By Jose M. Romero / @RomeroJoseM
For Fox Deportes
The World Cup is two years away, but the journey to Brazil 2014 officially begins Friday throughout the soccer world.
In our region, CONCACAF, the two traditional powers should be there when it’s all said and done, those being Mexico and the U.S. These things are never a given, of course, but Mexico enters qualifying a very confident bunch and as the clear No. 1 team in North America.
The U.S. team has talent, but it’s hard to gauge the kind of results the Americans will produce from match to match. Still, the U.S. is without question the No. 2 team. The U.S. and Mexico have both participated in the past five World Cups and there’s little to suggest they won’t be in a sixth together.
Twelve teams divided into groups of four make up the semifinal qualifying stage. Mexico is in Group B with Guyana – its first opponent of the stage Friday in Mexico City – as well as Costa Rica and El Salvador. El Tri will play home-and-home matches against all three nations.
Guyana is the 104th-ranked team in the FIFA world football rankings. Mexico is No. 19. This matchup is more lopsided than a 1-vs.-16 game in the NCAA basketball tournament, and it’s not at a neutral site.
El Tri might still be coming down from the high of beating Brazil 2-0 in Texas last Sunday. But if the stars of the team – Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Gio Dos Santos, Pablo Barrera, Aldo de Nigris, Rafa Marquez, etc. — don’t make Guyana pay, the altitude at Estadio Azteca just might. Mexico has lost only one World Cup qualifying match at its home for such matches in team history, according to FIFA.com.
Mexico’s other group opponents are no slouches. El Salvador and Costa Rica are in good form and have been to World Cups.
The U.S. is the headliner in the less difficult Group A, with Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda. The Americans (No. 28) open in Tampa, Fla., Friday against the tiny Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, a surprise qualifier for this round and currently No. 105 in the FIFA rankings.
This match, like Mexico’s, is a rout on paper. But given how the U.S. has played in its recent string of friendlies at home against Scotland, Brazil and Canada, it’s anyone’s guess how well the Americans will play.
Like Mexico, the U.S. will play each team in its group at home and away in this stage.
The aim of the smaller nations is to take away the crowd with strong play early. It’s easier said than done. The U.S. team’s strength is its attackers, led by Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, while sharp goalkeeper Tim Howard hopes he gets a shutdown performance from his defenders, whomever coach Jurgen Klinsmann sends out to the pitch.
The U.S. is 6-5-2 in friendlies under Klinsmann, which indicates a lack of consistency. But the Americans are in a group that should help them pick up favorable results.
The top two teams from each of the three groups advance to the final round of qualifying, and the top three from those six teams automatically go to Brazil.