The USA’s five opponents in the Hexagonal, which kicks off Feb. 11, are all familiar foes. It’s faced each team at least once in the final round of Concacaf qualifying. All five teams have at least one player who came through the U.S. youth or college ranks.
Eriksson under the gun
Is the Tri slipping? It certainly seemed that way last year when Mexico failed to qualify for the Olympics and Under-17 World Cup — two years after it won the championship — and it struggled in World Cup qualifying, going winless in its last three games and only advancing to the Hexagonal ahead of Jamaica thanks to goal difference.
STAR. It’s now common for young Mexican stars to leave for Europe at a young age, but Rafael Marquez’s move to Monaco a decade ago was a novelty. With the possible exception of Hugo Sanchez, no player has enjoyed such success in Europe as Marquez, who is about to extend his contract with Barcelona through 2014.
COACH. Sven Goran Eriksson is the third coach Mexico has had in the last year. The Swede was supposed to bring order to the national team after the reign of the fiery Sanchez ended, but the Tri’s poor conclusion to the semifinal round of qualifying soured his relationship with the panicky Mexican press.
U.S. CONNECTION. Two players Eriksson called up for the January game against Sweden were raised in the United States. Chivas forward Carlos Ochoa played his prep and college ball in California, while Club America left back Edgar Castillo was born and raised in New Mexico.
U.S. RIVALRY. Mexico has a huge edge in the qualifying series — 14-4-5 overall and 12-0-1 at home — but a key to the U.S. success in qualifying relatively easily for the last three World Cups is that the Americans have split with Mexico — two ties in 1997 and home wins in Columbus in 2001 and 2005 to compensate for losses in Azteca.
Hopes depend on youngsters
El Salvador played in the 1970 and 1982 World Cups — qualification for the former tournament followed what is known as the “Soccer War” with Honduras — but has only come close once since then. It will begin the Hexagonal as the longshot to qualify for South Africa 2010.
STAR. Rodolfo Zelaya, 20, provided the goals El Salvador needed to reach the final round of qualifying. He had a hat trick in the 5-0 win over Haiti and the first goal in the 3-0 victory over Suriname that put the Cuscatlecos in the final six. Zelaya, whose play with Chalatenango earned him a call-up to the national team, is being compared to Raul Diaz Arce. He’s part of a new generation of Salvadoran stars that includes Cesar Larios, 20, and Nicaraguan-born Shawn Martin, 21.
COACH. Mexican Carlos de los Cobos is in his third year as El Salvador’s head coach. He played for Mexico in the 1986 World Cup and was an assistant to Manuel Lapuente on Mexico’s 1998 World Cup team.
U.S. CONNECTION. Edwin Miranda was born in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, but raised in California, where he attended Reseda High School and earned back-to-back Big West Defender Player of the Year honors at Cal State Northridge. Miranda, 28, played last season for the USL-1 Puerto Rico Islanders and was called up for the UNCAF Cup.
U.S. RIVALRY. El Salvador has never beaten the USA in six qualifiers. Its only favorable result with something on the line was in the game known as the “Nightmare at the Soccer Park” — a 0-0 tie in St. Louis that left the Americans needing to beat Trinidad & Tobago in their final game to qualify for the 1990 World Cup.
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Soca Warriors get support
A nasty dispute between the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation and national team players over World Cup 2006 bonuses almost derailed the 2010 campaign, but the Soca Warriors eased into the Hexagonal when they beat an undermanned U.S. team and Guatemala was upset by Cuba in Havana in October. The TTFF is investing heavily in the qualifying campaign, which begins with a game at El Salvador on Feb. 11.
STAR. It was 20 years ago when Dwight Yorke debuted for T&T as a 17-year-old phenom from Tobago, and he remains a key player for the Soca Warriors. He missed the first U.S. qualifier last fall — a 3-0 U.S. win in Chicago — because of club commitments in England with Sunderland, but he returned for the second game and scored the winning penalty kick.
COACH. Francisco Maturana begins his second year in charge of the T&T program — an eternity for a program where continuity is rare. Maturana, 60, is best known for taking his native Colombia to the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.
