ Honduras

The June portion of their Hex schedule should kill any chance of Jamaica making the World Cup. It’s not just that they have to play three matches in seven days, they have to play three of their hardest matches in those seven days.

(image: silhouettes1979.com)

(image: silhouettes1979.com)

The Reggae Boyz have home advantage for the first two games, but those are against the two strongest teams in the group: Mexico and USMNT. Then, they must visit Honduras. W

We’ve already seen what happened against Mexico: Jamaica was hard-working, stuck to their game plan, and almost tied a game they should have lost heavily. It was a performance that does not augur well for the remaining games because it suggests Coach Theodore Whitmore cannot compensate for his players’ lack of quality with proper tactics. Plus, the Reggae Boyz did themselves few favors with their preparation for these matches.

El Tri tuned up with a friendly against Nigeria. Team USA hosted Belgium and Germany. Honduras took on Israel. But the Jamaica Football Federation decided to set their guys up against Tottenham Hotspur, in the Bahamas. That ended 0-0 and was followed by a cancelled friendly against the Bahamian national team. 

Being the excuse for a Premiership footballer’s Caribbean holiday is not the best preparation for a national team looking to qualify for the World Cup.

All this is a shame, really. Back in February, Jamaica looked like they could be the feel-good story of the Hex. Whitmore was a big part of the Reggae Boyz squad that went to the World Cup in 1998. It could be quite extraordinary if he and his countrymen could return to the tournament in 2014. It looked possible in February when the Reggae Boyz walked out of Azteca with a point – a match they arguably should have won. Add that result to the 2-1 home win over USMNT in the previous qualifying round, and it seemed there was a new contender in the Hex.

Tappa (photo: tropigol.com)

Tappa (photo: tropigol.com)

Unfortunately, now even fourth place looks out of reach because even a good, experienced coach needs good, experienced players. Moreover, Jamaica’s squad has been wrecked by injury, circumstance, and whatever is going on between Whitmore and Luton Shelton – Jamaica’s all-time leading scorer who was dropped for the June qualifiers.

Back-line stalwarts Jermaine Taylor and Demar Phillips are injured, joining long-term casualty Nyron Nosworthy. The erratic Dane Richards is also hobbled at the moment, as is Jermaine Johnson. Jobi Macanuff has withdrawn for personal reasons.

Happier times for Jamaica. (image: oregonlive.com)

Happier times for Jamaica. (image: oregonlive.com)

Against El Tri on June 4th, Tappa sent out a new back-line: 18-year-old Alvas Powell, still attending high school in Jamaica; 28-year-old Daniel Gordon, fresh from helping Karlsruher SC win promotion from the German third division; O’Brian Woodbine, who yo-yos in and out of the squad; and Adrian Mariappa, the only part of the Reggae Boyz’ back four from that heroic night at Azteca who is fit to play.

Up front, Whitmore started Ryan Johnson for the first time since the miracle in Mexico; presumably encouraged by the form Caleb Porter has unearthed in Portland and partly because he has very few other options. A vocal band of Jamaican supporters would have liked to see local scoring champion Jermaine “Tuffy” Anderson in the team, but the coach isn’t ready to chase popularity instead of points, yet. Instead, he recalled Darren Mattocks – who has two goals in 10 appearances for Vancouver Whitecaps this season. And Jeremie Lynch, who’s scored five times in his last four league games – for Harbour View FC in the Jamaican Premier League.

That, plus a core of diligent, but limited favorites (Jermaine Beckford, Rodolph Austin, Marvin Elliott, Jermaine Hue, Garath McCleary, Je-Vaughn Watson) is what Jamaica has to try to keep their World Cup hopes alive past June 11th.

The Jamaica Gleaner‘s pre-match report described the Reggae Boyz as a team for whom “the major worries concern scoring and defense”. The match against El Tri confirmed these are indeed major worries.

If Tappa can find a way to channel these resources into even one point from the upcoming games, it will be the coaching achievement of the summer.

Mexico

Hex Points after 4 games played: 6

Goals For: 3  Goals Against: 2

June Schedule:

6/4 – @ Jamaica (won 1-0)

6/7 – @ Panama

6/11 – vs. Costa Rica

Here’s a trivia question for you: Until they played in Kingston on June 4th, how many matches had El Tri won in 2013?

(image: associationfootball.wikia.com)

(image: wikipedia.org)

That’s right, none.

Six games played, six games tied. Only two of those were in Azteca, but both finished 0-0. The Mexican national team can’t hold on to a lead. They scored first against Denmark, Honduras, and Nigeria,  but drew all three games. They can’t score at home. They can’t win convincingly anywhere. 

