Thursday, August 13, 2009

Concacaf Turns into the Wild, Wild West

Two matches, two victories by teams lying in the middle of the standings, and suddenly the (deep breath) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) qualifying process is a horse race.

Mexico 2, United States 1 ... Honduras 4, Costa Rica 0 ... and three points separate four teams atop the Concacaf standings, with four matches per team still to play.

Yes, this could go in any direction, and it's quite exciting. Certainly more exciting than, say, Costa Rica and the United States would like it to be, considering those two seemed to have pulled away a bit from the pack. Until Wednesday's matches.

Now it's Costa Rica with 12 points, Honduras and the U.S. with 10 and Mexico with 9, and sorting this out almost certainly will go down to the final day of qualifying, Oct. 14. It should be wild, and a goal here or there will separate first from fourth. And it is very important, indeed, to finish higher than fourth.

Here's why.

The top three finishers in the hexagonal, as it is often known here in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere, go directly to South Africa 2010.

The No. 4 team still has a shot to get to South Africa, but it detours through a home-and-home series with the No. 5 team out of South America. Winner (on aggregate) goes to South Africa, loser waits for 2014.

And that No. 5 South American team could be quite a test.

With four matches, per team, left in the South America qualifying, the No. 5 team is Ecuador. But Argentina is only two points ahead of the Ecuadorans, and Uruguay is only two back and Colombia and Venezuela are only three back. That's five teams in play for No. 5.

So, let's see, finish fourth in Concacaf and you could get ...

Argentina (and almost certain dismissal) ...

Or Ecuador or Colombia, which means serious altitude in Quito (9,300 feet/2,850 meters) or Bogota (8,300/2,650) or Medellin (4,900/1,500) and a road loss of a severity to be determined ...

Or Uruguay, which has won two World Cups, has a deep soccer culture and also a reputation for being the dirtiest team in FIFA ...

Or Venezuela, which would make it a political story for the U.S. or Honduras, each of which have major issues with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

So, you want to finish in the top three. For sure.

What's ahead for the Concacaf top four? We'll take them in current standings order.

Costa Rica: Like the other three, Costa Rica has two matches left at home and two on the road. The Ticos have a reputation for not being very good outside San Jose, but the reality here is that they have three of the mere six points earned so far, in 18 matches, by road teams in the final round of qualifying (thanks to a victory at Trinidad & Tobago). If Costa Rica can win twice on its home field (vs. Mexico and T&T), that's 18 points and should render road matches at El Salvador and the U.S. moot. Probably the safest bet of the four.

Predicted finish: 19 points, second, on goal differential.

Honduras: The Catrachos actually are second now, thanks to the best goal differential (plus-4) in the group. Honduras gets T&T and the U.S. at home, and that's one easy victory and one tougher one ... and Mexico and El Salvador on the road, which would seem like a certain loss and one winnable match, but ... The El Salvador match is the last on the schedule, and that ought to be a break because the Salvadorans almost certainly will be eliminated by then. Except that these two countries are sports arch-rivals and were the participants in the infamous 1969 "Football War" that began after a World Cup qualifying match and ended after four days of fighting and more than 4,000 fatalities. So, yes, El Salvador will be playing with its First XI and with full-blooded passion, even if all it can hope to gain from the match is mess up Honduras' chances of getting to South Africa. Honduras needs to clinch in its next three matches, that is. It does not want to go to San Salvador needing a point to make the top three, even if it has clearly superior talent.

Predicted finish: 17 points, fourth.

United States: Mexico is famed for its homefield advantage, but the Americans rarely concede a qualifying point at home, which should put the Yankees in good stead when El Salvador and Costa Rica come to visit. A road match at T&T next month could yield a point or three for the Yanks, since T&T is all but out of contention, but the Americans shouldn't count on taking any points out of Honduras. The home match with Costa Rica is the final of the hexagonal, for the Americans, and if Costa Rica has already qualified, the U.S. could be playing against a less-than-full-strength and less-than-motivated Ticos team.

Predicted finish: 19 points, first on goal differential.

Mexico: Los Tricolores looked much sharper in defeating the U.S. 2-1 on Wednesday, but Mexico has become a bad road team of late. Indeed, Mexico has yet to gain a single "away" point in the hexagonal, in three matches, including a loss at El Salvador. It has matches at home against Honduras and El Salvador, and that should be one difficult victory and one easy one. It cannot count on points out of Costa Rica, but it ends at T&T, and the Trinidadians will be out of contention and perhaps ready to roll over for an opponent it harbors no special animus toward.

Predicted finish: 18 points, third.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to see Honduras make it. I'm tired of the same old three getting in.