Neil W. Blackmon
The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying resumes this week, with six matches in a six day span that should add a bit of shape to a “Hex” that through four matches remains rather crowded, save Mexico, who have run out to a massive lead with 10 points. Here’s the Hex table through four matches, with country by country analysis after the standings.
A reminder of the rules: the top three teams automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fourth place team enters a playoff against the fifth place team from the Asian Football Confederation. At present, that would be the winner of a two-leg playoff between Australia and Uzbekistan. Syria’s national team, the subject of this astonishing piece of journalism by Steve Fainaru, are still in position to qualify for that playoff as well.
|Team||Wins||Draws||Losses||Goals For||Goals Against||+/-||Points|
|Trinidad and Tobago||1||0||3||2||6||-4||3|
|* Qualify for playoff|
As you can see, outside of Mexico’s pole position, the Hex is a slog, with only four points separating second place Costa Rica from last place Trinidad and Tobago. Here’s a look at where each country is heading into the June qualifiers.
Games: Thursday vs. Honduras; June 11 vs. United States
Summer Outlook: Mexico have ten points, a gold-medal winning generation of youth players entering their primes, a highly competitive domestic league surging in popularity, and a summer schedule that, if all goes well, will see El Tri play 15 games in 50 days. Yet thanks to one of the world’s most rabid, demanding and yes, wonderful, fan bases, the sense is that El Tri are one poor result away from being in total disarray.
Such is life for the bookish but sartorially splendid Juan Carlos Osorio, the manager they call “Professorio”, who in addition to navigating the waters of the upcoming two World Cup qualifiers will see manage both the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup, likely with entirely different sides, over the course of the next two months. Osorio has preached patience throughout his tenure, an almost-quixotic undertaking in Mexican soccer circles, and one made harder given the team’s performances. The side’s surprise win in Columbus last November showed Mexico were mentally past last summer’s Copa America knock-out stage shellacking at the hands of Chile, and the form and attacking options at his disposal give El Tri as many ways to beat you as they’ve ever had. The people are ready to win, and win now.
Still, fifteen games in fifty days is a daunting task for even a nation with a player pool the size of Mexico’s, and one of Osorio’s largest challenges this summer will be managing who plays what competition and how many minutes is too many minutes.
The good news- or the bad news- depending on your perspective about how Mexico’s players react to the constant media scrutiny at home- is that the summer opens with two qualifiers at home in the Estadio Azteca, against Honduras Thursday evening and the United States, on short-rest for television purposes, Sunday night.
El Tri enter the pair of matches healthy, and with in-form stars like Carlos Vela and Carlos Salcedo coming off terrific seasons in Europe and mainstays Chicharito, Rafa Marquez and Andres Guardado all in the fold.
El Tri took only one point from the United States in the last Hex, and would love nothing more than to take all six points from their northern rivals this time around.
Expectation: This might be the best Mexican national team ever assembled. Anything less than six points will be scrutinized, and a loss this week, especially to the Americans in Azteca, would send the local press into a frenzy. Six points would also all but stamp El Tri’s passport to Russia next summer.
Games: Thursday vs. Panama; June 13 vs. Trinidad and Tobago
Summer Outlook: Oscar Ramirez and the Ticos, like Mexico, will benefit from two home qualifying matches over the next week. Unlike El Tri, they’re only on seven points and will want to take full advantage of their home field advantage over the next two matches or risk complicating what to this point has been a rather simple qualifying journey.
Kaylor Navas is back in the fold off another Real Madrid Champions League victory, and the Galacticos keeper is of course capable of keeping Costa Rica in any game, home or away. The Ticos are traditionally very difficult to beat at home, as any American fan who watched their demolition of the United States last November will attest. But for the first time in a couple of years, this is a team with several questions.
Bryan Ruiz is pondering a MLS move after a season of discontent at Sporting Portugal, and his flirtations, being reported in the home press, are perhaps a bit more aggressive than they were when he departed Fulham. Enigmatic forward Joel Campbell appears finally headed out of Arsenal, with multiple Turkish teams among those interested. Giancarlo Gonzalez’s future in Italy is in flux after his side Palermo were relegated from Serie A. Yeltsin Tejada struggled to find minutes in Switzerland.
