The fourth and final round of CONCACAF’s convoluted World Cup qualifying process began last week with six remaining nations competing for three automatic places in next summer’s Finals. Recent protocol suggests that the USA and Mexico easily progress along with one other, but this year’s tournament could bring a shock to the region.
Team USA could not have wished for a better start to their campaign as they cruised to a comfortable 2-0 win over Sven-Goran Eriksson’s misfiring Mexican team. While the road to South Africa looks clear for the Stars and Stripes, the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol has reached a crossroads—whether they continue onwards or seek a change of direction remains to be seen.
There was much to be admired in the opening game from an American perspective. Faced with the prospect of a hostile atmosphere on home soil—so often the case in big city stadiums where large numbers of passionate immigrants out-sing and outnumber American fans—the US Soccer Federation opted to play this fixture in the intimate confines of Columbus Crew’s 23,000-seat Crew Stadium.
Freezing Mid-West temperatures added a second discomforting factor for the visitors to contend with—they failed dismally to rise to the challenge.
After Tim Howard had produced a significant third-minute stop to deny Tottenham’s teenage striker Giovani Dos Santos, the hosts seized control of the game. Rangers’ winger DaMarcus Beasley justified the faith shown in him by manager Bob Bradley with a stirring performance on the left flank which belied his inactivity at Ibrox.
His efforts were matched on the opposite touchline by the industry of Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, while Bradley’s son Michael further showcased his goalscoring ability from a deep-lying central midfield role with strikes in the closing minutes of each half.
The 21-year-old gained prominence last season with 16 goals for unfashionable Heerenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie. That was enough to earn a move to Borussia Mönchengladbach last summer, but this season has been a struggle for Bradley as the former Bundesliga powerhouse fights for survival in Germany’s top flight in their first season back after a brief stint in the second division. Bradley’s selection has attracted accusations of nepotism in the past, but the denunciations will surely end after this fine display.
One minor disappointment for the US was the performance of recent Celtic trialist Sacha Kljestan alongside Bradley in the centre of midfield, but even this should have a silver lining. Kljestan notched a hat-trick—his first goals for his country—in last month’s 3-2 friendly win over a shadow Sweden squad, and he has become an established figure in the national team following his impressive displays during last August’s Olympic Games—notably in a 2-2 draw with fancied Holland. This, however, was his first taste of international football at the highest level.
The 23-year-old Californian was guilty of surrendering possession far too easily on far too many occasions, but he will learn from his mistakes. Coach Bradley’s risky decision to select the Chivas USA player ahead of Houston Dynamo’s reliable holding man Ricardo Clark did not backfire and the experience gained by Kljestan will help in developing his potential as one of the team’s pivotal playmakers in the run-up to next summer.
Kljestan’s hopes of a transfer to the SPL champions may have been dashed by the Parkhead club’s unwillingness to meet Major League Soccer’s lofty valuation, but a move to Europe in the near future remains likely.
By contrast, the future for Eriksson’s side appears less than rosy. Their cause was not helped on 65 minutes when, already trailing to Bradley’s scrambled opener, skipper Rafael Marquez committed a heinous challenge on Tim Howard. He was rightfully dismissed.
It is not the first time the Barcelona defender has let his country down in this fixture. He was sent off in the closing minutes of their 2002 World Cup encounter in South Korea for a similar assault on Cobi Jones as the US again won 2-0.
The captain’s act of folly could not have been more ill-timed with Mexico pushing hard for an equaliser. Seconds earlier, Dos Santos had contrived to miscue his volley from Pavel Pardo’s free-kick across the face of Howard’s goal before failing to divert the returned ball into an empty net from one yard out. Marquez launched his attack on the Everton goalkeeper as he gathered the subsequent cross into the penalty area.
Mexico’s misconduct did not end there. Assistant coach Paco Ramirez struck Frankie Hejduk with a petulant slap as the players made their way to the dressing rooms, but to the American right-back’s great credit he ignored the provocation.
Eriksson’s greatest failing during his time with England was his reluctance to curtail the self-absorbed indulgences of his star players. Unless he can quickly instill a sense of discipline into his current squad he may be heading for an even quicker exit than the one he experienced with Manchester City.
Despite reaching their highest ever FIFA ranking of fourth less than three years ago, Mexico are fortunate to remain in contention at this point. Three home wins in the previous round were undermined by defeats away to Jamaica and group-winning Honduras. Ultimately, a second half equaliser in Canada sealed a 2-2 draw which was enough to see them sneak through ahead of the Reggae Boyz on goal difference.
Three further defeats in friendlies, including last month’s loss to the unfamiliar Swedes, have heaped the pressure on Eriksson. Next up is a vital double-header at the end of March: firstly Costa Rica visit the famed Estadio Azteca in Mexico City before El Tri head back to Honduras for what could be a make-or-break tie.
Anything less than four points could result in the former England manager being relieved of his employment.