World Cup 2014: Six Up, Six Down

Posted on October 18, 2012 9:04 pm

If Jack Warner had been more successful, next year’s Hexagonal would never have happened.

To elaborate, if his lobbying efforts within the FIFA Executive Committee had produced four straight World Cup berths for CONCACAF, the corresponding format proposed by Chuck Blazer would have expanded the final round of qualifying to eight teams, split in two groups. Of course, the extra participants in said round would have appreciated the extension of their World Cup campaign; but for the current crop of survivors, a full year of matches against the best competition this region has to offer is far more preferable. Here’s hoping FIFA never extends us an extra half-spot in the finals, as long as the Hex’s demise remains an immediate consequence of their largesse.

As it is, the current qualifying format has worked almost perfectly for everyone involved. The emerging teams got to build up their experience (and FIFA Ranking) with the extra World Cup fixtures; the fruit of this initiative is already in evidence, with two new faces joining the second round of qualifying for the ongoing Caribbean Cup (we will cover them in more detail over the weekend). On the other hand, the teams with realistic aspirations of reaching Brazil got to play fewer games with opponents below their level, facing demanding rivals from the start. The only mistake that should be corrected for the road to Russia 2018 involves the choice of the March 2011 FIFA rankings for seeding teams ahead of the World Cup Preliminary Draw, rather than the most recent one available. Even here, things turned out as they should: the Cuban beneficiaries of CONCACAF’s decision missed out on reaching the Hex, watching as the aggrieved Panamanians sailed right past them.

Before we wrap up World Cup qualifying for the year, I should point out the last Match, Team and Goat of the Round for those who had any doubts…and in one line, no less:

HONDURAS 8-1 CANADA

Now then, a last word on the teams that fell out of contention at the current stage.

Cuba – The Leones del Caribe proved themselves incapable of competing at this level with one underwhelming result after another. Nonetheless, given the number of star players that have defected over the last decade (Osvaldo Alonso, Maykel Galindo, Lester More, Reinier Alcantara and Yordany Alvarez, along with Eduardo Sebrango adopting Canadian citizenship), it is astounding that they have yet to fall from the upper echelon of the Caribbean. They have qualified for every Gold Cup since 2002 (their Federation deliberately opted out of the 2009 edition); the continuation of this streak would either serve as a testament to the quality of their domestic player development or a striking commentary on the mediocre state of Caribbean football.

Guyana – As head coach Jamaal Shabazz put it, “the baby will grow.” The Golden Jaguars exceeded expectations just by reaching this point; and their performances at the Azteca and the Cuscatlan spoke well of Shabazz’s ability to prepare his team for arguably the two most hostile venues in all of CONCACAF. However, the 11 goals they received against Costa Rica, including a 7-0 thrashing at the Estadio Nacional reminiscent of the punishment the ticos dished out on their neighbors Suriname in the last World Cup (as well as Guyanese club Alpha United’s record 8-0 humbling against Herediano in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League), reflect the technical and tactical growth that still must be carried out if Gregory Richardson and co. wish to rub shoulders with the continental elite more often.

Antigua and Barbuda – Gordon Derrick has yet to impress as President of the Caribbean Football Union (whose shambolic organization of this year’s CFU Club Champions Cup is only superseded by the complete abandonment of its official website), but on the domestic level he may well have struck the formula for increasing the competitiveness of minnows in his part of the world. Last year he founded Antigua Barracuda, who finished bottom of the 2012 USL-Pro (US third division) season standings and missed out on qualifying for the current CCL; the team’s primary purpose, though, has been to provide national-team members a professional environment in which to familiarize themselves with one another. So it was that a tiny island nation with around 90,000 citizens and a handful of lower-league English players could string together six competent matches against more talented opponents. One could point to their home field, designed to fit the bare minimum FIFA requirements for length and width, as an advantage (in which case, expect them to exploit it when they host the Caribbean Cup finals in December); but it must be acknowledged that the Benna Boyz avoided blowouts in their away fixtures, and scored in each one of them. Frankly, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they returned Stateside next year for the Gold Cup.

El Salvador – Yes, I had them pegged to make it back to the Hexagonal at Costa Rica’s expense; and given their performances against their fellow Central Americans at the 2011 Gold Cup and the 2-2 draw in San Jose in June of this year, there was every reason to believe that coach Ruben Israel would lead his team to overtake the ticos in September and finish them off in the familiar surroundings of the Cuscatlan…until a war of words with the press, and subsequent pressure from the El Salvador National Sports Institute (INDES), led him to abandon ship. His replacement, Juan de Dios Castillo, did have a 2011 Copa Centroamericana title with Honduras on his resume; but he never managed to animate the cuscatlecos to play to their full potential. Two underwhelming outings against Guyana preceded a shockingly stale and limp presentation in the most important game of the round, as Bryan Ruiz and co. sneaked off with the victory and Eliseo Quintanilla and Alfredo Pacheco stooped to the point of violently striking out in frustration. An adaptation of John Jagou’s ruling sums it up best: a team that only earns one point of nine at home has no business being in the Hex.

