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Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

February 5, 2013
Mexico, Panama should win; USA, Honduras should draw

By Michael Lewis Editor

Match Day One of the CONCACAF hexagonal is here.

In my many years of covering CONCACAF and international soccer, I cannot recall seeing much a competitive six-team final group. Yes, Mexico is — and should be — head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. But being and saying a team is the best means nothing. It has to prove it on the field.

Six countries are vying for three automatic berths to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Which ones will get off on the right foot? Let’s take a look with some analysis and predictions of each of Wednesday’s encounters:

Mexico 3, Jamaica 1

The Reggae Boyz are the first CONCACAF side that will endure the cauldron that is called Azteca Stadium. This is supposed to be the best Jamaican national side since the team that reached the 1998 World Cup. While the full team did not compete at the Caribbean Cup in December, that reputation was tarnished when Jamaica failed to finish among the top four teams and book a berth to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Head coach Theodore Whitmore has put together a solid side that combines players from Europe, the United States and domestic-based performers. But this one will be a difficult game to accrue points, given the opposition and venue. Jamaica is the lone Caribbean country that still has Brazil 2014 hopes.

Mexico, is well, Mexico. El Tri has tons of depth with a veteran core that has enjoyed success. Coach Manuel de la Torre has called in nine players from the Mexican side that stunned Brazil and the world to win its first Olympic gold medal last summer. This next generation of players are talented and are pushing the veterans.

The class of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Carlos Salcido and company should be too much for the Reggae Boyz to overcome. While the predicted final score looks like a rout. The gut feeling here is that the Jamaicans will battle Mexico fairly even early on before the hosts pull away, tacking on an insurance goal as the final score. Even with such speedsters as Dane Richards and Ryan Johnson, the Jamaicans should be happy to get the most difficult road game of the final round out of the way early on, even if the result doesn’t necessarily go their way.

Honduras 1, U.S. 1

The United States, which faces a difficult start to the hexagonal by playing three of its opening four matches away, has never lost a World Cup qualifier in Honduras and that streak should remain intact. Those encounters are fiercely contested battles and that should not change as well. The Americans must assume they will play without Landon Donovan for qualifying, unless he changes his mind. It won’t be easy finding someone who can be a playmaker, team leader and someone who can put away penalty kicks with his eyes closed. In fact, there is no one on this team that comes close to combining all those skills. Central midfielder Michael Bradley could be the team MVP, although goalkeeper Tim Howard is a world-class goalkeeper who has saved the Americans countless times. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has to figure which of his four strikers — Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson — is in proper form and has the best chance of scoring, playing well and give the U.S. a win.

This Honduras side is the best we’ve seen from that Central American country in years, if not ever. Los Catrachos have parlayed putting some of their best players in Major League Soccer (San Jose defender Victor Bernardez, Houston midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia, New England striker Jerry Bengtson) and Europe (Wigan defender Maynor Figueroa and midfielder Roger Espinoza). Noel Valladares is one of the top goalkeepers in the region. Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula is a difficult place to play, the venue where the U.S. clinched a berth to the 2010 South African World Cup with a 3-2 win in an entertaining and dramatic confrontation that had plenty of twists and turns and heroes and goats. This is a hungry Honduras side and a dangerous one as well, and one that should be respected.

Panama 2, Costa Rica 0

Panama barely got through last month’s Copa Centroamericana, clinching a Gold Cup spot by winning a fifth-place game against Guatemala. And the team finished second to Honduras in the Group C semifinal round (good enough to move on). Still, Los Canaleros are a team to be reckoned with, behind the likes of gritty midfielder Gabriel Gomez and striker Blas Perez (FC Dallas). This is the best team Panama has produced. They have a recent history of coming through when they have to. Two games in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup come to mind. The first encounter was gutsy 2-1 triumph over the U.S. in Tampa, Fla., the first time the Americans tasted defeat on home soil in the group stage of the confederation competition. The other was a 1-1 draw with Canada in Kansas City, Kansas; Panama already had qualified for the next round, but scored a stoppage-time goal to knock out the Canadians. Yes, that was two years ago and this is now. But this is a special generation of Panama players who are in their prime. If Los Canaleros don’t reach soccer’s promised land this time, it could be awhile before they have another shot.

While the Ticos did well winning Copa, they should be rated in the bottom half of the hexagonal, unless several players blossom and they pull off an upset or two. Their development has been hurt by a rapid succession of coaches in recent years. Costa Rica will be without one vital part of its success — Saprissa Stadium. They call Estadio Nacional in San Jose home. While it is an impressive structure, it does not intimidate opponents as Saprissa did. Saprissa’s fans are on top of the action. There is a track around the field, which keeps the fans away. Alvaro Saborio, who plies his trade with Real Salt Lake, could be the Ticos’ best bet up front to score, although he should have some help from Bryan Ruiz (Fulham) and Joel Campbell (Real Betis). What makes me less confident about this team and its depth is that it called in New York Red Bulls left back Roy Miller into the team. Miller struggled mightily last year. If that is the best they have in the back, the Costa Ricans could be in for a long qualifying road and a short stay among the contenders.

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