By Jose M. Romero
And then there were six.
Six teams to play for three automatic berths in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The biggest sports event on earth in one of the most soccer-wild nations on the planet.
So what if it’s a year and a half away? There is a ton of matches left to play before the final three are set. And a fourth team can play its way in with a two-leg, aggregate goals win over the Oceania region champion in November 2013.
The six teams in the CONCACAF hexagonal have to play each other once at home and once away, for a total of 10 matches per team. We’ll have to wait until February for the hexagonal qualifiers to start, but there will be eight months worth of qualifying matches to play once the begin.
Mexico and the U.S plus Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica are your contestants. Mexico is CONCACAF’s best team by far and is almost assured of getting to Brazil. For the other teams, however, it’s a tossup.
Every team is going to be very tough to beat at home. Mexico is practically unstoppable at Estadio Azteca. The U.S. will look to find the best venues (i.e., stadiums where they can get the most U.S. fans and rock the house) in the country at which to host their matches. The other teams have their own single venues for national team games and they will be wild.
They key will be getting a point from a draw, if not three from a win, on the road. Visiting teams will certainly take a draw in another team’s building if they can win their home matches. It’s going to be very intriguing for the U.S., especially in Jamaica where the Americans struggle, and against Mexico, which they defeated in a friendly this past summer.
Can the U.S. use that one win in Mexico City as fuel to drive it to another stunning away victory against its biggest rival?
While Mexico looks like a good bet to finish atop the hexagonal, it’s not as sure a thing for the U.S. as it has been in the past. You could always count on Mexico and the U.S. making it to the World Cup every four years since 1990. Now, the U.S. has to face some very strong Central American teams – Honduras looks like a serious challenger – and Jamaica might finally have enough talent to make the battle for the third automatic spot very tight.
Keep in mind, Honduras got to the Olympic quarterfinals and turned heads doing so.
Finally, Canada. Oh Canada. I believed in you. I thought you finally had the right pieces to the puzzle to get to the hexagonal. And then, in the final match of the semifinal round on Tuesday with only a draw needed to get to the final six, the Canadians were blown out by Honduras 8-1.
It’s one thing to lose in Central America. It’s completely something else to be crushed by seven goals.
Canada has two Major League Soccer teams. It has the defending MLS Most Valuable Player as its leader, Dwayne De Rosario, though he was injured and unavailable. It is a nation that embraces soccer, not nearly as much as hockey but probably more than baseball and basketball.
Now Canada soccer has to figure out where its men’s national program stands, and if and when it will ever be good enough to get into a World Cup for the first time since 1986.