WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, October 8, 2008) -- Three matches down and three to go for the United States men in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. So far, the results have been distressingly predictable.
Over the past decade, the three best teams in the region have been the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica. Currently, at the mid-point of the semifinals, all three sit on the top of their respective groups, undefeated at 3-0.
At the beginning of this round of qualifying, a good bet as to who would move on to next year's final round of six would be the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, plus either Guatemala or Trinidad & Tobago. And that is exactly how the semifinal round has played itself out thus far.
Actually, there have been some slight adjustments at the lower levels. Canada and Guatemala, both believing they had improved significantly this time around, are showing they have not. Canada, at 0-2-1, has played better, but with the same dismal results. After a loss and draw at home, Canada hit the road to face Mexico in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. The Canadians actually played their best match of qualifying, but still lost 2-1 with Mexico dominating from the start, but not overly exerting themselves.
Mexico, under new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, has had a bit of trouble adjusting to a new system and needed two late goals to win its opener against Honduras. It did fine in a 3-0 thumping of Jamaica at home at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, but then struggled to score against Canada.
Mexico must now play its three remaining qualifiers on the road after it had to switch home dates with Jamaica because of damage caused to the island by Hurricane Gustav. It will be interesting to see if Mexico struggles a bit.
Guatemala had big hopes for this round of qualifying, but did not look sharp in losing at home to the U.S. or in struggling to eke out a 1-1 draw with T&T thanks to a stoppage-time goal. It looks now like the team which wins the rematch of that tie in Guatemala might likely be the team to advance out of Group 1 with the Americans. With a current three-goal advantage in differential, Guatemala might be able to advance with a draw against T&T..
Perhaps the most interesting story being played out in the semifinals is the fate of Canada and Jamaica in Group B, the so-called "Group of Death." Both are seeking to finish ahead of Honduras to hopefully advance along with Mexico to the final round.
Neither seems up to the task. Through three matches, neither has won a game and are 0-2-1, having earned their single points in a 1-1 draw when they played each other. Jamaica has fallen on hard times because after the team dropped to 105th in the FIFA world rankings, it became virtually impossible for any Jamaican to get a work permit to play in the United Kingdom. At least six of Jamaica's current players have been turned down for permits after the English leagues have historically been the training ground for top Jamaicans.
Canada, many contend, has gotten better. For whatever reason, however, while giving almost any opponent a good game, it seems incapable of taking the next step to start winning.
There is a bottom line to all this for both the U.S. and Mexico. After the U.S. dropped T&T 3-0 September 10 in Bridgeview, Ill., I was surprised, having thought the Soca Warriors would put up much more of a struggle then they did. T&T used rather strange defensive tactics, did not attack until the second half although down a pair of goals, and generally played poorly.
How much is it hurting the U.S. and Mexico not to consistently have to face competitive opponents until they get to a World Cup. Both play friendlies against top-flight opponents, trying to get ready, but friendlies are friendlies. If both had to struggle to get to the World Cup, as teams from Europe and South America must, would they be better prepared for what they were are going to face?
This is just a thought as the U.S. faces woeful Cuba Saturday night at RFK Stadium here.