World Cup 2014 Outlook: North America
Nations eliminated: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Nations alive (FIFA ranking): Mexico (17), USA (28), Panama (43), Costa Rica (48), Jamaica (49), Honduras (52).
Nations qualified: None.
After every nation plays 10 matches (the last Matchday is Oct. 15), the top three automatically qualify for the World Cup. The fourth-place nation will play a two-legged, home-and-away playoff (Nov. 15 and 19) against Oceania winner New Zealand for one final World Cup berth.
1. Mexico. Remember when Estadio Azteca was an impenetrable fortress? Now Mexico is dropping points there like it's trendy. With three scoreless draws at the famed Azteca in three Hexagonal matches against Jamaica, the USA and Costa Rica, the Mexico City landmark is not the dreaded house of horrors it used to be for opposing CONCACAF sides. Even though Mexico is the last undefeated team standing (one win, five draws), El Tri's failure to score has manager Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre firmly on the hot seat, as evidenced by the fans' "Fuera Chepo!" chants Tuesday.
2. USA. While the U.S. national team has been going about its business to the point where it leads the Hexagonal standings through half of its games, there has been one major absence through it all. Landon Donovan, the face of American soccer and the USA's all-time leading scorer, has not played a minute in the Hex. He voluntarily removed himself from consideration for the first three games due to his personal hiatus from the game and then was passed over by Jurgen Klinsmann for the current stretch. Qualifying for the World Cup without Donovan seemed like a treacherous proposition, but Klinsmann's current crew is getting the job done.
3. Costa Rica and Honduras. The heated Central American rivals were at the center of qualifying drama last cycle, with the USA's Jonathan Bornstein's late equalizer against Los Ticos in the Hex finale shockingly sending Honduras to its second World Cup and Costa Rica to a qualifying playoff with Uruguay it ultimately lost. Halfway through the Hex, the two are closely positioned and battling it out for an automatic berth yet again, with Honduras' current generation looking to add another major tournament to its résumé, while Costa Rica is out to avenge the events of 2009. Their meeting on the penultimate Matchday in San Pedro Sula has the potential for fireworks.
Panama. Los Canaleros have never qualified for a World Cup, making their quick start to the CONCACAF Hexagonal one of the more intriguing developments in the region. Strong up the middle with the likes of FC Dallas striker Blas Perez, former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez and hulking Santos Laguna center back Felipe Baloy (when at full strength, anyway), Panama became a more legitimate threat during the 2011 Gold Cup by beating the USA on U.S. soil and has been a game competitor in the region ever since. Tuesday's loss to the U.S. in Seattle was a setback, but Panama will not be an easy out going forward.
All eyes will be on the Sept. 10 meeting between the USA and Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, where the Americans have achieved Dos-A-Cero magic in each of the last three qualifying cycles. Mexico could very well be on its second coach of the cycle for that bout, and even though that game is sure to be played with the typical intensity of a border war, it may not mean much in the grand scheme of the qualifying picture, despite Mexico's struggles to perform. Considering Jamaica's four-game losing streak and overall struggles, the race for the the top four berths is already essentially down to five teams, with Panama's road aptitude likely being the decisive factor. Panama still has matches at Costa Rica (on June 18), Honduras (Sept. 10) and Mexico (Oct. 11) to play while needing to make up some ground, and that is no simple task.
USA, Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica make the 2014 World Cup.