And while an influx of Costa Ricans to MLS has improved the league, it has hurt clubs back at home that relied on star domestic players to generate ticket sales and monies for their academy teams. Costa Rica is a financially sound federation, by CONCACAF standards. But it is also a nation that develops much of its own talent before exporting it elsewhere. Whether MLS helps, or hurts that process long-term, is a subject of debate within the country’s soccer circles, especially as the core of the 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist side ages.
As such, La Sele entered two vital home matches with some lingering questions. And given the back end of their qualification schedule- with matches at the USA and at home against Mexico lying in wait- they’ll not want to leave much for chance this week.
Expectation: The Ticos still field perhaps the second-best starting 11 in CONCACAF. Panama are tricky to break down, and the games between these two nations are always fiercely-contested and chippy affairs. But six points ought to be the expectation out of this pair of fixtures, and if they achieve that goal, the Ticos will nearly have their ticket punched for Russia.
Games: Thursday at Costa Rica; June 13 vs. Honduras
Summer Outlook: Grant Wahl was nearly correct when he, along with TYAC, predicted that the frenetic and free-wheeling Los Canaleros would break through and qualify for the country’s first World Cup four years ago ahead of Brazil 2014. The rest of the story is fairly well-known: with a playoff against a very beatable New Zealand side waiting in the wings, Panama needed only to close out the United States at home to advance. Instead, Graham Zusi scored late, rescuing Mexico from World Cup qualifying humiliation and sending a dejected Panama out of the tournament.
Panama impressed in a home draw against the Yanks in March, and could have easily won, creating better chances in the second half. But they played inexplicably poor soccer in Port-of-Spain days earlier, falling to Trinidad and Tobago by a flattering score of 1-0 and never appearing competitive.
Hernán Darío Gómez replaced the Dely Valdes brothers in part to assure the side attacked and possessed the ball with more verve, the notion being if they could keep the ball a bit better they may play better outside the friendly confines of Estadio Rommel Fernandez. It appeared to work, especially in the 2015 Gold Cup, where Panama outplayed nearly every team they lined up against, and were a horrendous Mark Geiger day away from being finalists. How Hernán Darío Gómez managed to rally his side to dominate a hapless US, ultimately winning in penalties, days later for third, remains impressive.
Gómez consistently says the future is bright for Panama as a footballing nation, and it is hard to argue the point, especially with young players like Miguel Camargo of NYCFC, Edgar Bárcenas, now playing in Croatia, and Porto product Ismael Diaz all 23 and under and in the fold. The question is whether the soul of this team, still led by Roman Torres, Alberto Quintero and Jaime Penedo, can do enough to keep the team in the top three or four over the next six matches.
Expectation: Panama expects to qualify for a World Cup sooner, not later. Three points won’t be easy over this set of fixtures, especially with Honduras desperate to make up ground. But three points is the expectation and if Panama want to enter the fall in a solid position, it should be expected.
Games: Thursday vs. Trinidad and Tobago; June 11 at Mexico
Summer Outlook: Gold Cups are nice, and this one, given the 40 man preliminary roster released last weekend by Bruce Arena, should be a joy to observe, with plenty of new and exciting faces entering the fray for the Americans. But the key to this summer will be the next two matches, both at altitude, that couldn’t be any more different. The first, against an athletic, counterattacking Trinidad and Tobago, is one the US should win, having never lost to the Soca Warriors on US soil in the 28 years of match history between the two nations. The second, well- you all know what the second one is, and it’s as big as they come. The challenge for Bruce Arena will be to keep his team focused on the dangerous Soca Warriors ahead of their Sunday rivals, and then prepare for the immense obstacles presented by Mexico and Azteca, a challenge compounded by the short rest and the altitude that will test his side’s fitness and physicality.
Expectation: Make no mistake, as good as the four point return the US secured in the March qualifiers was, the US still has a long road back to feel secure in qualifying for next year’s tournament. A playoff against Australia, the most likely scenario at present, is far from a guarantee. The US need three points Thursday night – in fact – they likely need nine points from the remaining three home qualifying fixtures to feel secure. This isn’t anything the Americans haven’t done before. It’s just that as I wrote last September, CONCACAF, for all the ways it remains the same, is different now. It’s harder. The soccer is better. The margins are thinner. Don’t believe me? Look at the Hex standings and see the Americans sitting fourth.
