One quick trip through a round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying – the six semifinal openers played Friday – conjured up the usual mix of the expected and the surprising.
In this semifinal phase, the cost of a stumble is deemed to be more foreboding than in the Hexagonal, which consists of 10 matches rather than six. It might prove to be that way for least a couple of teams, given the results of round one.
By duly beating St. Vincent & The Grenadines, 6-1, St. Louis after falling behind to an early goal, the USA accomplished its mission, as did Mexico to a lesser extent with a 3-0 victory over El Salvador at the Azteca Stadium. Haiti, as it showed last summer at the Gold Cup by reaching the quarterfinals, can be tough to beat, and even with the homefield advantage Costa Rica prevailed only by 1-0.
But each of the other three games yielded some tint of the unexpected.
YO, CANADA! Canada also won at home, 1-0, over Honduras, and that result heaps a lot of pressure on the Hondurans, which host Mexico in their next game on Tuesday. A failure to win that game would leave Honduras trailing both teams by at least two points, a scenario difficult to forecast before the game given how many times the Canadians have misfired since last reaching the Hexagonal in 1997.
The Canadians have typically faltered at home and scuffled on the road, but 20,108 noisy fans in Vancouver were treated to a spirited and cohesive display. Portland midfielder Will Johnson led the attack and scored its goal by heading down a Junior Hoilett cross toward the goal line, where it bounced off the falling form of teammate Cyle Larin on its way into the net.
Larin got credit for his fourth international goal. Johnson, who relished the time and space granted by a rather static Honduran midfield, also narrowly missed a goal when keeper Noel Valladares deflected his swerving free kick onto the goal post. Johnson and his teammates stuck to their task and seldom did Honduras threaten. They hugged and shook their fists vigorously at the final whistle.
Slightly more than three years ago, Canada’s vision of reaching the 2013 Hex disintegrated in a 8-1 hammering by Honduras on the final day of the semifinal round. That match was played in San Pedro Sula, and the Canadians must still play the return match in Honduras. Next up is a trip to El Salvador, which is another Central American country not conducive to Canadian visits. Yet deservedly earning three points against a nation that qualified for the 2014 World Cup is the perfect start for Canada.
The forecast for Honduras is cloudy. It hasn’t addressed issues raised by a last-place finish in Group A at the Gold Cup that included a 1-0 loss to Haiti.
ROAD WARRIORS RACK UP POINTS. Guatemala isn’t expected to advance out of the USA’s group yet can be stubborn at home. Another team coming off an encouraging Gold Cup is Trinidad & Tobago, and it got off to a great start by winning, 2-1, in Guatemala City.
T&T had beaten Guatemala, 3-1, in its opening game at the Gold Cup, and on Friday it rode out the first half unscathed despite the efforts of Marco Pappa and the antics of Carlos Ruiz. There was a touch of destiny when T&T broke the deadlock in the 65th minute; Khaleem Hyland’s strike from outside the penalty area was his first international goal in six years. T&T sealed up the points when Joevin Jones of the Chicago Fire got down the left side to set up Kenwyne Jones for a smart volley and 2-0 lead. Carlos Mejia scored in stoppage time.
The result gives the USA a chance to clinch a Hexagonal spot early. If it gets a point in Port of Spain on Tuesday and sweeps the two matches with Guatemala in March, it will likely clinch with two games to spare. That would free up Jurgen Klinsmann and his players to devote all their energy and focus to the Centenario Copa America. The Hexagonal is slated to start in November 2016, three months earlier than in the past few editions.
Gold Cup semifinalists Jamaica and Panama – which both prevailed against the USA in that competition -- squared off in Kingston, and the Reggae Boyz were left confused by a 2-0 defeat.
Jamaica has tailed off since reaching the Gold Cup final, which it lost, 3-1, to Mexico. It lost at home in September to Nicaragua in the third round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying and after falling behind Panama, 1-0, to a superb free kick by Armando Cooper, it conceded again when a cross into a cluster of defenders wound up in the net off the foot of its own Wes Morgan.
Panama thus takes three points back home to face Costa Rica on Tuesday and knows that a victory will push it atop the group. Jamaica is already in trouble with a trip to Haiti up next.
For Honduras and Jamaica, the shorter schedule of the semifinal round is already proving to be problematic.