NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 26: Members of both teams react after El Salvador scores a game tying goal against the USA in the final moments of a 2012 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying match at LP Field on March 26, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)2012 Getty Images
2012 Getty Images
Trying to pick CONCACAF's World Cup qualifiers is not a difficult process.
When in doubt, pick Mexico and the United States for two of the three allotted slots and then for the third spot, a Central American side, either Honduras or Costa Rica, or a Caribbean country -- Jamaica or Trinidad & Tobago.
On Friday, the semifinal round commences with games in Mexico, the United States, Cuba, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras before the second stage is held on Tuesday.
By the time the dust settle in October, six triumphant teams will head to next year's hexagonal, while the six remaining teams will return home disappointed and empty-handed.
Beyond the three groups, CONCACAF's 12 semifinals can be separated into four unique groups of strengths and challenges.
The contenders: Mexico, United States and Honduras. These teams represented CONCACAF at South Africa 2010 and are expected to do the same, two years from now, at Brazil 2014.
The pretenders: Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama. These three sides should qualify for the next round, but are below the top three.
The outsiders: Guatemala, El Salvador and Canada have never qualified. The countries have also haven’t performed in the World Cup in a long time and will have to raise their games or get some luck to reach soccer's promised land.
The long-shots: Cuba, Antigua and Barbuda, and Guyana. These teams are good enough to reach the dandy dozen, but must prove they are good enough to advance to next year's hexagonal.
The top two teams in each four-team group will reach the final six in 2013. The top three book a spot to Brazil, while fourth-place will take on the Oceania representative for a spot in the World Cup, in a home-and-home playoff.
That said, here is a quick look at the three qualifying groups:
When the U.S. plays against most CONCACAF teams, especially at home, it has acquitted itself quite well. The Americans have lost only twice at home since 1985 and once since 2001, so to get a leg up on them, teams will have a better chance at defeating them on the road. They open against Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa, Florida, a game that should be a relatively easy American triumph. Clint Dempsey, who has recovered from a groin injury suffered with Fulham (England), is considered the U.S.'s best player, taking that unofficial crown from Landon Donovan.
However, he is certainly far from a one-man show. Goalkeeper Tim Howard (veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra), midfielders Michael Bradley and Donovan form a solid core of players for a team trying to reach the World Cup for an unprecedented seventh successive time. No other CONCACAF team has qualified for the greatest show on earth that many consecutive times.
The best Jamaican team since the 1998 Reggae Boyz, who played in the World Cup in France, has a lot of expectations to live up to. With many players performing regularly overseas in England and the United States, these battle-tested players face pressure to advance. Jamaica's best include goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, fleet midfielder Dane Richards and strikers Omar Cummings and Ryan Johnson. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Jamaicans are tough at their home stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, appropriately called The Office.
Guatemala will be playing for striker Carlos Ruiz, who is making his final quest to reach the World Cup. The Central Americans must find a way to get past Jamaica on Friday. A tie would be considered a decent result, while a victory a major upset. Led by the likes such as midfielder Marco Pappa, the Central Americans have never qualified for the World Cup.
Antigua is just happy to be this far in the competition. Coach Tom Curtis, who also directs many of the same players on the national side on the Antigua Barracuda in USL PRO (the second tier of American pro soccer), said that he wants his team to be competitive in this round. After besting favored Haiti in the second round, Antigua will venture onto uncharted territory and learn about the higher echelons of the confederation. Earning a point in the six games would be considered a historical achievement.
Mexico's prospects were profiled here, so El Tri won't be detailed here, except to say the Mexicans are the cream of the crop by a long-shot. The team has way too many weapons not to advance or qualify. Only a series of bonehead plays and bad luck will sink Mexico. The team's best players include the incomparable Chicharito (Javier Hernández) at striker, midfielders Giovani dos Santos and Andrés Guardado and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. If they don't do the job, then Azteca will. El Tri has not lost a qualifier in their Mexico City home since Costa Rica emerged victorious in 2001.
Speaking of difficult places to play, the Costa Ricans have said their good-byes to Saprissa Stadium, one of the most intimidating rounds in the Western Hemisphere, for their new home at National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica. Since reaching the 2006 World Cup, the Ticos have used seven -- that's right -- seven coaches since the 2006 competition. Maybe current coach Jorge Luis Pinto will be the charm.
Since 2006, a new generation of players has emerged, including midfielder-forward Bryan Ruiz, who is injured, goalkeeper Keylor Navas and midfielder Cristian Bolaños. The Central Americans lost out on an automatic berth to South Africa with a stoppage-time goal by the U.S. in a 2-2 draw before falling in a special playoff to Uruguay.
