As we prepare to enter the CONCACAF hexagonal World Cup qualifiers, what else can sports writers do except offer their bold predictions for how things will turn out?
As the name implies, the hex is comprised of six national teams. Those six play 10 games through the year, with a home and away game against each of the other five sides.
After 10 games, the top three qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Fourth place will enter a playoff against the winner of the Oceania Confederation.
The following prognostications are based on a rigorous mock run-through the complete hexagonal schedule. It was practically a scientific endeavor.
We can confirm that any rumors of Bleacher Report trained monkeys tossing darts as part of the predictive process are simply untrue. Trained monkeys have to be fed, while there exists no organization like PETA to ensure such humane treatment of sports writers.
After Three, USMNT Finds Itself Dead Last
The first phase of games are played in the winter and early spring. The hex opens for all teams on Feb. 6, and resumes on March 22 and March 26.
The USMNT travels to Honduras for the hex opener. The defense-dominated match results in a tie. American fans are mildly disappointed, but also relieved with the first road point.
Placated by that result, and having a month and a half before the next game, the USMNT can’t help but look past the March 22 home game with Costa Rica toward the Estadio Azteca date in Mexico City four days later.
That proves to be a costly mistake, as the Americans lose both.
For Costa Rica, the win at the U.S. has added significance. Four years prior, the U.S. found a stoppage-time equalizer against Costa Rica in the last qualifier.
The Ticos, who seemed to have that 2009 game in hand, needed more than a point to avoid fourth place and a qualifying playoff against Uruguay. Uruguay won that playoff and entry to the World Cup in South Africa.
The Ticos have been waiting for this game for four years.
Mexico cruises through its three games with wins over Jamaica, at Honduras and over the U.S. The El Tri are focused on early points, as they want to wrap up qualification as early as possible.
Mexico also will represent CONCACAF at this summer’s Confederations Cup. But the bigger motivation for a solid start is to avoid a repeat of 2009, when the underperforming Mexicans only had three points after five games, and faced a serious threat of not qualifying for South Africa.
Costa Rica opens at Panama. Always a difficult place to play, but the Ticos manage a tie. In the second game, their attack-quality exploits the slow-footed U.S. defenders. Costa Rica earns an impressive four points in two road games.
The Ticos follow that with a win at home over the Reggae Boyz.
Points after three games: Mexico, 9; Costa Rica, 7; Jamaica, 3; Honduras, 2; Panama, 2; U.S., 1.
Panic Mode and Lineup Changes for USMNT
Following the end of March is two-and-a-half months off from qualifying play. In other words, the U.S. will endure a full two months of panic.
One clear problem is CONCACAF opponents know full well where the U.S. is most vulnerable. Lacking speed and positional breakdowns in the center of the American flat four invite through-ball after through-ball up the middle.
Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz especially expose that vulnerability in the March game, scoring twice and repeatedly slicing through U.S. defenders. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is forced to make changes.
Geoff Cameron and an aging Carlos Bocanegra play the first three games.
The January camp and friendly with Canada demonstrate to Klinsmann that Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are quality defenders, and Klinsmann also has the option to call upon John Anthony Brooks at Hertha.
Will Packwood may have been another option if he hadn't suffered a broken leg in January. The 19-year-old Birmingham City defender has made numerous appearances with national youth teams.
Some different pairing drawn from the first five names will start the fourth qualifier. For the sake of argument, let’s say Cameron and Gonzalez.
The USMNT takes on a more permanent 4-2-3-1 set-up. That formation, contrary to some thoughts, is not inherently defensive. However, it certainly can be defensive, especially when a team wants to better protect a new and unfamiliar pairing in the center of its back line.
The U.S. Campaign Stabilizes in June
Each team plays three qualifiers this month.
Mexico wins the only game on June 4, handily beating Jamaica. This game would have been played June 18 if Mexico was not participating in the Confederations Cup.
The Mexicans finally stumble a little three days later, tying Panama on the road. On June 11, El Tri hosts Costa Rica.
Costa Rica remains the only team to have won an away qualifier at Estadio Azteca. That was 12 years ago, but the Ticos cannot duplicate that feat in 2013.
On June 7, the USMNT resumes play at Jamaica. With their backs to the wall, and looking to protect their new defensive set, the Americans play a defensive and conservative game that stifles Jamaica's Luton Shelton.
In the second half, opportunities open for the Americans, who grab a couple goals and find their first win of the campaign.
The USMNT goes on to earn back-to-back home wins over Panama and Honduras. Calls for Klinsmann's head on a platter subside.
Costa Rica, in good form and desperate to qualify after missing the 2010 World Cup, views its June 7 home game against Honduras as must-win. The Ticos do gain those three points.
Costa Rica, as mentioned above, loses in Mexico City, and follows that with a home win over Panama.
Points after six games: Mexico, 16; Costa Rica, 13; U.S., 10; Honduras, 5; Jamaica, 3; Panama, 3.
Top Four Hold Down the Stretch
Another two-and-a-half-month break follows the frenzied June schedule, though this break is a more comfortable one from the USMNT’s perspective.
On Sept. 6, the Americans earn a tie in Costa Rica.
Four days later, the USMNT hosts Mexico. El Tri already has guaranteed itself a 2014 trip to Brazil, and as tempting as it is to load up and take a shot at three points on U.S. soil, Mexico instead opts to rest some players. The USMNT outplays the B-plus Mexican side, but can’t find the game winner.
Hosting Jamaica, in their last home game, the Americans find another three points on Oct. 11.
However, three days later and with qualification guaranteed, the Americans are honored with all-night firework displays just outside their Panamanian hotel. Los Canaleros win the next day.
Costa Rica plays to draws against the U.S., at Jamaica and at Honduras. Then, on Oct. 15, the Ticos close out hex play with a home win over Mexico’s B-plus side.
The last four games include a fierce battle for fourth place. Honduras opens September play with a loss at Azteca, but then earns a pivotal three points at home over Panama.
In October, Los Catrachos tie Costa Rica in their ninth game, and lock up the playoff position.
Final hex standings: Mexico, 23; Costa Rica, 19, U.S., 15; Honduras, 9; Jamaica, 8; Panama, 7.
On Feb. 2, Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow. However, revelers at Gobblers Knob do not understand the significance of the woodchuck's prophecy as it pertains to the USMNT, and Phil isn't talking.
For the second time ever, CONCACAF sends four to the World Cup, as Jerry Bengtson and Honduras beat New Zealand in the inter-confederation playoff.
Despite its No. 15 FIFA ranking at the start of 2013, Mexico’s performance during qualifiers and the Confederations Cup, combined with flagging performances from a few other prominent national sides, enables El Tri to secure one of the valuable top-eight World Cup seeds.
Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos leads the six teams in scoring. More satisfying to dos Santos is that his younger brother Jonathan comes of age in this round of qualifiers, and solidifies his spot on the El Tri national roster.
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