By Ridge Mahoney
What we learned from Friday’s 1-0 snowfest in Colorado is what already knew: the Americans are very tough hombres.
But are they tough enough and shrewd enough to recover from that Frigidaire fiasco and jump into the oven that is Estadio Azteca?
Slowed and buffeted by a heavy snowfall, the Costa Ricans seldom used their skill and speed to zip through the middle third as they would have preferred. They were forced into scrambled battles and 50-50 duels that the Americans won more often than not in a brutal, shapeless game mostly devoid of nuance.
So after a depressing 2-1 loss in San Pedro Sula and majestically ugly 1-0 triumph in Commerce City, Colo., in the first two Hexagonal matches, what the Americans have become under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to be defined. As injuries heal and a superstar comes back from hiatus the pool of available players will look very different in June, as will the playing field.
Beating Costa Rica in a must-win game probably did more for the fans and the press than it did for the players in terms of confidence.
Going back more than 20 years, to an historic 1-0 win in Port of Spain that clinched a spot in the 1990 World Cup, the Americans have time and time again responded with their backs against the wall. This crop of players is no different.
Yet what will be the long-term implications if they can’t get at least a point in Azteca, as Jamaica did last month by playing a 0-0 tie that left the Mexicans grumbling and muttering? Is this game Tuesday at least a “must-tie?”
The way the Hexagonal has gone so far -- with four of the six games ending in ties -- the math of qualification is already getting cumbersome. The middle four teams -- USA, Mexico, Panama, and Jamaica -- in the standings all have a goal difference of zero. No team has been able to gain maximum points and no teams have been blanked.
Mexico has only two points, and threw away two more Friday in San Pedro Sula by
squandering a 2-0 lead. Panama and Jamaica also have tied both of their games, which leaves Honduras and the USA as the only teams to have won a game, and the Americans and the Costa Ricans holding
the only defeats.
Though three points are on the line in each match and results count the same regardless of venue, a tie in Azteca has been much harder to come by than the same result in Kingston or Panama City. Of course, Jamaica didn’t follow through by winning at home, and so a Hexagonal predicted to be very tight has started out in that fashion.
Mexico is already under intense pressure for not beating, or even scoring, at home against Jamaica last month and faltering late in San Pedro Sula, where game-time temperatures topped 100 degrees. Still, they survived and claimed a point away from home.
Contrasting those conditions in Honduras with the sub-freezing weather and snowstorm that blanketed Dick’s Sporting Goods Park Friday gives one a clearer picture of just how extreme can be the arduous path through the Hexagonal, and just how valuable points on the road can be. If teams continue to struggle at home, the road points will be decisive, especially in case of a road win.
If a baseline of winning at home and tying on the road yields a score of zero, here’s how the six Hexagonal teams stand in points as well as plus-minus, with an explanation of why each team is in the minus category. Since no team has won on the road, which would be a plus-2 result, every team is below the waterline:
PTS TEAM (PLUS-MINUS)
4 Honduras (-2), tied Mexico at home
3 USA (-1), lost at Honduras
2 Panama (-2) tied Costa Rica at home
2 Mexico (-2), tied Jamaica at home
2 Jamaica (-2), tied Panama at home
1 Costa Rica (-1), lost to USA on the road
Plus-Minus: +2 road win; 0 home win, road tie; -1 road loss; -2 home tie; -3 home loss.
Tuesday, March 26
Costa Rica-Jamaica, beIN Sport (live), 10 pm.
Panama-Honduras, beIN Sport en Espanol (live), 10 pm.
Mexico-USA, ESPN, Univision (live) 10:30 pm.