February 7, 2013
Unpredictable results remind us how competitive the hexagonal really is
By Michael Lewis
What a wild and wacky opening day of the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Who would have predicted that Honduras would be alone in first place after defeating the United States, 2-1, in World Cup qualifying in San Pedro Sula, Honduras?
Who would have known that Jamaica would walk out of Azteca Stadium with a well-deserved point after playing favored Mexico to a scoreless draw in Mexico City?
Who would have thought that unfancied Costa Rica would rally from a two-goal deficit and connect on the equalizing goal in the 84th minute at Panama?
And who would have predicted the United States would be in last place in the six-team group?
By the time the dust cleared, Los Catrachos were atop the CONCACAF heap with a 1-0-0 record and three points.
They were followed by four teams — Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica and Mexico — with 0-0-1 records and one point apiece.
The U.S. is in last place with a 0-1-0 mark and no points.
In all my years of covering World Cup qualifying — and that goes back to 1985 — I have never seen a CONCACAF hexagonal group so competitive, which will make for an intriguing competition down to the wire in October.
Let’s take a quick look at each game:
Honduras 2, U.S. 1
I have written about Honduras home win in another piece on this site, citing some of the American problems, but I will go over some of the visitors’ problems.
That included coach Jurgen Klinsmann relying an inexperienced internationals such as Omar Gonzalez over veteran Carlos Bocanegra, enduring a struggling midfield, having no Landon Donovan and making mistakes at the wrong times (that’s always a killer).
But give a lot of credit to Honduras. It went out and played the game and played forward. Very little dirty tactics, although that might be reserved for the return match in the USA on June 18.
Coach Luis Fernando Suarez has taken a talented team and made it a disciplined side and a force to be reckoned with in the confederation.
The Americans’ start to the hexagonal wasn’t going to be easy with three of their first three matches on the road. Losing to Mexico at Azteca Stadium on March 26 certainly won’t be the end of the world, but Wednesday’s result and performance makes the March 22 encounter against Costa Rica in Commerce City, Colo. a must-win situation. If the USA doesn’t win, it will face a long uphill battle to reach Brazil. The U.S., incidentally, has lost only two home qualifiers since 1985 (that year and 2011). The way the team performed in San Pedro Sula makes me fear a home defeat could occur in this cycle.
Mexico 0, Jamaica 0
The scary thing about this result is that it could have been 1-0 or 2-0 in favor of Jamaica had the Reggae Boyz could finish on two 1 v 1 situations with Mexico goalkeeper Jose Corona.
Still, even a scoreless draw with the kings of CONCACAF at Azteca must be considered a major accomplishment. Remember, Mexico had emerged victorious in 68 out of its 75 last home WC qualifiers at the ground, losing only once (to Costa Rica in 2001).
Jamaica played with discipline. And while El Tri held the majority of the possession, the Caribbean side made more dangerous chances. They Jamaicans as disciplined as you can in Azteca. When El Tri did penetrate the backline, Portland Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts saved the day.
After the stinging and early elimination from the Caribbean Cup, coach Ted Whitmore put together a disciplined unit. Many observers, including myself, felt the Reggae Boyz would run out of steam in the second half due to the altitude and smog of Mexico City. But they persevered quite well.
The Boyz passed their first road test — and most difficult away encounter — with flying colors.
The loss, err, I mean draw, was a stark reminder to the Mexicans that they should take nothing for granted. Given their impressive results over the past two years, which includes an Olympic gold medal, they cannot rely on their reputation. El Tri cannot throw their soccer boots onto the field and expect to walk away with three points. If they don’t work hard and try to break down defenses, they will be in trouble like any other team in CONCACAF. And this team has talent not like any other team.
What was concerning was the inability of Chicharito (Javier Hernandez) to finish. He has been in form and been playing reasonably well for Manchester United. While he might not have a partner such as a Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie next to him, he must finish his chances. He experienced similar problems in the semifinal matches.
And I cannot believe they could not fill Azteca for this match. The attendance was a paltry 43,000 — in a ground that holds 100,000-plus. I don’t know if Mexican fans were overconfident and thought the game would be a walkover. But what is supposed to make Azteca so imposing (besides the rarefied air and smog) is the loud, relentless crowd cheering for the home side and make life miserable for the visitors. Did not see it on Wednesday. Azteca looked like any other soccer stadium and that is one of the worst criticisms you can make about a lack of crowd.
As for the spectators at the match, they let their heroes know what they were thinking with plenty of whistling. If that doesn’t help El Tri get back on track, perhaps a little yelling from coach Jose Manuel de la Torre will. I thought this new Mexico team and generation was a long stronger mentally. We’ll find out when Mexico visits Honduras on March 22.
Panama 2, Costa Rica 2
Unfortunately, I could not catch this game on TV, but from what I gather, have read and seen from some highlights, the Ticos showed a lot of tenacity and guts to come from behind in Panama City. Overcoming a two-goal deficit is tough enough, but doing it on the road against supposed superior competition such as Panama, considered one of the favorites to book its first berth in the World Cup is something else.
I picked the Ticos to finish last in the group, partly because they are a side in transition and partly because I thought the other teams were better than them. I could be wrong (as were other journalists and “experts”). If the Costa Ricans can sneak a point out of the USA on March 22, their first two matches would have to be considered a rousing success.
On the flip side, you have to question Panama, particularly its defense. If Los Canaleros cannot hold a two-goal lead against what is considered one of the weaker, if not weakest side in the competition, at home, you have to wonder how they would do against the rest of the group.
This game certainly was a wake-up call for Julio Dely Valdes’ side, which cannot afford to give away precious points at home. More was expected from this golden generation of Panamanian players. They have to show more hunger or they will allow a great opportunity of reaching soccer’s promised land go by the wayside.
Predicting is so unpredictable
On a personal note, I have to admit I did not have a particularly good day at predicting results. In fact, I did not get one correct, and that’s someone who has been covering CONCACAF and World Cup qualifying for years. It is so unpredictable.
But that’s the reason why we love and watch sporting events, isn’t? It isn’t like many TV shows where things are tied up at the end of a particular episode.
At the moment, the only thing I can predict is how unpredictable the region is and will be. March 22 cannot come soon enough!