Greg Lalas
Monday October 13th, 2008

The U.S. advanced to the so-called Hexagonal -- still the coolest name of any tournament stage in sports -- on Saturday night with its 6-1 romp over Cuba. Usually, advancement in World Cup qualifying should spark a moment of joy, of celebration, of wild orgiastic running through the streets naked until a cop or a girl tackles you. Or something like that.

To be honest, though, the win gave me a ho-hum feeling. Not the event, of course. The crowd and atmosphere at RFK Stadium were fantastic. The team did its job well to get the comprehensive victory it should when at home against a minnow. And Bob Bradley even succumbed to the public's demands -- though I imagine he would never admit that this was the reason -- to bring in some of the young guns, one of whom, Jozy Altidore, scored.

But the truth is I felt as blasé about this win as I would about a U.S. futsal team victory. I know I shouldn't dismiss it, because World Cup qualifying is a long, arduous process pocked with dangers like bad fields and trip-wired environments in the Caribbean and Central America.

But let's be honest, was there ever really any doubt that the U.S. wasn't going to get to the next round? And, aside from the required platitudes, is there really any doubt in anyone's mind that the U.S. will qualify for 2010?

I didn't think so. How many of you have already looked into flights to Johannesburg? How many of you have reservations at a guesthouse near Clifton Beach?

The reason we are so full of confidence is because the disparity between the haves and have-nots in CONCACAF is at an all-time high and seems to be widening each quadrennial. This recent batch of qualifying exemplifies it.

Two decades ago, CONCACAF was the weakest region in the world. Through 1994, the confederation never sent more than two teams to the World Cup (eight times, only one team went). Usually, this meant Mexico and one other team lucky enough to squeak in. In 1990, the U.S. and Costa Rica represented CONCACAF and inaugurated a new era in the region.

The U.S. has now qualified for five straight World Cups. Mexico has advanced to five of the last six. And Costa Rica, kind of like the Netherlands of CONCACAF, has made it three of the last five, including two in a row.

So this "new era" has resulted in a three-tiered hierarchy, with the U.S., Mexico, and Costa Rica in the upper echelon; Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the middle class; and then everyone else. (Canada should be in the middle, but they keep tripping on their shoelaces.)

And just as it takes money to make money, it takes talent to create talent. The U.S. and Mexico are getting better and better each year, deepening their talent pool -- sometimes poaching players from each other, actually (ahem, Señor Torres and Mr. Castillo!) -- and drawing the attention of some of the biggest clubs in the world. Both countries now have more than a handful of players in Europe.

Costa Rica is also getting into the business of sending players to big clubs, such as the recent move of 18-year-old defender Roy Smith to River Plate.

The middle-tier teams, however, seem to be lagging. Now and then, Trinidad produces a Dwight Yorke or Honduras produces a David Suazo or a Wilson Palacios, but they are anomalies. Canada was supposed to have its best team since the squad that qualified in 1986, but the Maple Leafs are back on couches watching hockey.

So maybe I am becoming arrogant. Or complacent. But this weekend, when the final whistle blew at RFK, I was struck by my sense that the U.S., as a soccer nation, has finally transcended CONCACAF. It was a sense of entitlement, which means I now know how Argentine and Brazilian fans feel during World Cup qualifying. I respect advancing to the next round, but it's not a reason to celebrate, nakedly or not.

Some people might be put off by that. But, hey, it's worked out for Argentina and Brazil, hasn't it?

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