USMNT: Hex Is Back! Penultimate Round Preview
OTF’s resident CONCACAF-obsessive, Austin Fido, returns to consider what each team needs out of the September round of the Hex…
Looking at the Hexagonal table going into the penultimate round of matches, the current positioning seems about right: USMNT, Costa Rica and Mexico are World Cup bound; Honduras will duke it out with New Zealand for a flight to Brazil; Jamaica and Panama are also-rans.
There’s still time, however, for that to change. Mathematically, no team has been eliminated from the Hex going into the September matches. Some (Reggae Boyz) have more to do than others (USMNT), but there’s a helluva scramble brewing for the final automatic qualification spot.
Hex Points: 11
Goals For: 7
Goals Against: 3
9/6 – vs. USMNT
9/10 – @ Jamaica
Los Ticos have lost three matches in 2013: twice to USMNT, once to Honduras, all 1-0. And they’ve kept a clean sheet in every game they’ve won this year. It could be coincidence, but after 17 matches it’s starting to look like a pattern: teams that score against Costa Rica get something out of the game (add score draws with Guatemala and Panama to the aforementioned losses).
Sure, you only lose the games in which you concede. But USMNT has been a goal (or two) down four times this year, and twice bounced back to win. El Tri has lost four times in 2013, but only once without scoring — against Brazil, in Brazil.
After a seven-points-out-of-nine run in the June qualifiers, La Sele is second in the Hex and a favorite for one of CONCACAF’s three guaranteed spots in World Cup 2014. But their remaining four qualification games include visits from USMNT and Mexico, and a trip to Honduras. All teams likely (yes, even El Tri) to find a way past Costa Rica’s defense at least once in 90 minutes.
If they don’t beat the Yanks in San José on September 6th, the following game in Kingston becomes a must-win for Los Ticos. Because without three (ideally, four) points from the next two matches, Costa Rica’s October fixtures will be nail-biters.
As such, the gamesmanship which has fascinated the US media in Costa Rica might not be entirely motivated by bitterness over a snowy night in Colorado. La Sele needs three points more than revenge.
Hex Points: 7
Goals For: 6
Goals Against: 7
9/6 – @ Mexico
9/10 – vs. Panama
Perhaps the biggest story out of the Honduran camp is the recall of Jerry Bengtson. You remember him: he got the winner against USMNT back in the February round of the Hex. But he’s fallen below Chad Barrett on the New England Revolution’s depth chart recently, and he walked out on his national team in June, after being left to watch Los Catrachos’ 2-0 home win over Jamaica from the bench.
Bengtson’s return is important for the only team in the Hex without a point on the road to date (yes, even the Reggae Boyz have outperformed La H in that regard). There is a promising crop of young strikers emerging in Honduras, but Júnior Lacayo, Rony Martínez and Roger Rojas don’t appear quite ready for the step up (only Martínez is in the squad for these qualifiers). Los Catrachos need goals now, and Bengston’s international scoring record (16 goals in 35 appearances) is first rate.
Thanks to Jamaica’s woeful form and Panama’s horrendous schedule, Honduras can likely scramble to at least fourth in the Hex (and a playoff with New Zealand) by simply winning their remaining home games. But the World Cup will not be played at San Pedro de Sula, so Los Catrachos need to figure out how to score goals on the road. Their run to this summer’s Gold Cup semifinals did produce away wins, but no reliable scoring threat. Assuming this team makes it to Brazil, will it have sufficient attacking ability to actually win a game?
Bengtson might not be the answer, but his recall to the national team suggests head coach Luis Fernando Suárez is mindful of the question.
Hex Points: 2
Goals For: 2
Goals Against: 8
9/6 – @ Panama
9/10 – vs. Costa Rica
A year ago, the Reggae Boyz were basking in the glory of a rare win over USMNT, a victory which helped them into the Hex. They opened the final CONCACAF World Cup qualifying round with an extraordinary 0-0 draw at Azteca. And then the wheels fell off Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore’s bandwagon.
Jamaica followed the magnificent point in Mexico with a disappointing draw at home with Panama; since then, they’ve lost four straight. As a consequence, the Reggae Boyz are dead last in the Hex. They still have a mathematical chance of qualifying for the World Cup, but they’d need to win all of their remaining fixtures — which isn’t going to happen.
The Jamaica Football Federation admitted as much by requesting coach Whitmore’s resignation after the June qualifiers. Ever the faithful servant of his country, Tappa obliged. Jamaica will see out the remainder of the Hex under the guidance of Winfried Schäfer. German coaches are all the rage in CONCACAF these days.
With nothing to lose, and a few years in the Caribbean to gain (Schäfer’s future with the JFF will be discussed after the Hex), the new coach has announced his intention to field a 3-5-2 formation. He’s also brought back a couple of guys who fell out of favor under Whitmore — strikers Marlon King and Luton Shelton — and some new faces, defenders Shaun Cummings and Wes Morgan (both experienced pros currently playing in England’s Championship).
If the Reggae Boyz get a deeper player pool out of September, thereby taking an important step toward the 2018 World Cup, they’ve done well. If they win even a single point, they’ve been extraordinary.
Hex Points: 8
Goals For: 3
Goals Against: 2
9/6 – vs. Honduras
9/10 – @ USMNT
There isn’t a huge amount of optimism surrounding a Mexico team making unusually heavy weather of getting to the World Cup. Since 1993, El Tri has never finished lower than second in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers (actually, since 2001, the team has ALWAYS been second).
