Balance does not equal strength

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.

20 comments about "Balance does not equal strength".
  1. Luis Arreola, March 28, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.

    What the Hell are you talking about Ridge?? Panama looked very good since last Gold Cup. Upside?? What has USA shown other than the ability to bunker and play hard in a lot of snow?? Both improvements will not help much at all in Brazil which is only 1 year away. Bocanegra has been officially replaced by Omar and along with Besler are the only visible upside on this USA team so far. Landon?? Who knows. Jamaica deafeted USA without the English players. Let's not forget that USA was lucky to get a point in Mexico with 2 non calls, one definitely an obvious call which would have put USA at 5th and Mexico at tie for first. One lucky non call made this what it is. In the next 3 games Mexico and Honduras can break away from the pack with as much as 6 points at least. Can you imagine how many more free kicks Mexico would have had with Jones in the game?? USA seize the crown?? Ridge, irresponsable journalism, on your part. I will bookmark this section.

  2. Tom Symonds, March 28, 2013 at 6:25 p.m.

    I'm encouraged that the USMNT success, so far, will spell the end of the Donovan, Bocanegra, etc., era. In the movie "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," the Duke learned it was time for the new guys to learn to cross the river under hostile fire. And so it is with the USMNT...and I am pleased they did so well crossing that Azteca river under hostile Mexican fire. For me, it's all about the future and I think Klinsmann has got to be buoyed by what he's learned about players who are the future of US Soccer.

  3. David Sirias, March 28, 2013 at 6:37 p.m.

    Lol. Boca and Dolo ....,really? If we are relying on guys who exited their prime years ago we don't deserve to go. Even Donovan is not the player he was and should not be expected to contribute in the same way and play the same position

    USA might indeed take the reigns. But it will be with the new generation stepping up, not the old guard somehow rediscovering the old magic

    Soccer writers and many fans crack me up ; International ball is about form, fitness and youth. Now, not even six months ago. Experience only goes so far. See, USA 2002. See Jordi Alba 2012 Past results are meaningless. I don't like Klinsmann's reliance on Germans and playing people out of position. But his love of Darwin I like.

  4. Eric Schmitt, March 28, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.

    Bookmark whatever you want, Luis. Here's why Mexico didn't get the PK: they cried wolf once too often. They spent the majority of the game diving for fouls and the ref no longer trusted his eyes. Mexico was in fact depending on those fouls instead of simply playing soccer. The US has just as good a chance to seize the crown of this hex as a team that depends on diving and drawing fouls to succeed.

  5. Karl Ortmertl, March 28, 2013 at 8:02 p.m.

    Now that Donovan is coming back, the US team is immeasurably better. You know Mexico will eventually kick it into gear. How this region does in Brazil? Who knows? That's what the World Cup is all about. Judging on what happened in South Africa, most European teams are, by and large, fairly useless when they leave Europe. South America figures to dominate once again, as they did in South Africa and CONCACAF figures to be in a pretty good position playing on their neighbor's turf. I don't expect Gold, but I wouldn't be surprised if the US and Mexico make it out of the group stage again. The rest of the teams are better. You're seeing more and more of their players making it in Europe. And, remarkably enough, I think the MLS helps make the other CONCACAF teams stronger, as well. Their players get experience playing against a more European style of play than they would have gotten otherwise. I think it helps them when they play the US in the qualifiers, as well.

  6. John Soares, March 28, 2013 at 8:07 p.m.

    Eric... I agree! The first, yes there was contact but far from the ball and play. As you point out the player went down as if struck by a tank and in front of the ref. Great non-call. The second; close but still not a "sure" thing. Call it 50/50. As to the article. I believe the US team is on the upswing. Compared to the lest few games NOT few years... that's a positive. Mexico is in a slump but I don't see a long term problem they have the talent. The "fight just became for first and second place. Where a month it would have been Mexico as the sure thing.

  7. soccer talk, March 28, 2013 at 9:07 p.m.

    US, mex advance. No threat WC finals. Karl makes valid point with MLS. USA has time to do better hex plays out, even doing well with 4 points. The other as good as what we have observed. We could screw up with wrong player call ups , but we on the flip side improve on a successful start.

  8. Luis Arreola, March 28, 2013 at 9:11 p.m.

    John, can you explain how you determined it was 50/50 and what made it close but not a sure thing?? Look at you guys, you think that negating the obvious makes you great fans. A 50/50 foul/clip from behind from a defender that was no where near the ball. Thats hilarious. USA needs more naive fans like you.

  9. Luis Arreola, March 28, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.

    Karl, that does actually make some sense. The MLS has served that purpose, it has defenitely made these Concacaf teams play USA better and better overall with more of their players playing pro in MLS besides their own domestic leagues.