Costa Rica will take on Central American rival, El Salvador, in the first key Group B encounter on Friday at National Stadium, a test for both sides. Also, a test on how difficult it will be for visiting teams. Since it is an all-purpose stadium, the fans are kept away from the pitch by a track. El Salvador, which hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1982, will deploy a veteran lineup of eight players with 60 or more international appearances.
Uruguayan coach Rubén Israel can call on goalkeeper Juan José Gómez, defenders Alfredo Pacheco and Marvin González, midfielder Eliseo Quintanilla and striker Rudis Corrales (17 scores in 78 matches). Corrales could be crucial this time around; he has an excellent qualifying track record, with 10 goals during the 2010 campaign. However, a 3-0 defeat to Honduras in an international friendly in Washington, D.C. on Saturday might not be a good omen, especially with the Salvadorans taking on Mexico on Tuesday. Starting 0-2 could be a death knell.
Having gained the semifinals for the very first time, Guyana is in rarefied heights in World Cup qualifying. The Golden Jaguars, who are coached by Trinidad & Tobago native Jamaal Shabazz, will be thrown to the lions when the Mexicans host them at Azteca on Friday. "It's not going to be an easy situation," Shabazz told FIFA World magazine. "This is not a level any of us has played at or coached at, but we're up for the challenge."
Interesting fact: Guyana is considered part of the Caribbean Football Union, although it’s one of three CONCACAF countries based in South America, along with Suriname and French Guiana. This is because of a competitive disadvantage with other COMENBOL teams. Defeating any of their three foes would be considered an achievement for the Caribbean side.
Honduras faces a daunting task. Outside of perennial powers Mexico and the U.S., only Costa Rica has managed to qualify for back-to-back FIFA World Cups since 1994. Still, the Hondurans bring back a formidable side. Former Colombian international, Luis Fernando Suárez, will try to work the magic that Reinaldo Rueda had four years ago. Suárez certainly has the horses to make a serious run on Noel Valladares, who is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in CONCACAF. The team also includes defenders Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic, Scotland), Maynor Figueroa (Wigan Athletic) and midfielder Wilson Palacios (Stoke City, England).
Panama has never played in the World Cup, but coach Julio Dely Valdés, a former Panamanian international, has put together a competitive team that has combined the best of domestic-based and overseas players. This includes attackers Gabriel Gómez, Blas Pérez, Luis Tejada (34 international goals) and defender and captain Felipe Baloy. The Central American side turned heads at last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup, when they handed the host U.S. its first ever opening-round loss in the competition, proving they are a team to be taken seriously. "We're bringing in the style of where we're playing an infusing it into the national team," Pérez said. "Also the young kids coming up have a lot more motivation based on seeing what their players are doing outside of Panama. They bring a spirit of winning."
Canada boasts a strong midfield and solid defense. The Canadians can dominate games, but their Achilles Heel is an inability to score goals in bunches. Outside of 34-year-old star midfielder Wayne De Rosario, the team does not have a consistent scoring threat. De Rosario, who earned Major League Soccer's Golden Boot Award and MVP honors, despite playing for three teams in a season last year, is in his last hurrah to reach the World Cup. He probably will have help from the versatile Atiba Hutchinson and defender Paul Stalteri, Canada's all-time appearance leader. The Canadians last reached the World Cup in 1986 -- that's seven qualifying competitions ago. Canada's first qualifying challenge is a confrontation with Cuba in hot and humid Havana.
How good is Cuba? Good question. The Cubans received a bye to this round and finds itself as the lowest ranked team of the 12 semifinalists (No. 145). The Caribbean country's growth has been stunted by two reasons: player defections and player’s lack of professionalism in performing outside of the country. The Caribbean side's best players are fleet striker Roberto Linares and 37-year-old, veteran goalkeeper Odelín Molina, who has made a record of 102 international appearances. Cuba has suffered several defections over the years, which has hindered the overall quality and depth of the team. Had these players stayed with the side, there is no question Cuba would be more of a force in CONCACAF. Coach Raul Gonzaléz has done as well as he can, which was buoyed by his Under-23 team playing favored Canada to a 1-1 draw during the recent CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.
These teams should advance to hexagonal:
Group A: U.S., Jamaica -- The U.S. should be a slam dunk and Jamaica's talent along with overseas experience should boost the Reggae Boyz into the next round. If not, heads will fall.
Group B: Mexico, Costa Rica -- Reaching the final round should be only a formality for El Tri. For all its coaching problems, Costa Rica should move on to get another shot at the brass ring.
Group C: Honduras, Panama -- The group title is the Hondurans' to lose. Given their results in recent competitions, this is Panama's time.
As for the rest, it'll be waiting until 2015, when qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to commence. Three years in international soccer seems like light years. That's what the penalty countries have to pay for failure.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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