By Ridge Mahoney
The first three rounds of Hexagonal play have confirmed predictions that this should be the tightest competition since the format was introduced in 1989.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the region’s representatives in the 2014 World Cup will be capable of success. While the gap between the top and bottom has shrunk, the top itself may have sunk.
Panama, which was such a minnow in the 2005 edition that it managed a grand total of two points from 10 matches, is on top with five points.
Right behind with four points are the USA, Honduras, and Costa Rica, which had been on the bottom after two games. Mexico is fifth with three points, and Jamaica, which provided the biggest shock of Round 1 by tying 0-0 in the Azteca, trails the field with two points.
While this balance -- five of the first nine games have ended in ties -- makes for plenty of anguish and angst and heart-stopping moments over the next seven months, it remains to be seen whether that competition hones the eventual qualified teams for sharp World Cup showings, or merely spits out the least-bad of a mediocre lot.
Based on the first three games, Mexico isn’t what it used to be, certainly not the equal of its representatives in the last two World Cups. It reached the round of 16 and lost to Argentina both times, 2-1 in overtime in 2006 and quarterfinals in 2006 and 3-1 three years ago after stunning France, 2-0 in group play.
Yes, the team is in a bit of transition, but in the 270 Hexagonal minutes played so far, Mexico has put together maybe one good game: the first 70 minutes against Honduras, after which it blew a 2-0 lead to tie 2-2, and a few spurts Tuesday against the USA. It failed to score in back-to-back qualifiers in its fortress, which would have been inconceivable a year ago.
If the last two games are typical, Mexico will be painfully dependent on Javier Hernandez. Against Honduras, he applied a sharp finishing touch to his best two chances, and converted them both. He squandered two good opportunities Tuesday, and while there were mitigating circumstances on both –- he collided with teammate Giovanni dos Santos on the first and seemed surprised when a corner kick skipped through the six-yard box untouched to reach him at the far post on a high bounce -- his spotty form is of great concern to fans and head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre. His ragged display duplicated that of the Azteca friendly last August won by the Americans, 1-0.
The 0-0 tie Tuesday increased calls for de la Torre to incorporate, en masse, players from the Olympic gold medal squad of last year. The success of that team, along with that of Honduras -- which beat Spain in group play and put up a tremendous fight in its quarterfinal with Brazil before succumbing, 3-2 -- sparked the thought both of those teams would be infused with younger talent that would make its mark in the Hexagonal.
That may transpire at some point but right now the region’s three 2010 World Cup representatives -- Mexico, Honduras, and the USA -- all seem to be at a crossroads. Honduras started off the Hex by beating a very lackluster American team, 2-1, then needed a furious rally to tie Mexico at home, and in its first road test fell, 2-0, in Panama City.
This should all be encouraging for U.S. fans, since despite the absence of Landon Donovan, Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra along with a half-dozen other members of the player pool, the USA still extracted four points from the first three games. Its upside appears to be greater than that of its five Hexagonal foes.
Jamaica has already beefed up its roster with England-based players and can take confidence from its 2-1 defeat of the USA in Kingston last year in the semifinal phase. Panama has troubled the USA in the past and will again be a tough out, as will be Costa Rica.
Yet with more than a year and a half under his belt, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann should be able to devise the right systems and prepare his squad to deal with what his team will face.
When qualifying play commences in June, he should have a much deeper pool of players. The Mexico game featured five players currently in MLS and nine more who started their careers in America’s league. Along with a tougher Hexagonal competition, the battle for places on the squad will also intensify, and thus shoddy showings like that in San Pedro Sula won’t be repeated, no matter which 23 players pull on the U.S. jersey.
The question of which team is the best in Concacaf is wide-open, and there's no team better suited to seize the crown than the USA.