Of course El Tri is going to Brazil next year. The only question is whether that journey will be a triumphant demolition of their regional rivals’ ambitions, or a humbling stumble into the playoff with New Zealand. Given the talent in the squad the latter would be a disgrace, but we’d still see Mexico in the draw for the 2014 World Cup finals nonetheless.

Maybe I can understand why El Tri are so distracted by their home crowd. (photo: newssantaana.com)

Maybe I can understand why El Tri are so distracted by their home crowd. (photo: newssantaana.com)

It’s not going to come to that though. They may not be outrageously successful at the moment, but at least they can score regularly away from home. It doesn’t matter that El Tri struggled to put Jamaica away and were only spared embarrassment by the outstanding work of Jose de Jesus Corona. They’ll still probably get three points in Panama. And then we’ll see whether the team can settle its nerves in front of the home crowd and at least get a goal against Costa Rica in Azteca.

For the likes of Mexico and USMNT, the good thing about the Hex is that you can get through it without ever finding your best any form. The bad thing is that you don’t get very far in the World Cup that way.

But Brazil is still a year or so away. For now, the focus is the Hex. Anything less than six points for El Tri from the June fixtures would be an exceptional disaster. But it still wouldn’t stop them from qualifying.

Panama 

Hex Points after 3 games played: 5

Goals For: 5   Goals Against: 3

June Schedule:

6/7 – vs. Mexico

6/11 – @ USA

6/18 – @ Costa Rica

Top of the Hex after three games, Panama doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go but down – in June at least. The slide has already started, as they were pushed to second in the table by Mexico’s win over Jamaica.

(image: wikipedia.com)

(image: wikipedia.com)

This month, they will have to play Mexico (at home) and USMNT (away), and then take a trip to Costa Rica. Zero points gained seems the most likely outcome from the next three matches. Despite being unbeaten in the Hex to date, their form in the competition has looked suspect.

Panama was 2-0 up and cruising at home against Costa Rica, then coughed up two late goals and two points. They went down a goal against Jamaica in Kingston, and were perhaps fortunate that injured Nyron Nosworthy left the field and took the Reggae Boyz defensive plans with him. They did put it together against Honduras though, winning 2-0 in Panama City. But Panama always seems to get something against Honduras these days, with two wins and two draws out of their last four tussles with Los Catrachos – none of which were friendlies.

You. Shall. Not. Pass. (image: diez.hn)

You. Shall. Not. Pass. (image: diez.hn)

Here’s what ultimately could be Panama’s saving grace: they are an up-and-down team in a Hex that has a lot of up-and-down teams and they seem to have the number of the consensus pick for third-best team in the region. Until Peru came to Panama and won (2-1 on June 1st), Los Canaleros hadn’t lost a game in 2013. Moreover, their progress in Copa Centroamericana this year was halted by the drawing of lots.

If Panama can keep outwitting Honduras, and catch USMNT or Mexico on an off-day, they could cobble together enough points to get to Brazil. Sentimentally, I hope they do. I’m a big Felipe Baloy fan.

But I think they’ll still have five points in the Hex at the end of June, and nine points from their last four games will be too much to ask.

USA

Hex Points after 3 games played: 4

Goals For: 2  Goals Against: 2

June Schedule:

6/7 – @ Jamaica

6/11 – vs. Panama

6/18 – vs. Honduras

USMNT has already played its two toughest games in the Hex: Honduras in San Pedro de Sula and Mexico in Azteca. One point from those matches is one point better than most expected. A true catastrophe, narrowly avoided, would have been less than three points against Costa Rica.

(image: soccerbyives.net)

(image: soccerbyives.net)

Having skirted disaster, the Yanks are now favorites to win every game they’ll play during the rest of World Cup Qualifying. That doesn’t mean they will win every game though. In fact, they almost certainly won’t. But confidence is testament to the near certainty of US qualification for Brazil 2014.

The objective for the next three games is seven to nine points. But if they don’t get that many, it doesn’t mean USMNT can’t qualify. 

The moment Herculez Gomez decided he'd only come back to MLS for DP money (image: usatoday.com)

The moment Herculez Gomez decided he’d only come back to MLS for DP money (image: usatoday.com)

The real question we hope to see addressed in qualifying is whether this US team is likely to do any better than previous US teams have done in the World Cup. Furthermore, which of the two teams in the Hex other than Mexico and USMNT will take the third (and fourth) CONCACAF spots in the tournament?

The latter will be answered conclusively before the end of the year. The former is a matter we hopefully won’t see resolved until July 4th weekend, 2014, when the quarterfinals of Brazil 2014 are played out in front of billions.

OTF contributor Austin Fido is hoping for more than the usual amount of US soccer on Independence Day 2014. Follow him on Twitter @canetop

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