FOX Soccer Exclusive
Minnows looking to pick up points
WC CONCACAF FIXT/RES
|Friday, September 7|
|Guatemala||vs||Antigua & Barbuda|
A quick glance at the CONCACAF qualifying groups might suggest that, aside from the US national team’s group, the race for the six places in the final round of qualifying is pretty much over.
Honduras and El Salvador are determined to show that isn’t the case, and the structure of the qualifying schedule could help them both get right back into the picture when qualifying resumes on Friday.
The top two teams in all three qualifying groups face off in back-to-back matches, as do the bottom teams in each group. That schedule should open the door for teams like Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala or Antigua & Barbuda to push themselves back into arm’s reach of the precious top two spots in each group.
Mexico remains the favorite to be the first to secure passage to the Hexagonal final round of CONCACAF qualifying. A win against Costa Rica in San Jose would lock that place up for ‘El Tri.’ Costa Rica is currently in second place in Group B, but a pair of losses to Mexico coupled with a pair of El Salvador victories against winless Guyana would suddenly leave El Salvador in the driver’s seat. If that scenario played out, El Salvador would play Costa Rica in San Salvador on Oct. 12 with a chance to secure a place in the final round.
That would explain why Costa Rica’s match on Friday against Mexico will likely determine the ‘Ticos’ qualifying fate. Costa Rica has traditionally done very well at home in qualifying, but beating Mexico in San Jose will be made much tougher by the likely absence of star forward Bryan Ruiz, who suffered a hamstring injury last week with Fulham.
Mexico has had some injury concerns as well heading into qualifying, with winger Pablo Barrera suffering a torn ACL. Yet ‘El Tri’ will still be favored to take at least four points from their two clashes with a Costa Rica side that dropped points at home in June with a draw against El Salvador.
In Group C, Panama can secure its place in the Hexagonal with a victory against Canada in Toronto. Canada did well to secure four points from its first two matches, but anything less than a victory on Friday would seriously jeopardize its chance of reaching the Hex.
The recent club form of Canadian standouts such as Simeon Jackson (Norwich City) and Atiba Hutchinson (PSV Eindhoven) should give the ‘Canucks’ some confidence against a strong Panama side which has seen some of its best players (such as MLS-based Blas Perez and Gabriel Gomez) struggle for minutes in recent months.
Panama will be counting on Perez to work the goal-scoring magic he has always seemed to produce when the ‘Canaleros’ have needed it. Perez hasn’t played much in recent months and made his first start for FC Dallas in two months just last week. If Perez isn’t in good form, the Panamanians will face a tough task breaking down a Canadian defense that has not allowed a goal in this round of qualifying (and has allowed just one goal through eight qualifying matches).
Honduras should gather some momentum from an impressive run in the Olympics, but the ‘Catrachos’ aren’t exactly facing a pushover in Cuba. The Cubans have yet to register a point in this round of qualifying, but they are a feisty group that has made things difficult in 1-0 losses to Panama and Canada. Honduras is strong enough defensively to deal with a Cuban side that doesn’t offer much in attack, but the key to a Honduras sweep will be the attack getting Olympic standout Jerry Bengtson service against the tough Cuban defense.
If Honduras can endure Cuba’s challenge, and if Panama keeps up its early-round form with success in its two matches against Canada, the Catrachos would then control their own fate, with a group stage finale against Canada in Honduras on Oct. 16 looming large.
In Group A, the U.S. and Jamaica lead the way and look like good bets to advance, but Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda both have a chance to take advantage if one of the group leaders can sweep the September matches. The Americans will be the favorites against a Jamaica side that looked thoroughly disappointing in a scoreless draw against Antigua & Barbuda in June, but the Americans have never won in Kingston, where the teams meet on Friday.
Guatemala will be rooting hard for an American sweep, and the mood in the Guatemala camp after June’s tie with the U.S. was a confident one. The ‘Chapines’ host the first match with Antigua & Barbuda on Friday, and a win in Guatemala City could take the air out of the Antiguan balloon heading into the return date on Tuesday.
A Guatemalan sweep is hardly a foregone conclusion. Antigua & Barbuda gave the Americans all they could handle in a 3-1 loss in Tampa, and shook up Group A with their draw against Jamaica. Adept at playing a defend-and-counter style that can frustrate the strongest of opponents, the Antiguans could put some serious pressure on Guatemala if they can escape Guatemala City with a draw on Friday.
In other words, as tidy as the CONCACAF qualifying standings look right now, Only Mexico and Panama head into Friday’s qualifiers holding firm grasps on places in the Hex, and only Guyana and Cuba have no realistic chance of progressing.
That leaves eight teams ready to fight for four places: eight teams with the 2014 World Cup still in sight, a group that will be smaller a week from now.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.