U.S. CONNECTION. Trinidad & Tobago has for years tapped into the ranks of former U.S. collegians. The most recent players to break into the national team are former Liberty University stars Darryl Roberts and Osei Telesford.
U.S. RIVALRY. The Soca Warriors’ 2-1 win last October — after the USA had clinched a berth in the Hexagonal — was their first over the Americans in 12 World Cup qualifiers. The most famous qualifier, of course, was the USA’s 1-0 win in Port of Spain that ended its run of 40 years without playing in the World Cup.
Dallas product Nunez thrives
The talent has always been there for the Catrachos, who disappointed in qualifying for the last two World Cups after winning the 2000 Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. By winning its semifinal group ahead of Mexico, Jamaica and Canada, Honduras demonstrated that it’s a serious contender for a World Cup berth.
STAR. David Suazo, 29, is arguably the best striker in Concacaf. He starred in Italy for nine seasons with Cagliari and Inter Milan before joining Portuguese club Benfica on loan this season. Suazo, nicknamed “La Pantera” (“the Panther”), played alongside cousin Maynor Suazo early in his national team career, and another cousin, the highly regarded Hendry Thomas, now starts on the backline.
COACH. Colombian Reynaldo Rueda coached Honduras at the 2007 Gold Cup and through the first two stages of World Cup 2010 qualifying. He had considerable success with Colombian national youth teams. He took the senior team to the semifinals of the 2003 Copa America and 2005 Gold Cup, but it came up one point short in its bid to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
U.S. CONNECTION. Ramon Nunez, who rose through the U.S. ranks with the Dallas Texans, SMU and FC Dallas and Chivas USA in MLS, has emerged as the Catrachos’ playmaker. His strong play during the semifinal round earned him a transfer to Mexican club Puebla. Second-year Kansas City Wizards midfielder Roger Espinoza, another U.S. college product (Yavapai and Ohio State), joined Honduras for its January camp in Miami.
U.S. RIVALRY. The USA and Honduras have met in only two qualifying competitions. The Americans won and tied in a pair of meaningless games in Honduras in 1965, and the USA and Honduras split in 2001 — the Americans winning in San Pedro Sula and the Catrachos prevailing before a pro-Honduras crowd at Washington’s RFK Stadium.
Ticos are tough at home
Like the United States and Mexico, the Ticos represented Concacaf at the 2002 and 2006 World Cup. They were the only team to sweep all six group games in the semifinal round of 2010 qualifying but should find the Hexagonal tougher.
STAR. Bryan Ruiz has blossomed since the arrival of Rodrigo Kenton as head coach last June. The 23-year-old Ruiz, who plays for KAA Gent in Belgium, scored twice in a 3-1 win at Haiti that pulled the Ticos away from their rivals in the semifinal round of qualifying.
COACH. Kenton is a veteran of two World Cups — as an assistant to Bora Milutinoivc with Costa Rica in 1990 and Nigeria in 1998. He finally got the Ticos’ head coaching job when Hernan Medford was fired following their surprisingly tough first-round series against Grenada.
U.S. CONNECTION. Gonzalo Segares parlayed a strong college career at VCU into a shot in MLS, where he has excelled with the Chicago Fire. He debuted for Costa Rica in 2007 and is now a key member of its national team for its World Cup effort.
U.S. RIVALRY. The Ticos are the only Hexagonal team besides Mexico to have a winning record against the USA in qualifiers. Since the 1-1 tie in Alajuela in 1985, Costa Rica is perfect in six home games. The Ticos handed the USA one of its most crushing defeats — a 1-0 loss in Torrance, Calif., that ended its 1986 qualifying campaign
Feb. 11 – Mexico.
March 28 – at El Salvador
April 1 – Trinidad & Tobago.
June 3 – at Costa Rica
June 6 – Honduras
Aug. 12 – at Mexico
Sept. 5 – El Salvador
Sept. 9 – at Trinidad & Tobago.
Oct. 10 – at Honduras
Oct. 14 – Costa Rica
(This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)