U.S., Mexico won't have it easy in final round of 2014 qualifying
Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. Men's National Team can finally exhale. The U.S. finished atop Group A when the dust settled after a weekend that began loaded with uncertainty and pressure.
Though advancing into the final round of qualifying did not come as easy as everyone would have liked, it spoke volumes of the vast improvement made by CONCACAF nations. Over the last eight years, CONCACAF has largely been a two-horse race between the U.S. and Mexico, with the only question being who the third automatic nation to join them in the World Cup would be. This time, however, every team in the region (except Mexico) had its backs against the wall until its last match to clinch a berth into the six-team final round of qualifying. In the end, the U.S., Jamaica, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras prevailed, and the top three from the Hexagonal will advance to the World Cup. The fourth-place finisher gets a playoff against the winner of Oceania qualifying, likely New Zealand, for another spot in Brazil.
If this round of qualifying taught us anything, it's that no opponent can be underestimated, regardless of past results, with a World Cup berth at stake. Canada learned the hard way. It was drubbed 8-1 by Honduras in its final match, one where it controlled its own destiny, and eliminated from group play. Away games are especially brutal, as stories about the absurd lengths some home fans will go to give their home side the upper hand have become customary. We have seen video of what to expect in Panama. Hundreds camp outside the opposing team's hotel to set off fireworks and an impromptu concert at 4 a.m. on match days.
In many ways, facing stronger opponents in the Hexagonal will better suit the Americans, as they struggled at times dealing with opponents who dropped off and countered. The U.S. is sometimes more effective when it's forced to be disciplined defensively and play the counter, as it proved in August in Mexico City. This should play into the Americans' favor, as the five other teams in the final round will certainly not be afraid to commit numbers going forward. However, it certainly will not be easy.
The clear favorite in the group, Mexico went 6-0 with a plus-13 goal differential in the semifinal phase. Building off of its Olympic gold medal, El Tri have been led by forwards Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Oribe Peralta, who have combined for five goals in qualifying thus far. Veteran Andres Guardado complements a midfield of young guns Jesus Zavala, Angel Reyna, Hector Herrera and Jorge Enriquez. Goalkeeper Jose Corona has been a stalwart behind a similarly young defense (save Carlos Salcido). Mexico only allowed two goals in its last six games. In beating Brazil for Olympic gold, they proved to the world (and to themselves) that it is not unthinkable to consider Mexico a contender to win the 2014 World Cup.
Honduras won Group C after a wild final match day saw it drop eight goals on Canada at home. Forward Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution) has been on fire with five goals in four games. He and fellow striker Carlo Costly recorded hat tricks against Canada. Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Mario Martinez (Seattle Sounders) and Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes) will surely help provide a scouting report on the U.S. based on their MLS experience.
The Reggae Boyz needed help from the U.S. to sneak into the final round and will be looking to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1998. They made history in September, recording their first win over the United States, but consistency has been an issue. Jamaica has shown flashes of brilliance and will bank on attackers Luton Shelton, Ryan Johnson (Toronto FC), Dane Richards (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids) to finish the chances they create. Defensive discipline has been a weakness in the past, but goalkeeper Dwayne Miller proved that he is capable of bailing his team out when necessary.
Costa Rica aims to return to the World Cup for the third time in four tries after failing to qualify in 2010. It poses the biggest threat to the U.S. aside from Mexico. The return of forward Bryan Ruiz from injury provides a dangerous attacking trio of he, Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake) and young speedster Joel Campbell. After losing to Mexico twice during the group stage, the Costa Ricans will certainly look to their matches against the U.S. as crucial deciders for their qualification.
Clearly the underdog of the Hexagonal. Panama, the only team left yet to qualify for a single World Cup, somehow managed to make it this far despite only mustering a draw against winless Cuba in the final match. Though not many people, including myself, are giving the Panamanians any chance of finishing in the top three, they allowed only four goals in 10 total group-phase matches. They're capable spoilers for teams who might underestimate them.