Games: Thursday at Mexico, June 13th at Panama
Summer Outlook: Jorge Luis Pinto’s project to usher in a new era of glory to Honduran soccer is going a bit slower than anyone anticipated. There have been incredible moments of promise- like the side’s stunning fourth place finish at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. But there have also been some head-scratching performances, like Los Catrachos 6-0 defeat to the United States this past March. Pinto has the bona fides and global reputation of a defensive mastermind, and leading tiny Costa Rica to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals proved it. It was the reason the Honduran federation found the money to hire him, and the reason for the nearly universal optimism surrounding Honduras soccer last autumn, especially after they earned a late and hard-fought draw at Mexico. Whether he was surprised by how Bruce Arena’s side played an aggressive high line or not, for a side managed by Pinto, at any level, to concede six goals in a game was astonishing.
Pinto hasn’t shied away from the criticism, however. Promising to play better, he told TYAC last week that the team he will take on the road “won’t sit back. “We will pressure on the opposition, with the ball on the deck, aggressive, balanced in all senses of the word, tactically ordered, good on the ball, smart in transitions. This is how we will respond.”
Still, two games, on the road, including a trip to Azteca, aren’t the easiest way to get back into the mix. Captain Maynor Figueroa told Jon Arnold of Goal.com he felt the team could quickly get back into the mix- but mostly that will depend on Pinto’s younger charges, the talented core of the U23 Olympic side that made so much noise. The future might be bright for Honduras. It also may not be now.
Expectation: A point in Panama would keep the central American nation’s hope of a playoff afloat heading into the fall. This is a side that will be a brutally tough out down the road, as the young and talented sides mature, but whether they can grind out road qualifying points will likely dictate their Russian World Cup future.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Games: Thursday at USA; June 13th at Costa Rica
Summer Outlook: There’s no Gold Cup for Trinidad and Tobago, who sent less than a full-side to qualify and failed. Meanwhile, there continues to be a rift and political conflict between the players and the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation over finances, namely, the monies owed to the players from the March qualifiers, including bonuses for the home qualifying win against Panama. The conflict was thought solved when T & T switched federation leadership last year, dispatching Raymond Tim Kee in favor of David John-Williams but, according to a report by Trinidad journalist Lasana Liburd, the players became disgruntled again this past week when word leaked out that the federation would spend money to prop up the administrative costs of the failing domestic league rather than pay the players. Federation President David John-Williams says that money from the FIFA coffers can’t line players pockets, but in candor, that’s a tough sell in a nation that produced soccer boogeyman Jack Warner.
This is all a shame because on the pitch, under Dennis Lawrence, the side’s third manager this cycle, the Soca Warriors were beginning to play lovely football. Lawrence reintegrated Minnesota United star Kevin Molino into the team to give it attacking bite through the center, and with fullback/winger Joevin Jones, the Soca Warriors boasted two of the most electric counterattacking pieces in MLS. Couple those players with the speedy Cordell Cato and well-credentialed target man Kenwyne Jones, and you have yourself a contender.
Unfortunately, the latest rift appears to have eliminated Cato, who was sent home from camp for “insubordination”, leaving the side without another one of their more effective MLS faces. They’ve defended well at home throughout the Hex, and were unlucky to have a clear Molino goal somehow called offside against Mexico in March, in a game that should have caught Bruce Arena’s attention on film. Nonetheless, if you can neutralize Jones, you largely just have to avoid being beaten by Molino and Jones, which while no small feat, isn’t overwhelming either, especially given the difficulties the Soca Warriors have retaining the ball in the center of the pitch.
Expectation: Expectations are minimal on the two island republics ahead of these road fixtures. The best hope for the Soca Warriors may have already been lost when the referee made the poor decision that cost the team at least a point against Mexico, perhaps all three. If they could grab an early goal in either of these two games, they may have a chance. But the reality is these are two brutal venues, and in the first one, Trinidad and Tobago will meet a very desperate team.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon and reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.