By Evan Ream
With the Gold Cup winding down with just four teams remain in the competition; I wanted to take a look at the next exciting event in CONCACAF that is just over the horizon: World Cup Qualifying.
The Hexagonal format has been in place since qualification for the 1998 World Cup. It takes the top six teams in CONCACAF and pits them against each other in 10 home and away fixtures with the top three teams automatically qualifying and the fourth place team earning a playoff spot against another federation.
The last Hexagonal featured USA, Mexico, Honduras (the qualifiers), Costa Rica (lost to Uruguay in a playoff), El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago (did not qualify). Due to the recent good and bad performances, I thought it would be interesting to project who would make this edition of the Hexagonal that will kick off in the spring of 2013.
Right now, the only two teams that we can consider locks for the Hexagonal are USA and Mexico. Costa Rica have made every edition of the Hexagonal, but we cannot consider them locks due to their inconsistent play, especially as of late. Honduras should also not be seen as a lock as they have historically underachieved and are suffering from the retirement of a few of their great players. It should be noted that the teams that I expect to make it through to the Hexagonal may not because of the draw for third round qualifying. Last cycle, many people expected Canada to make it to the final round, but then they were drawn into a group with Mexico, Honduras, and Jamaica, ending their hopes.
Because of the great amount of nations, CONCACAF qualifying is somewhat of a complicated process; nothing really important happens until the third round of qualifying. In the third round, 12 teams are split into three groups of four. The group winners and runners-up from each group then advance to the Hexagonal. Right now the six seeded teams that automatically advance to this round are USA, Mexico, Honduras (in pot A as the higher seeds) Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba (in pot B as the lower seeds). The six teams that I expect to join them would be Panama, Canada, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti (all high seeds in the second round of qualification) and Guatemala (a 2nd seed). This of course all depends on who draws Guatemala, which are they only team that aren’t seeded in the second round that actually have a chance of doing something.
With the general assurance that both USA and Mexico advance, that leaves four spots for Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti and Guatemala. As Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago have both been in bad form lately, failing to even qualify for the Gold Cup, I would eliminate them now. Cuba, due to their terrible form in the Gold Cup, should also be counted out, leaving us with Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Canada, Panama, El Salvador, and Guatemala for four spots. All of these teams are decent and would provide good opposition to anyone in the Hexagonal, at least at home, so which teams will be in it? Let’s take a look:
Honduras – I didn’t expect Honduras to do much in the Gold Cup. They had just lost David Suazo, Carlos Pavon, and Amado Guevara to retirement. They have struggled to create at times with the absence of Guevara, but it looks like they have found a replacement in Jerry Bengston to replace Suazo and Pavon and partner Carlo Costly up top. Wilson Palacios is probably one of the best players in CONCACAF. They seem to be weak at defense but Costa Rica couldn’t penetrate it in open play. Honduras also has the fortune of being seeded and thus avoiding USA and Mexico in the third round.
Costa Rica – Costa Rica is the only team besides USA and Mexico to appear in every single Hexagonal. After beating Cuba 5-0 on opening day in the Gold Cup, this team underachieved for the remainder of the tournament, drawing El Salvador and losing to Mexico before being ousted by Honduras on penalties. Costa Rica has star players in Bryan Ruiz and Alvaro Saborio (though he has been in awful form as of late) that provide the goals as well as a lot of young up and comers who made their mark in the Gold Cup. Costa Rica also enjoys one of the best home-field advantages in CONCACAF.
Jamaica – Jamaica was very impressive in the Gold Cup, picking up 9 points in the group stage without allowing a goal. They were unfortunate to draw USA in the quarterfinal. Jamaica showed that they belong. Ryan Johnson of San Jose had an excellent tournament and Dane Richards showed why he is one of the best players in CONCACAF. The tournament could have been different had star striker Omar Cummings not missed out. Jamaica is solid from the back to the front but shows a lack of discipline and tactical awareness at times; this was very evident in their game against USA.
Canada – Canada were eliminated at the group stage in the Gold Cup, but they shouldn’t have been. Canada lost 2-0 to USA in a game they were decent in. They beat Guadeloupe 1-0 and then drew Panama 1-1. Normally 4 points is enough to get you through, especially in a Gold Cup, but this wasn’t to be. Still, there were many positives. The defense was actually very good. They didn’t get a goal from open play, but they should have only allowed one. Canada’s keeper was guilty of making two terrible mistakes. If he hadn’t, they would have gotten 6 points and qualified for the quarterfinals. Canada is a solid team that is very hard to break down, but they can’t really break you down either.
Panama – Panama have been the surprise of the Gold Cup this year. They upset USA and won Group C, then beat El Salvador on penalties. Panama is very strong up front with Blas Perez and Luis Tejada and Captain Felipe Baloy looks like a carbon copy of Oguchi Onyewu, only Baloy is actually still good. Panama is also decent in goal with Central-American star Jaime Pinedo. Panama made the 2006 Hexagonal but that was their lone appearance in it and they picked up just 2 points.
El Salvador – El Salvador have a bunch of small, quick players who can give defenders fits… when they actually play together as a team. I can’t tell you how many times I watched a Salvadorian player dribble around aimlessly without knowing what to do. El Salvador’s strength is in their speedy attack with Rodolfo Zelaya, scorer of four goals at the Gold Cup. Unfortunately, El Salvador doesn’t really have a lot of quality other than him and thus plays something vaguely resembling a 5-4-1. They pack it in and try to score on counter-attacks. El Salvador is also very weak in goal with Miguel Montes.
Guatemala – Before the tournament, I thought Guatemala were going to be terrible. After the tournament, I wasn’t sure what they were. They drew Honduras, lost to Jamaica, and beat Grenada which is pretty much how they were expected to perform. They then went ahead against Mexico before losing 2-1. This team doesn’t have a lot of quality but they have Marco Pappa and Carlos Ruiz, good for a goal here and there. Still, Ruiz isn’t the player he once was and Guatemala is very weak in other areas. More should be expected from the most populous country in Central America.
Looking at these teams, my best guess for the 2013 Hexagonal would look like this:
After that, I would rank these teams next in terms of their likelihood to make it:
2. El Salvador
Each of those teams COULD make it, but I don’t see them doing it ultimately. A lot can change in the two years we have before this happens, but I think we have a pretty good idea of how this will all play out based on what we just saw in the Gold Cup. What do you guys think?