World Cup 2014: In Which History Means Nothing

Posted on February 8, 2013 10:49 pm

Honduras beat the US in a competitive home match for the first time ever.

Mexico failed to win a World Cup match at the Azteca for the first time in ages.

And a draw in Panama left the visitors thanking their lucky stars.

Welcome to the new Hexagonal.

While Grant Wahl and Dan Loney are correct in stating that it is more forgiving than both the previous round here and similar groups in Europe, one enjoyable aspect of the current World Cup qualifying format for our region is that the chances of survival are inversely proportional to the difficulty level. A decent team playing in the elementary round may get drawn with two or three minnows; but with only one country advancing, said team is obligated to win every game in order to avoid any chance of an upset (as happened to Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago). In the considerably-tougher semifinal round, one simply needs to finish in second place to keep the World Cup dream alive; and while only two teams in the Hex are eliminated outright, each ticket to Brazil must be earned over 10 matches against the best CONCACAF has to offer.

And I do mean 10: while my colleague Loney is also right to state that panic among US fans should only be unleashed if Jurgen Klinsmann’s side drop points at home, anyone taking five (or even four) victories on US soil for granted must be stuck in 2005. Between the biennial Gold Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League (guaranteeing at least seven clubs from Central America and the Caribbean home-and-away matches against US opposition every year) and Major League Soccer itself, players from across the region have familiarized themselves with the characteristics and challenges of away fixtures in Uncle Sam’s territory. For instance, ask your favorite Colorado Rapids fan if Alvaro Saborio has any problems performing at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

The results from Matchday 1 demonstrated how demanding this “league” will prove for everyone involved, with only one team keeping us from staring at a blank Win column.

TEAM OF THE ROUND

Honduras

More than enough has been written about the bland, tepid US showing in San Pedro Sula, so I will simply stand by the comments I made prior to the start of this round. The hosts, however, paid no attention to their longstanding record of futility against the North Americans, confidently pushing forward and tormenting a backline featuring an out-of-place Geoff Cameron and the inexperienced Omar Gonzalez and Timmy Chandler. The livewires Mario Martinez and Oscar Boniek Garcia generated attacks in a fashion that none of their opponents could reproduce; up top, Jerry Bengtson put away the tap-in fed to him by Garcia, while defender Juan Carlos Garcia stole the plaudits with an audacious bicycle kick.

While an assistant referee’s decision kept his name off the scoresheet, I also have to dedicate a few lines to Carlos Costly.

Costly receives the ball on the left side.

He dribbles forward.

He slows down near the edge of the penalty area, with only one opponent in front of him.

Everyone who has ever seen him play knows what’s going to happen next. And yet, the Costly trick continues to confound defenders, allowing him to brush right by them and put in a dangerous cross. Between that move and what can only be described as a nasty nutmeg, he earned himself a starring role in Chandler’s nightmares for the next week.

The Jamaicans will only be slightly less pleased with their first Hex outing since 2001. Coach Theodore Whitmore and Jamaican Football Federation President “Captain” Horace Burrell shut up plenty of critics at home with the comprehensive success of their English experiment, as the new Reggae Boyz provided the necessary composure and experience to help keep out a lackluster Mexican side playing before an underwhelming and fickle crowd. Moreover, if their forwards had not simultaneously lost their lucky cleats the night before, we would currently be discussing the second Aztecazo. Their marksmanship will have to improve in order to take full advantage of their own home matches, but their accomplishment in what normally is the most intimidating venue in CONCACAF put to bed any and all discussions of Jamaica as the weak link in this Hex.

As for the Mexicans: while his own goalscoring production has waned in the last two years, Aldo de Nigris has proven himself an excellent provider and link-up player in a two-forward setup (with Cesar Delgado and Jesus Corona at the last Club World Cup, and with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez at the 2011 Gold Cup). Oribe Peralta is no de Nigris. If the Monterrey forward is deemed excess to demands for Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre, then the latter will be obligated to consider a different attacking formation…and hope that Noel Valladares and Tim Howard don’t drink from the same fountain of inspiration as Donovan Ricketts, although both are more than capable of equaling the Portland Timbers goalkeeper’s exceptional play.

Back to the “weak link” discussion: I have a bone to pick with quite a few people over the Panama-Costa Rica game. In the latest MLS Extratime Radio podcast, not a single comment was made concerning the first half-hour in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez; and my own colleague Derek Richey stated that (paraphrased) “maybe” Panama could be left out of the discussion of teams that are more capable of the “tiki-taka” style than the US. Frankly, I wonder if anyone on Extratime Radio or The Straight Red Card even watched the game; if they had, at least the first few minutes before switching over to Mexico-Jamaica, they would have witnessed the most dominating performance of the day. To put it bluntly: in the first half hour, Panama played the ticos off the field, with Jorge Luis Pinto’s side struggling to even keep up with the short passes and individual creativity.

GOAT OF THE ROUND

Panama

After racing to a 2-0 lead, however, Blas Perez and co. exhibited a lack of game management similar to what nearly let leads against Guadeloupe and the US slip away in the last Gold Cup. A Saborio header off a corner kick before halftime rightly tempered their enthusiasm; but at 2-1, they failed to either push forward and reestablish their authority with a third goal or control possession and dictate the tempo of the game. With Real Betis player Joel Campbell entering the field in the second half, the visitors grew in confidence; and a late overhead kick from the previously invisible Bryan Ruiz snatched two crucial points out of Panama’s pocket.

The delirious celebrations among the Costa Ricans in attendance and the earnest sighs of relief among their media speak to Panama’s newfound, well-deserved reputation as one of the strongest sides in the continent. If reaching the World Cup finals is the goal, though, the canaleros will have to learn to finish their food.

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