World Cup Preview: 2014 Semifinal Round, Matchday 3
Posted on September 7, 2012 2:55 pm
How much panic is justifiable after a rough start? Following the first two matchdays of the semifinal round in June, Honduras and El Salvador found themselves in third place in their respective groups, three points away from safety, with fans from both countries openly worrying about a premature end to their World Cup campaigns. Fortunately, thanks to the home-and-away setup over the next five days (not quite a novelty as Michael Lewis of CONCACAF claims, since the top two seeds in the elementary round did the same last November), the two sides above each of them will battle for points, while the Central Americans attempt to harvest all six from the Caribbean weak links in their groups. Their first chance to pull themselves back in contention will come later today; before considering their particular plights, here are the fixtures, with group and home team listed first (all times EDT).
Friday, September 7:
C – Cuba vs. Honduras, 3:00 p.m.
C – Canada vs. Panama, 7:30 p.m.
A – Jamaica vs. USA, 8:00 p.m.
B – El Salvador vs. Guyana, 9:30 p.m.
A – Guatemala vs. Antigua and Barbuda, 10:00 p.m.
B – Costa Rica vs. Mexico, 10:00 p.m.
Those of you who have followed the staggered introduction of beIN SPORT in the United States are already aware that the Jamaica-USA match will only be available to those who have the English version of the new soccer network with DirecTV or DISH (Comcast subscribers like me will either have to wait until midnight for the Spanish-language replay or follow along with ussoccer.com‘s Match Tracker). Fortunately, RPC TV will cover Canada-Panama, so accessing that game should be more straightforward. Finally, Costa Rica’s Canal 6 will carry their showdown with Mexico, as well as Telemundo in the US (I presume that those of you in Mexico will have no problem finding the match).
Curiously, all six of the teams currently in position to qualify for the Hexagonal will face off against each other. In Group A, Jamaica and the United States will attempt to avoid a fifth-straight stalemate in Kingston, as they compete for first place and to avoid being overtaken by a possible Guatemalan surge, with Antigua and Barbuda likely to fare as poorly against the chapines as St. Lucia and Suriname before them. Meanwhile, Panama already have designs of clinching a spot in the final round of qualifying, as a draw or victory against Canada will allow them to remain on top of Group C ahead of the return leg in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez on Tuesday. Honduras will need all three points from Cuba in order to keep pace; but bear in mind, the Leones del Caribe have not lost to Central American opposition in Havana (in World Cup qualifying) since 1988. Both Canada and Panama struggled to extract a positive result from the Cubans; and unless Jerry Bengtson and co. break Honduras’s scoring drought in this World Cup, the catrachos could find themselves well behind the pack.
El Salvador have a somewhat easier assignment, given Guyana’s lack of experience with away games in Central America. Should they play to their potential and snatch maximum points, even more pressure will be piled upon their direct competition for World Cup survival.
MATCH OF THE ROUND
As the Mexican press has gleefully reminded us in the last few days, Costa Rica have failed to beat Mexico even once since the famous Aztecazo of 2001. Given the current sub-par state of the ticos, rich in international experience but lacking in on-field leadership and drive, one is hard-pressed to see Alvaro Saborio and co. overcoming what may well prove to be the best Mexican national team of all time. Between the Gold Cup-winning team and the Olympic gold-medalists, “Chepo” de la Torre has a wealth of talent and depth from which to draw his starting 11; and after the pummeling Costa Rica received in their last two competitive matches against the aztecas, a home victory appears a highly unlikely outcome. Even a tie, combined with a draw or defeat in Mexico City, will provide El Salvador the opportunity to overtake them by Tuesday’s end, in which case the Costa Ricans would face direct elimination when they travel to the Estadio Cuscatlan in October. Rather than their neighbors in the Northern Triangle, they arguably face the greatest obligation to win, or missing out on the Hex for the first time will become a distinct possibility.
Finally, a quick aside on one of the tournaments feeding into the 2013 Gold Cup: this year’s Caribbean Cup kicked off on Wednesday in Martinique, with the first round set to take place over the next two months. We will focus in once teams get closer to reaching the continental stage, but it is worth mentioning that a Group of Death will commence today, featuring Haiti (group host and 2006 Caribbean champion), Puerto Rico (they of the close defeat to Spain) and Bermuda (Trinidad and Tobago’s bogey team). Only two of them will reach the last round of qualifying; and with Saint-Martin most likely to serve as the group minnow, any one of the three protagonists could crash out of the competition far earlier than expected.
On a related note, let me suggest an adjustment to the World Cup cycle I proposed on the premise that CONCACAF receives six permanent guest spots in the Copa América from 2019 on. The Caribbean Football Union appears committed to the current format for the Caribbean Cup, in which the host and defending champion await six qualifiers in the eight-team Finals. In my proposal, the two finalists from the first Caribbean Cup would be exempt from the second one, as they will have already qualified for the Gold Cup. In order to retain the format, the CFU could borrow a page from the Asian Football Confederation and give the “defending champion” spot for the following Caribbean Cup Finals to the winner of the third-place match.
Thus, the hypothetical World Cup cycle from 2018 on would look like this (in chronological order):
Year 1 – 16-team Copa América / first rounds of WC qualifying
Year 2 – Repesca Centroamericana 1 / Gold Cup / semifinal round of WC qualifying, 1st Caribbean Cup 2
Year 3 – Hexagonal 3 / Confederations Cup
Year 4 – Copa Centroamericana 4 / World Cup / 2nd Caribbean Cup 5
1 – Copa Centroamericana finalists and third-place exempted, two qualify for the Gold Cup held in the same year.
2 – Top two qualify for the following Gold Cup.
3 – All six qualify for the Copa América.
4 – Top three qualify for the Gold Cup.
5 – Previous finalists exempted, previous third place automatically qualifies for Finals; two finalists qualify for the Gold Cup.