Every four years, U.S. national team players and coaches talk about the roller coaster nature of the Hexagonal, the six-team, double-round robin that serves as the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying competition.
We’re told that there will be adversity, both on the field and off. We’re reminded of how difficult it is to secure points on the road. We’ve been conditioned to anticipate controversy and to expect the unexpected.
Indeed, the unexpected does occur. Whether it’s Brad Evans scoring a 92nd-minute game-winner in Jamaica or Mexico going winless in four games at the Estadio Azteca, the road to the World Cup always features strange twists and turns.
The end result, however, doesn’t change. The U.S. may endure unique challenges on the way, but it inevitably qualifies with room to spare. The Americans haven’t missed a World Cup since 1986. Only six other nations can make that claim.
Despite Friday’s 3-1 loss in Costa Rica, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad can secure a seventh straight trip to the World Cup finals on Tuesday when it plays Mexico in Columbus. The U.S. (4-2-1) would need to defeat El Tri (1-1-5) while Honduras (3-3-1) either beats or ties visiting Panama (1-2-4).
If that happens, it would represent the second-fastest qualification for the U.S. since CONCACAF adopted the Hexagonal format in 1998. The Americans previously booked passage in the ninth (1998), ninth (2002), seventh (2006) and ninth (2010) games on the docket. Despite that ugly loss in February to Honduras and Friday’s slip-up in Costa Rica, the Yanks remain on schedule.
“You do not want to wait,” Klinsmann told reporters Monday at Crew Stadium. “You want to [qualify] at the next possible chance. Knowing what Mexico is going through, but we have to look this purely from our end, and we have got to secure our points, and make sure nobody is getting nervous about it.”
If it doesn’t happen, the U.S. still is on the verge of a berth in Brazil. The top three Hexagonal finishers will advance automatically, while the fourth-place team will head to a very winnable home-and-home playoff with New Zealand. The U.S. currently leads fourth-place Mexico by five points and fifth-place Panama by six with nine points still available to each in the three remaining matches. A win or tie on Tuesday will guarantee the Americans a spot in the playoff, regardless of what happens between Honduras and Panama.
The U.S., now in second place, will host cellar dweller Jamaica (0-4-3) on Oct. 11 in Kansas City and finish up in Panama four days later. Anything less than a win and a draw in those two matches would be a shock.
According to a statistical analysis conducted by ESPN, the likelihood of U.S. qualification currently stands at 99.9 percent (slightly higher than Germany, Italy and the Netherlands). Klinsmann’s team probably would have to go on strike to miss the World Cup. The loss to Costa Rica certainly didn’t look good, but its impact should be only cosmetic. With two home matches and the Hexagonal’s bottom three teams still on the schedule, the U.S. is sitting pretty as the stretch run begins -- as usual.