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Concacaf World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Friday 1st September 2017
Russia 2018 is just months off. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how Concacaf World Cup qualifying is set for the stretch run.

The Concacaf balance of power differs greatly from UEFA, whose World Cup qualifying stretch run was previewed yesterday. There are a few minnows swimming among the many sharks and barracudas in Europe. In North and Central America and the Caribbean, however, the pool is swarming with tiny fish.

Six of those guppies are so small they don't even enjoy FIFA affiliation. Actually, it's because five--Bonaire, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Martin--are overseas territories governed by France. They are not countries in their own right. Likewise, Sint-Maarten is a Dutch protectorate. While all compete for the Concacaf Gold Cup, none are eligible for Russia.

Thus, only 35 from 41 members compete in Concacaf World Cup qualifying. The process is conducted in similar fashion to the FA and League Cups. Weaker teams play the earlier rounds. Winners advance to meet progressively higher ranked nations in each of 5 rounds.
The first round features the 14 lowest ranking countries paired off into seven two-legged ties. The winners join the next highest 13 in the second round. Ten more ties are played. The seventh and eighth-ranked Concacaf nations mix in with the ten Round 2 winners to determine six participants for Round 4. That half-dozen is drawn into three groups of four with the region's top six sides.

Still with me?

Good. The top two in each Round 4 group progress to the final qualifying round of six nations, also known as the Hexagonal. When this round robin is done, three countries will have earned a direct pass to Russia. A fourth must go through an Asian squad to reach the big tournament. Six games into the ten-match round robin, here is how the table has shaken out.

Concacaf Hexagonal

With two matches in each of the next two international breaks, the Hexagonal will be complete in October. The fourth-place country will then playoff against an AFC nation for passage to Russia. Working from the top down, here is what each nation must do in its remaining group matches to earn a berth in the World Cup.

Mexico

El Tri top the Hex on 14 points. They have yet to lose. Being the second-most populous nation in the region and steeped in a football culture, that shouldn't be a surprise. Mexico's only real problem is executive management.

The side should have faced the US in the Gold Cup final for Concacaf supremacy. Liga MX owners refused to release players for the knockout rounds to counter reinforcements brought in by the Yanks. To do so would have affected revenues for concurrent league matches. The club owners, who control the FMF, are all about the Benjamins.

After bowing out in the semifinal to Jamaica, tactics-obsessed coach Juan Carlos Osorio was hounded at the airport by outraged supporters waiting in Mexico. It wasn't his fault, though. You have to play the cards you're dealt.
Osorio has been given a stronger hand in the Hexagonal. World Cup qualifying is a priority for the FMF's avaricious board. Having faced the United States twice, the only true test remaining for Osorio is the visit to Costa Rica's Estadio Nacional fortress on 5 September. A result really isn't necessary, other than to insure a more peaceful landing  in Mexico City. El Tri have all but booked their ticket.

Costa Rica

Despite having neither the human nor financial resources Mexico and the United States enjoy, Costa Rica has transformed itself into a third regional power. The Ticos have qualified for three of the last four World Cups. They missed out in 2010 after finishing a disappointing fourth in the Hex then losing a playoff against Uruguay.

This time around, they sit second thanks to the USMNT's early struggles under Jurgen Klinsmann. The current break will test the Ticos' resolve. The Yanks have rebounded under Bruce Arena. Costa Rica faces them this evening at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. While incredibly stubborn at home, the side are easier to break down away. On Tuesday, they're back home in San Jose against Mexico.
Oscar Ramirez will rely on Sporting Lisbon midfielder and Ticos captain Bryan Ruiz to pull the strings. Should the team fail to come away from these two matches with any points, they will have been leapfrogged by the Americans. Worse, Panama could be nipping at their heels. The Ticos do not want to test the playoff waters again, even if it will be against an Asian country this time.

United States

The US isn't the most skilled, tactically aware, or cultured side in Concacaf. On the other hand, they are the biggest, most direct, physically powerful fish in the Hexagonal pond. When they play to those strengths, the Americans have teeth.

Bruce Arena understands this. Unlike Klinsmann, who tried to reform the squad into a technically sound, tactically flexible, lightweight Germany, the new old boss has gone back to basics in his second stint in charge.

All eight points in the round robin have come on his watch: two home wins, two road draws. The former LA Galaxy manager would like to continue the pattern with a victory over Costa Rica tonight, across the Hudson from Manhattan. Then he'd like to break it with another three points on Tuesday afternoon in the heat of San Pedro Sula's Olimpico Stadium.
Arena's first match was against Honduras. The side responded to his appointment with a six-goal romp in California. The home side will be thinking about revenge but the Americans should be focused on securing their place in Russia. It is still far from guaranteed.

Panama

The Canal Men are as pesky as the legendary mosquitoes that made life a misery for the labourers who built the famous channel that connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They will bite if given the chance. Occasionally, they even draw blood.

Los Canaleros so nearly qualified for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Mexico was struggling through the FMF's insecurities. Three coaching changes had El Tri on the brink of missing the final. Ironically, they were rescued by a late Graham Zusi leveler for the US at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. The Sporting KC midfielder-cum-rightback's header broke hearts across the Isthmus.
Panama can expect to be swatted away at the Azteca this evening but will be counting on three points when Trinidad visits Panama City on Tuesday. Those three points will be crucial to any hopes they have. October's international window sees them take on the Americans and Costa Rica.

Honduras

Even though Guatemala and Belize are situated between Honduras and Mexico, the two nations are well connected through their footballing histories. In 1969, Honduras journeyed to Mexico City for a third and deciding match in a tie with El Salvador. The contest would decide the final regional entrant in the 1970 World Cup. The two nations would be playing in the Azteca, where the tournament's final would also be held.

El Salvador came away with a 3-0 win. It was effectively the final salvo in the legendary Soccer War. A previous draw between the two political contentious neighbours had sparked more than riots. El Salvador's air force bombed the airport in Tegulcigalpa. The fighting continued for four days, thus also becoming known as the 100-Hour War.

In 2014, Honduras only had to fight on the pitch and fared better. They finished third in the group while wayward Mexico managed to make the trip to Brazil after winning a playoff 9-3 on aggregate against New Zealand. Unfortunately, La H only escaped being anointed the tournament's worst side courtesy Cameroon's -8 goal difference, one greater than their own.
To reach Russia, Jorge Luis Pinto absolutely must deliver three points tonight at the Ato Boldon Stadium against bottom feeders Trinidad and Tobago. Afterwards, the United States visit. In October, Costa Rica and Mexico await. He has some names to call upon. Maynor Figueroa, 34, of FC Dallas will marshal the back line. Houston Dynamo veteran Boniek Garcia will be joined in attack by Tenerife's Bryan Acosta and Barcelona B's Anthony Lozano. Fourth place, leading to a playoff against an AFC nation, is a slim possibility.

Trinidad and Tobago

It would be nice to say Kenwynne Jones is still the best known Trini football figure. Unfortunately, he's ceded the honour to deposed Concacaf chief and FIFA Executive Board Member in charge of corruption, Jack Warner.

The 32-year-old former Stoke, Sunderland, and Cardiff star couldn't cut it with Tata Martino's Atlanta United this spring. He's now on loan to island side Central, where he's put in four goals in five appearances.

The Soca Warriors still have hope in the Hex. If Dennis Lawrence's team can come away from their matches with Honduras and Panama with four points, they will be in the mix for fourth place. The boss might then be tempted to call Jones up in October for difficult tests against Mexico and the United States.
You never know.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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