Canada – I’ll address their defensive debacle in San Pedro Sula when we get to the beneficiaries on the day; looking at their World Cup campaign overall, the team from the Great White North won the games they were expected to win and did little else. The heads-up play by Atiba Hutchinson and Dwayne de Rosario to snatch a victory against Panama certainly raised expectations about reaching the Hex for the first time since 1997; but as I predicted last year, their lack of offensive punch relative to Panama and Honduras proved fatal, with Tossaint Ricketts wasting two gilt-edged early opportunities to put Canada on the scoreboard in the last match and Kevin McKenna wasting a late header in the home leg against Honduras that would have eventually doomed the catrachos.

Three years from now, assuming CONCACAF maintains the current format (and given the benefits it provides for the majority of its membership, I do not foresee any adjustments), the Canadians will again have to gear up for six elementary-round games against underwhelming Caribbean opponents, while the highest-ranked teams in the region set up friendlies with the likes of Spain and Argentina, and the Reds will have only themselves to blame. In the meanwhile, whoever takes over from Stephen Hart will have to prepare for the Gold Cup – not the 2013 edition, although it will be a useful opportunity to run out younger players and build up a new core, but the 2015 one that will likely decide our representatives in the 2016 Copa Panamericana (and the 2017 Confederations Cup, if they’re feeling extra ambitious).

Guatemala – It is somewhat unfortunate that a pair of braces by Clint Dempsey and Dane Richards condemned them on the last matchday, after talisman Carlos Ruiz had done everything he could to keep his country in contention, including three straight game-winners and the first goal in their eventual 3-1 loss at the United States. El Pescadito has since retired from international play, however; unless Edgar Chinchilla of Xelaju pans out at international level, the chapines may be looking at several lean years in attack. They are not even a guarantee to reach the next Gold Cup, the reasons for which will be covered on Sunday.

Finally, a look at what awaits us next year.

What are the most intriguing matchups?

The United States and Mexico will reprise the most heated rivalry in CONCACAF, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s side attempt to challenge Mexico’s claim of hegemony and the aztecas look to sweep their northern neighbors for the first time in a Hexagonal. Both of them can expect volatile receptions in Central America as well, while Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama will celebrate clásicos old and new against each other. As for Jamaica, no one really bears them any ill will (other than Clint Dempsey, perhaps), although they will expect to hold serve at the Office against all comers.

How hard is the group?

This is truly a collection of the region’s finest. Here we have the finalists of the last three Gold Cups (the US and Mexico), the top three finishers in the last two Central American Cups (Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama) and the reigning back-to-back Caribbean champion (Jamaica). Absolutely none of the games will be a given, and I fully expect two World Cup berths at most to be settled before Matchday 10. This will be an excruciating, exhilarating ride.

Predictions to qualify?

Honestly, just about any prediction could be justified (except one), but here is how I see things shaking out.

Mexico – So, the one indefensible prediction would be to assert that Chicharito and co. will miss out on Brazil 2014. Don’t expect me to make that jump: on the evidence of their stroll in the semifinal round, Jose Manuel de la Torre’s side are practically guaranteed to finish in the top three. Not that you would ever hear them say it: under “Chepo”, the Mexicans have completed the transition from the generation of Cuauhtemoc Blanco (one that arrogantly viewed continental success as a birthright, and too quickly reverted to thuggery when results didn’t go as planned) to one that respects every opponent and refuses to prematurely celebrate accomplishments. Their temperament is such that Mexico deservedly won the 2011 Gold Cup Fair Play award; and in terms of their travels, the perfect road record to date, along with the increased exposure to matches in the US and Central America via the CCL (especially for Oribe Peralta and Jesus Zavala, of Santos Laguna and Monterrey, respectively) augurs well for their normally daunting visits to the Estadio Olimpico, the Columbus Crew Stadium (unless Kansas City gets the nod) and the aforementioned Office. This team is not only a threat to reach the World Cup but to overtake Costa Rica’s record haul of 23 points in the 2001 Hex.

Panama – In my opinion, the canaleros don’t get the respect they deserve. Whether it is due to their recent rise in form or to lingering assumptions that Panama is a baseball country first and foremost, I have seen few people mention them as a favorite to make their maiden World Cup finals appearance in two years’ time. Not to pick on them in particular, but even ahead of the semifinal round, most commentators on the Voyageurs Forum tagged Panama as the team to beat, rather than Honduras (at whose expense the Canadians would have made it to the Hex).

