By Ridge Mahoney
It seems as if many of the pundits, including this one, were wrong about the Hexagonal.
Yes, our projections of an intensely competitive Hex are bearing true. Heading into the fifth round of the 10-game series to be played Tuesday night, no team has a perfect record. Panama and Mexico are unbeaten, but have tied seven of their nine matches combined, including a 0-0 result head-to-head last Friday.
There’s a three-way tie at the top among Costa Rica, Mexico, and the USA with seven points apiece. A point back is Panama, which sat atop the group just five days ago, and another two points down the ladder is Honduras. The top three advance automatically to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the fourth-place finisher faces a very winnable playoff against Oceania victor New Zealand.
So what didn’t we foresee? Each preceding Hexagonal featured at least one downtrodden straggler that rather quickly proved to be overmatched against the other five. (During the 2005 Hexagonal, for example, Panama accrued all of two points.) This time, so it seemed, there wasn’t going to be a minnow struggling against the current as the bigger, stronger fish moved upstream, and perhaps all six teams would stay in contention at least until the eighth round or even later.
Well, as results in the past week revealed, Jamaica is this edition’s runt. The only team yet to win a game, the Reggae Boyz have fallen to the bottom of the pack with just two points after back-to-back losses to Mexico (1-0) and the USA (2-1) at home. A revamped schedule necessitated by Mexico’s participation in the Confederations Cup required its game in Jamaica to be played June 4 instead of two weeks’ later, and the Mexicans obviously adjusted better than did the home team, securing a 1-0 victory.
That match may have drained and/or deflated the Jamaicans, for three days later they didn’t wake up -- except for a first-half Rodolph Austin shot that hit the post -- against the Americans until the final portion of the match. Trailing, 1-0, from the 30th minute when Jozy Altidore’s header put them behind, the Jamaicans resorted to their bad old habits of hasty crosses and wild shooting before knocking home a blatantly offside equalizer in the 89th minute.
Gifted a lifeline by the officials -- as well as some poor USA defending -- Jamaica couldn’t even hold onto the tie. Instead, the Americans worked a short corner and a stand-in right back, Brad Evans, escaped his marker to smack a shot past keeper Donovan Ricketts. After tying its first two games, including a heroic 0-0 result against Mexico in the Azteca Stadium, Jamaica has lost three straight and virtually fallen out of contention. Thus is shown how ruthless the Hex can be.
No doubt memories of the Jamaica's 1998 World Cup team, lead by current head coach Theodore Whitmore, swayed sentiment that the current version had a decent shot in the Hexagonal. But Whitmore's makeover that included importing several English-based players didn't improve the team sufficiently.
Each team has one game left against Jamaica, starting tonight with Honduras in Tegucigalpa. To keep pace with the teams that have won in Kingston, Mexico and the USA, Costa Rica (on Sept. 10) and Honduras (Oct. 15) would need to beat the Reggae Boyz in “The Office” as well. How much resistance the dispirited Jamaicans can mount will probably be its only influence on the Hexagonal even though it has yet to reach the midway point. Though Panama led the Hex after three games, it could be fifth by tonight, if it loses to the USA in Seattle and Honduras beats Jamaica at home.
At this point, it’s quite possible that at least one or perhaps two slots might not be decided until the final Hexagonal round, but the colorful and exuberant island nation that lit up the 1998 World Cup won’t be in the frame.