  10. David Crowther, March 29, 2013 at 4:51 a.m.

    I think the MLS has been particularly helpful to Jamaica, and to some extent Honduras. But Panama's growth has been based primarily on players gaining experience in the Colombian and other Latin American leagues. While the core of the Costa Rican team is based in Europe, with 2 players each in the EPL and La Liga and a slew of other younger up and coming players in Scandinavia. With the notable exceptions of Blas Perez and Saborio, neither the current Panama nor Costa Rican squads has benefited all that much from the MLS.

  11. David Crowther, March 29, 2013 at 5:01 a.m.

    I would add that after watching Jamaica's last 2 games, I'm not all that impressed with either their MLS or English championship players. They may be fast, physical and fit, but they don't have the skills to match up with the best of the Central Americans. Panama was clearly the better team in Kingston and the Ticos could have easily won by a much higher score if not for some bad luck and poor finishing. A 4-0 or 5-0 final score would have better reflected the difference between the two teams. (Watching this last game made me very glad that we got lucky with the weather in Denver)

  12. Luis Arreola, March 29, 2013 at 9:05 a.m.

    David, Lucky?? Dont say that here. These guys will eat you up. It was a great win under hard conditions. Your common sense has no place in Soccer America!!! I am the bad guy here. There is no room for 2 of us!! Just kidding.

  13. haendel lazo, March 29, 2013 at 10:09 a.m.

    Why don't you create Soccer-Mexico website, every member will agree and be on your side!

  14. Chris Sapien , March 29, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.

    OH, so now you call it a "great win"? Are you serious Louise, or do you not think everyone remembers your six hundred posts since March 22nd?? Bottom line for you, a top referee will not call what he doesn't see!! Especially when he knows what tactics a side is known to deploy (chicharito), moron. Look at the game again, Bradley was in line with the ref, the ball had not reached where Edu and your breathren were located, and if he could not differentiate who made first contact with the ball on the tackle, it is not to be called. No different than the foul on Dempsey in Colorado, where the defender's body actually was inline with the referees position. Tackling from behind is not a foul, nor is it written so in the Laws of the Game! Dude, do some homework.

  15. Luis Arreola, March 29, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.

    Lazo, thats a great idea brother. Gracias. Let me create more of a fan base.

  16. Luis Arreola, March 29, 2013 at 5:47 p.m.

    Chris, of course I am serious. It was a great win in extremely tough conditions that no one even hinted would happen.Oh really so Demspey doesnt dive?? So Chicharo dove so then that means that if EDu completely plays the man from behind with out even looking like he can get to the ball it should be waved off?? I guess I didnt know what a great ref looked like, then. Thanks you idiot. I did say i would not call Chicharo a foul even though that was more a foul tahn the one called for Costly in Honduras. The EDu foul was obvious but by your logic it was ok to not call it given the Chicharo dive. And I am the moron?? Edu did not make contact with the ball. He made contact with only the player as he was going to strike the ball making him miss hit the ball as he was going down, stupid. Why dont you look at a replay before blubbering nonsense. Making excuses for our USMNT will not make them better, stupid. They are not a skilled team that until now has only shown they can bunker effectivelly with the help of a bad ref. Thats reality. Deal with it.

  17. Luis Arreola, March 29, 2013 at 5:48 p.m.

    If EDu foul was not a PK then what is?? Chris I think nothing really merits a Pk to you and that's great for you because USA will hardly be in that situation if they keep playing like they did in Mexico. Cant get a PK if you dont even touch the opponents Penalty box.

  18. Chris Sapien , March 29, 2013 at 6:45 p.m.

    Well if our ulterior motive is to keep mexico out of the WC, I guess we don't need to go into your penalty area because you can't beat us when we "bunker, hunker down" anyway, right? There are no boxes in soccer "sporto". Lastly, I posted he is not inclined to call what he can't differentiate. Look it up, you did by the bigger Webster's like I suggested right? So to this point, little mexico just hasn't had the right referee yet, have they?? What is your Jamaica excuse then, just so the rest of us can write it down?? Must of been the jerk chicken they brought the mexican players as a gift.

  19. Luis Arreola, March 29, 2013 at 10:09 p.m.

    Whatever you want to call it or how complicated you want to word it. He should have called it. What makes a ref a bad one is his inability to differentiate an obvious foul in the penalty "area" ( dont want you to get confused bro) from a nonfoul. If he cant differentiate a call that easy and obvious then he shouldnt be reefing. I said many times that out of Mexico's 3 games, Jamaica is the only one to deserve a point or 3. How many times would you like for me to say it again?? USA must have brought some snow to blur the ref's vision.

  20. Chris Sapien , March 31, 2013 at 4:03 a.m.

    Keep pounding sand, Luis..........instead of soccer instruction, you should provide Monday morning quarterback lessons.......

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