[WORLD CUP QUALIFYING]In past Hexagonals, the USA has qualified for the World Cup as early as the seventh game in the 10-match campaign, or by the eighth game on other occasions. No such guarantee is available this time around. Even a victory against Trinidad & Tobago Wednesday in Port of Spain (kickoff at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Telefutura) in Game 8 will assure only fourth place, and the fourth-place finisher must play a treacherous two-game playoff against the fifth-place finisher in South America for a spot in South Africa.
The Americans are tucked into a first-place tie with Honduras in the six-team group. Both nations are 4-1-2 (wins-ties-losses) and have 13 points. Mexico and Costa Rica are right behind at 4-0-3 (12 points), well ahead of El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago, mired at the bottom with 1-2-4 records and just five points.
Since the USA smacked T&T, 3-0, with a Jozy Altidore hat trick in Nashville April 1, former captain Russell Latapy has taken over as head coach and Dwight Yorke has officially retired. Honduras hammered T&T, 4-1, in San Pedro Sula on Saturday, as Bolton defender Jlloyd Samuel made his T&T debut. If healthy, Fulham striker Bobby Zamora - another recent call-up -- could make his first appearance Wednesday after sitting out the Honduras game with an injury.
San Jose striker Cornell Glen and Sunderland forward Kenwyne Jones endow T&T with enough firepower to keep the U.S. defense busy, in particular since defender Jay DeMerit hasn't recovered from his groin strain sufficiently to travel with the team to Port of Spain. Oguchi Onyewu served a one-game suspension Saturday in the 2-1 victory against El Salvador, and DeMerit's spot could be filled by either Carlos Bocanegra or Chad Marshall, who manned the middle Saturday, or Jonathan Spector, who played right back Saturday yet is capable of filling any of the back-four slots.
Midfielder Ricardo Clark, who was one of nine players carrying cautions into the El Salvador game, wasn't named to the game-day roster of 18. His range and quickness and fresh legs are likely to be utilized against T&T, and so too could the touch and poise of Jose Francisco Torres, who in five minutes as a sub nailed a fierce header on goal that was saved and won a ball in the middle third to thwart an opposing attack.
Giveaways in midfield plagued the Americans on several occasions and Coach Bob Bradley will want cleaner and crisper play in a turnaround game where fatigue could be a major factor.
"The double-fixture games are always hard, physically and mentally," said Landon Donovan, who assisted on both goals - by Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore - as the USA rallied from a 1-0 deficit. "We come from a game where we were down a goal, and down on ourselves, to going up a goal and winning the game. So we're on an emotional high but we need to get going again pretty quickly."
Unlike the tie-infested Hexagonal of 1997, during which nearly half (13/30) of the matches ended in ties, the trend in recent competitions has skewed the other way. Four years ago, when the USA and Mexico finished tied atop the six-team group with 7-1-2 (wins-ties-losses) and 22 points, there were only four ties. In 2001, Costa Rica finished on top at 7-1-2 (23 points) with the USA and Mexico tied for second (5-2-3, 17 points) as just six matches ended even.
Only three ties (of 21 games) have been played in this Hexagonal, including the point secured by the Americans via a 2-2 deadlock March 28 in San Salvador. That point looked pretty good when Mexico lost in San Salvador, 2-1, June 6, but by winning, 3-0, in Costa Rica Saturday the Mexicans have ratcheted up the importance of doing more than tying on the road.
While the USA needs to win in Port of Spain, ties in the other games can greatly aid its cause, especially if El Salvador can come up with a strong game at home against Costa Rica and keep the Ticos at least three points behind the USA. In the other game, Mexico hosts Honduras, and is eager to atone for the 3-1 thrashing it suffered in San Pedro Sula five months ago.
With no control of what happens in the other games, all the Americans can do is concentrate on its only remaining contest against the bottom feeders, from which it has extracted seven points in three matches.
"We know it's going to be a battle down there in Trinidad," says U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra. "And it'll be hot."
Those conditions and the quick turnaround increase the importance of not giving up the first goal, which the Americans have done four times in their seven Hexagonal games.
In February of 2005, the Americans kicked off that edition of the Hexagonal by winning, 2-1, in Port of Spain. Twenty years ago, a 1-0 victory on Paul Caligiuri's goal against the same opponent in the same city clinched qualification for the 1990 World Cup.
A win Wednesday can only move the Americans closer to qualification for 2010. Anything less, and just getting to South Africa looks shaky with no more than 14 points in the bag, and two difficult games remaining: at Honduras Oct. 10, and at home four days later against Costa Rica.