OTF’s Austin Fido revisits a sweaty, emotional, and thrilling climax to the Hex…
What a night.
The last round of the Hexagonal was hell-for-leather football which changed CONCACAF utterly: Tico helped Catracho; Panamanian soccer forgot about time-wasting; there will soon be an unusual number of children named “Graham” in Mexico.
Yes, in the end, the Hex finished exactly as it had looked when the final games kicked off: Honduras took the third guaranteed ticket to Brazil; Mexico moved on to the playoff; Panama didn’t. Still, CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying finale was a bravura performance: three simultaneous matches, three teams never entirely certain of their fate — until it all seemed settled, which is when it all changed again.
Each game had its own confounding narrative. In Jamaica, Los Catrachos twice took the lead to support the notion they were too good to risk their World Cup spot by losing to the Reggae Boyz. However, they twice surrendered that lead through baffling acts of ineptitude (first an own goal, next a penalty), to suggest they might require Costa Rica’s assistance in stifling El Tri’s comeback from the brink of elimination.
Los Ticos, however, had scarcely bothered to turn up for their prior match with Honduras. So it was surprising when Costa Rica came flying out of the blocks against Mexico, clearly relishing the chance to condemn a regional soccer superpower to the hinterland of providing friendly opposition to Brazil-bound teams. They brought a fight the Mexicans were not prepared for, taking a 64th minute lead they would never surrender, thereby easing Los Catrachos’ worries and leaving a door open for Panama to make it to the World Cup for the first time in history.
All Los Canaleros needed to do was beat USMNT in Panama City, a surprising but not impossible result which seemed certain after Luis Tejada put the home team ahead in the 85th minute of the match. It seemed even more certain when Jaime Penedo turned a relatively routine save into a minute-long visit from the physio, to while away the final moments of regular time. All teams have ways of running down the clock to protect a result; few are as proficient in the art of time-wasting as Panama.
At least, that was my impression of Los Canaleros until, in the second minute of injury time, with about 90 seconds left in the most important match of their country’s football history, they inexplicably quit on themselves.
Seeking to win by keeping the ball in the opposition’s half, Tejada dribbled into traffic outside the American penalty area, but having surrendered possession, Panama stopped trying. No one stepped up to try to prevent USMNT essentially walking the ball out of their own half. No one was greatly moved to prevent Sacha Kljestan from switching play over to the left flank. No one bothered to mark Brad Davis.
Davis is a long shot to make the final cut for Brazil, since his greatest skill, superlative crossing, is hardly a weakness in the squad. He’s too slow, and too reliant on his left foot, to really pose a threat to international defenses — unless they don’t defend him at all.
Having already provided typically quality service from a corner for Michael Orozco to snag a goal for USMNT, Davis ran on to the ball in the dying moments of the match with time and space to pick his spot. He put the cross in, Graham Zusi did the rest: equalizer for the Yanks; heartbreak for Panama; El Tri’s star of the 2038 World Cup will be a man named Graham.
There was still time to seal a surprise trip to Brazil, but not for Los Canaleros. Instead, Aron “Alabama Ice” Jóhannsson netted the winner for USMNT, and his first international goal, to further boost his chances of making Jürgen Klinsmann’s final 23 next summer.
It was the latest triumph in Klinsi’s near-infallible 2013. Minutes earlier, he was presumably bracing for a barrage of criticism from south of the border: bookending the lineup with Brad Guzan and Jozy Altidore did not disguise the fact this was a second-string team for the Yanks. It would have been harsh criticism, since El Tri’s elimination would have been due to losing to Costa Rica more than the result in Panama, but it was coming nonetheless.
Not that Jürgie would have cared too much. A head coach must concentrate on his team’s needs, and USMNT needs squad depth more than it needs to be regarded as a staunch competitor in meaningless matches. Somehow, Klinsi emerged from this game with both.
The second-string did not play outstandingly well, but this was a match in which perhaps each individual’s performance was more important than the team. Brad Evans’s transformation into an international right back hit a speed bump: Alberto Quintero is arguably the best left winger in CONCACAF, and he exposed just how much Evans has to learn. Still, one suspects the decision to withdraw Evans for Davis, and have Alejandro Bedoya drop back to defend on the right, had more to do with protecting the work-in-progress than abandoning the project.
The decision to move Bedoya to defense was almost a disaster — a clumsy challenge in the 67th minute would have resulted in a penalty under most circumstances. However, though there may have been tactical reason for the decision (Bedoya’s pace could be seen as a better counter to Quintero than actual defensive ability), it was probably just a risk Klinsi was prepared to take for the benefit of greater priorities.
Other than Evans, who will surely get many further opportunities, there really wasn’t a player whose performance was terrible — or great. Panama’s goals came from defensive breakdowns which could be pinned on an individual (Castillo misplaced a pass! Guzan parried to an opponent!) but were more about the failures of the unit than any single player.
The pattern of Klinsi’s substitutions — Altidore, Mix Diskerud and Evans came off; Terrence Boyd, Davis and Jóhannsson came on — looked a lot like a coach leaving the guys with the most to prove out on the field to learn from their mistakes. Don’t you dare stop trying was the not-so-coded message to the men who finished the match.
Ultimately, it was this continuing competition for places within a settled, but not secure, American squad which doomed Panama’s seemingly unmissable date with Brazil 2014.
Sure, the results on the night were predictable, but that is the joy of Hex: finding new ways to reach a familiar outcome.
OTF’s resident Hex addict, Austin Fido, tweets @canetop.