But outside of Mexico, theirs is the most complete team in the region. Jaime Penedo is just as reliable for them, and as likely to bail the defense out, as Tim Howard has been for his country; Felipe Baloy marshalls a back line that has only let in four goals in 10 games to date (including just two in the last round); Amilcar Henriquez, Luis Renteria and Armando Cooper create havoc in midfield; and Blas Perez, Luis Tejada and Nelson Barahona constitute a potent front line. Julio Cesar Dely Valdes’s side did let their foot off the pedal in this month’s matches, a luxury afforded them by the victories at Honduras and against Canada. But given their talent and experience, I fully expect Perez’s generation to make the most of their last World Cup campaign, finish in the top three and paralyze their country as they join the party in June 2014.

United States – Discussions of their semifinal-round matches generally begin with exasperated sighs from their fanbase. The underwhelming Caribbean outings in particular very nearly threatened to derail the campaign from the start; and the idea of Landon Donovan missing any more qualifiers is enough to make one shudder. Nevertheless, the striped ones gained maximum points from their home matches, and the likes of Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson have proven reliable alternatives either alongside or behind Dempsey, to the extent that Klinsmann has felt comfortable leaving Jozy Altidore off the team (a rarity in the latter half of the Bradley era).

Central midfield and central defense remain question marks to be settled over the next four months: Jermaine Jones is often a yellow-card liability, and Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman hardly covered themselves in glory in Kingston, leaving Michael Bradley and Danny Williams as the only solid options at the moment to maintain Jurgen’s Jug (no resemblance to Bradley’s Bucket whatsoever). Behind them, the aging Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson have regularly been caught out by speedy attackers, although Geoff Cameron has gotten playing time and Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler wait in the wings; and Fabian Johnson is apparently the only quality left back in the pool. If Klinsmann can get everything settled, then the US should be able to eke out a top three finish; otherwise, we may have to start talking about how to shut down Shane Smeltz.

Honduras – Yes, they hammered the poutine out of Canada on Tuesday, but I believe it would be a mistake to judge them based on that result instead of taking their full semifinal-round performance into consideration.

Carlos Costly, Mario Martinez and Jerry Bengtson did pile it on against the Canadians, and the latter similarly built up his stats when the catrachos visited Cuba. Take those two goleadas out of the question, though, and you are left a slim home victory against Cuba that nearly slipped away and three barren performances against their direct opponents for survival. Yes, the offensive output this week was incredible, with Oscar Boniek Garcia and Emilio Izaguirre providing extra headaches; and their own defensive line, led by Victor “Muma” Bernardez, impressively held three straight shutouts on the road. But in the Hex, no one is going to pretend that Bengtson has an invisibility cloak and allow him to sneak by undetected for a tap-in, or watch in reverence as Martinez nutmegs a defender and shoots, or allow the Seattle Sounders pick-up all the time in the world to unleash a curler from outside the box. Until they prove just as effective in the absence of a heartless defensive collapse, I have them finishing fourth and making the World Cup at the Kiwis’ expense.

Jamaica – The Reggae Boyz have won every World Cup match held at the Office since 2004, and I fully expect them to get at least 10 points in the Hex based largely on home form. But their away record in Central America (six defeats in their last eight visits), Mexico and the US suggests that the lost road points will ultimately doom their efforts to become the first Caribbean side with multiple World Cup finals appearances.

Costa Rica – La Nacion columnist Rodrigo Calvo argues that now is not the time to replace head coach Jorge Luis Punto. Federation President Eduardo Li voiced a similar opinion, although he contradictorily added that any “emergency” measures necessary would be taken. Pinto very nearly led the ticos into such a hole in 2005, when a horrid semifinal-round campaign punctuated by a humiliating 2-5 home defeat to Honduras was followed by a home loss to Mexico and a draw at Trinidad and Tobago. Pinto was subsequently let go, Alexandre Guimaraes returned to right the ship and Costa Rica reached the World Cup finals in Germany. History has already repeated itself up to this point, and there is little to suggest that Pinto will navigate this run through the Hex any better than before.

Furthermore, the Estadio Nacional scares no one: Costa Rica only gained one point after hosting Mexico and El Salvador, and in the aforementioned interview Li directly mentioned the possibility of moving the US match to the Estadio Saprissa (where the North Americans have always lost, to be fair). Their only encouraging performance in the semifinal round (outside of the test matches against Guyana) came courtesy of Bryan Ruiz, who would be considered his country’s talisman if injuries didn’t excuse him from the majority of their fixtures. Outside of Alvaro Saborio, whose lack of efficiency in front of goal has always fueled the ire against him at home, there is a palpable vacuum of leadership, and the likelihood of them fighting back from a deficit is slim. They do have enough quality on the field to reach the World Cup finals, but nothing suggests Pinto is the man to lead them there.

The only thing left to determine is the match schedule, which will be released tomorrow. It is certain that the Central American teams and Jamaica will look to avoid having to play at the US on Matchday 10: judging by how they played against Costa Rica in 2009 and Guatemala this week, no matter what their situation, the US simply lack an “off” switch at home.

UPDATE: CONCACAF General Secretary Enrique Sanz clarified that whether or not the national-team representatives agree on a Hex calendar, it will be officially announced on November 7.

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