Chepo de la Torre has his side precariously balanced on the precipice of automatic qualification for Brazil 2014, beneath which lies a playoff against New Zealand. They are the only unbeaten team in the Hex, but five draws in six matches means just a point separates El Tri from a business-as-usual World Cup spot and a somewhat embarrassing trek to the Antipodes to salvage their place at global soccer’s top table.
All of which makes the first match of these September fixtures something of a must-win. Three points will give El Tri the breathing space required to shrug off Los Catrachos’ challenge for the final automatic qualifying position by insulating Mexico against the probability of a fourth straight World Cup qualifying loss to USMNT in Columbus.
If El Tri doesn’t beat Honduras, the prospect of struggling or (whisper it) failing to make it to Brazil becomes more than just sky-is-falling fan panic. It becomes a very real possibility. Chepo does not want to have to go to Ohio or Costa Rica needing a win.
There was a time when El Tri could win CONCACAF qualifying without breaking sweat. To get to the 1998 World Cup, Mexico won the Hex with just 4 wins and 6 draws.
Those days are over. If El Tri drops points against Honduras and USMNT in September, their blood will be in CONCACAF’s qualifying waters. And although Costa Rica and Panama may not be international soccer sharks, they are no longer minnows.
There aren’t too many shocks in the squad called up to get the minimum three points required from the next two matches, unless you are an ardent Mexican nationalist who finds the presence of naturalized citizens (Damián Álvarez and Christian Giménez) troubling. And the pressure isn’t necessarily on those guys anyway, it’s on the forwards. Be it Chicharito Hernández, Giovani dos Santos, Raúl Jiménez, or Oribe Peralta — someone needs to score goals for El Tri in Azteca.
Hex Points: 6
Goals For: 5
Goals Against: 7
9/6 – vs. Jamaica
9/10 – @ Honduras
On paper, Los Canaleros are just one point away from the playoff with New Zealand, merely two points away from automatic qualification for the World Cup. But of their four remaining games, one is in Honduras, one is in Mexico, and one requires hosting Klinsi’s ebullient USMNT. They are favorites to lose all three of those matches, which would render three points from the upcoming home fixture against Jamaica irrelevant.
However, this summer, during an invigorating run to the Gold Cup final, Panama beat Mexico twice. That counts for something, even if it was a second-string El Tri. The world took notice of Los Canaleros’ achievements, pillaging their Gold Cup squad. MLS grabbed ‘keeper Jaime Penedo (LA Galaxy) and striker Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids). La Liga claimed the team’s youth, defender Roberto Chen (Malaga) and attacking midfielder Jairo Jiménez (Elche). Kinetic winger Alberto Quintero is playing for Cuahtemoc Blanco’s team: Lobos de la BUAP, in Ascenso MX. And midfielder Anibal Godoy is now in Hungary with Budapest Honvéd.
All those guys are back with their national team for a make-or-break pair of September Hex matches. Unless they lose both games, Los Canaleros probably won’t be mathematically eliminated from World Cup qualifying this month. Still, they will need four points to retain any realistic hope of playing competitive international football in Brazil next year. Even then, they are very much the least likely of CONCACAF’s five remaining potential World Cup qualifiers.
But they were unlikely Gold Cup finalists also.
Hex Points: 13
Goals For: 7
Goals Against: 3
9/6 – @ Costa Rica
9/10 – vs. Mexico
It’s all working out perfectly for Jürgen Klinsmann. Twelve consecutive wins is an impressive feat for any international team, and this side hasn’t peaked. For fans and coach alike, the make up of USMNT’s “best” eleven has been elusive. The winning streak has effectively been achieved with three teams: the squad that contested the June Hexagonal matches was distinct from the Gold Cup winners, which was different from the largely Europe-based set of guys who staged the extraordinary comeback in Sarajevo.
The September squad, give or take a few injured absentees, is a blend of the three that preceded it, and can justly be considered Klinsi’s “best”, for now. World Cup football next summer is pretty much a certainty — just one win from the remaining four matches should be sufficient. Perhaps more important for Jürgie will be evaluating how these players handle what are essentially the most competitive games remaining on USMNT’s calendar until the World Cup. It is disrespectful to Jamaica and Panama to discount the challenge they will present to the Yanks in October, but so be it: those teams are not as good as Costa Rica or Mexico, recent results notwithstanding. And every match after that will be a friendly, until June.
Klinsi’s 23-man roster for Brazil starts to take shape with these September matches. Guys who do well should expect to keep their place; guys who don’t risk losing their spot to the man behind them on the depth chart. Few coaches will admit to closing the door on any player’s international prospects — because he never knows when that player might come back from Cambodia with renewed vigor. (We’re over that now? Sorry, didn’t get the memo.)
A lot can happen in the eight months between this round of the Hex and the World Cup. But Jürgie’s thoughts on what needs to be fixed for June 2014 will likely be defined by the events of the USMNT’s next 180 minutes of competitive soccer. There’s still time after these games for some relatively radical adjustments to the squad.
As such, while neither of these matches can be called a six-pointer for USMNT’s World Cup hopes, they do count double for each individual player’s ambitions of making the tournament.
OTF’s Austin Fido will miss the Hex when it’s gone. Follow him @canetop.