By Ridge Mahoney
Two games remain in the Hexagonal, with only the Americans’ final placing to be determined. How should they be handled?
With a win and a tie in its games against Jamaica and at Panama Oct. 11 and 15, the Americans would duplicate the 6-2-2 mark with which it finished first in the 2009 Hexagonal. Two wins would mean a best-ever 7-2-1 record as well as top spot. It currently sits in first at 5-2-1.
In a different setting a Hexagonal crown and/or its eventual FIFA ranking would affect the World Cup draw, but not in this case. If used as they were for the 2010 World Cup draw, the October rankings will determine the top seeds, and though it has risen to 13th in the rankings, the USA has no chance of climbing into that tier.
For the 2010 World Cup, FIFA did not set out to balance the eight World Cup groups competitively. If it uses the same format, the pots will be arranged to spread out teams from different confederations. Depending on the makeup of the eight seeds, there will be a pot of only European teams. The remaining two pots (16 teams) will consist of South American, African, Asian and Concacaf representatives, perhaps a leftover European team and New Zealand if it qualifies.
Playoffs in November will determine the composition of the final 32 teams, and on Dec. 3 -- three days before the draw -- FIFA will decide the formula by which the eight seeds will be determined. In any case, what the Americans do against Jamaica and Panama will have a slight effect on its end-of-year FIFA ranking but unless there’s a radical revolution in FIFA, absolutely nothing to do with its World Cup grouping.
Still, there’s plenty at stake internally. There are places to be won, reputations to be either established or enhanced. Maybe a dozen players -- not counting the three goalkeepers -- will be difficult to dislodge from the final 23-man roster; that still leaves at least eight spots up for grabs.
It would make sense, from both competitive and marketing perspectives, for Jurgen Klinsmann to play the first game with his full squad, then take the strongest team possible to Panama but let the European-based players who played against Jamaica return to their clubs. As the Costa Rica and Mexico matches this month demonstrated, there’s still much work to do incorporating different combinations of players into their roles and responsibilities.
There’s been considerable progress; centerbacks Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson played together for only the third time against Mexico, and for the most part were effective and in sync. Yet though glitches were few, more ruthless finishing could have tilted the outcome. Centerbacks not only cover for each other; one of their primary jobs is to snuff out situations and bail out erring teammates.
When they can’t -- as was the case when Gonzalez tried to put pressure on Costa Rican midfielder Christian Bolanos out wide as he served a cross from the space Michael Orozco should have filled -- opponents will score goals. In the Costa Rica game a major problem was the lack of cohesion between Orozco and right midfielder Graham Zusi, and as the closest man to the ball, Gonzalez did what he should. But Bolanos was quick and smart enough to find a good spot and serve a great ball.
In the next eight months Klinsmann and his staff will focus on training the players to react quickly and efficiently when situations arise. Defensively, that requires recognizing threats at an early stage and intervening smartly; offensively, the objective is to spot openings and exploit them. Getting thumped by Belgium and Costa Rica and being overrun in the first half in Sarajevo by Bosnia-Herzegovina should be proof enough that this team still has significant room to grow.
Fielding a top lineup against Jamaica and fielding a lesser selection in Panama City would, of course, trigger protests in Mexico. Its World Cup qualification hinges on the result of its final Hexagonal game at Costa Rica to be played at the same time as Panama-USA, though it can severely damage Panama’s goal difference -- the teams are currently tied at minus-2 -- by thumping out a comfortable victory in the Azteca.
All Mexico really needs to do is beat Panama convincingly, say 3-0, to take off the pressure. That scoreline would push Mexico three points ahead of Panama and give it a huge edge in goal difference, plus-1 to minus-5. But Mexico is playing so badly any result is possible and thus anything can happen on the final day.
To which Klinsmann should say, “Not my job.” Yes, there should be respect for the integrity of the competition and blah, blah, blah, but Mexico is in the yogurt because of its pathetic displays to date. How about zero wins, three ties, and one loss at home in the Hexagonal? Costa Rica and the USA are a perfect 4-0-0 at home and already bound for Brazil. Do the math.
And the depth shown by the Americans this year -- nearly three dozen players started while winning the Gold Cup and qualifying from the Hexagonal with two games to spare -- ensures the USA will put out a team capable of winning regardless of venue or opponent.
It’s quite possible that Michael Bradley’s ankle injury will keep him out of the October matches, and thus there’s ample time for Klinsmann to devise strategies that offset his absence. The shock of losing Bradley in pregame warmups disrupted the Americans in Costa Rica but with a few days of preparation, a good game plan sans Bradley produced a solid showing and clinching win in Columbus.
There’s no ready replacement for Bradley and still issues to be resolved at a few spots. Brazil is more than half a year away, but the next two games are the only ones remaining to test players in a competitive setting.
For players on the fringe, and those recent additions such as John Brooks and Aron Johannsson, these next two games are the most important in their national-team careers. There will be no lack of motivation to play well, and to win.