Let’s start off by being honest: The United States has no business not qualifying for World Cup 2014. The final six-team round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying — aka, the Hexagonal — begins for the U.S. in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Wednesday (4 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport). The math is simple: The top three finishers will advance to Brazil 2014, while the fourth-place team will go to a highly winnable playoff against the top qualifier from Oceania (almost certainly New Zealand).
Bottom line: Four of these six CONCACAF teams — the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama — will likely make it to the World Cup, and if the U.S. can’t finish in the top four, well, then something’s very, very wrong.
That’s not to say everything will be easy for the U.S. in the 10-game tournament that starts Wednesday and continues through October. Cow-pasture fields, bush-league officiating, 2 a.m. fire alarms, in-stadium projectiles and good-old-fashioned Uncle Sam-bashing are just a few of the things U.S. players can look forward to on their peregrinations through Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. What’s more, CONCACAF teams are deeper and better than we’ve usually seen in the past.
And more than ever for the U.S., there is also pressure from within including Jurgen Klinsmann, who won a World Cup as a player and flatly says his team should be scrutinized more closely; hardened European club veterans like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, who know what it takes to succeed; and from an ever-growing, ever-more-sophisticated U.S. fan base that won’t accept failure or excuses.
This is what it’s like to become a soccer country. And if that’s the case, maybe the Spanish-speakers have it right. They don’t call these games qualifiers, but rather eliminatorias (elimination games). In their eyes, you play the games to winnow the field. As of Monday, 83 nations have already been eliminated from World Cup 2014 from a field that started at 203. By mid-November, 88 more countries will be culled from the pack in eliminatorias all over the planet. The 32 left standing will head to Brazil in June 2014 to play for the most coveted trophy in sports.
On the one hand, the U.S. should feel lucky to be in CONCACAF, where qualifying is easier than in, say, Europe. But these 10 games and their attendant obstacles will give the four survivors the right to say they have earned their way forward. The collective idea of we came through this ordeal together is a powerful force, not just for players but for fans, too. Consider the American Outlaws, the rabid U.S. supporters group. Not many of them would travel for fun to Mexico City or Kingston, Jamaica, or San Pedro Sula (the world’s most violent city, per the U.S. State Department).
But they’ll be in those places during the Hexagonal — supporting their U.S. team, enduring the scary atmosphere of Estadio Azteca and crossing a few more things (more eliminatorias, if you will) off their Rough Guide bucket list of soccer fandom. The next eight months will be an adventure for everyone.
? The continued rise of Michael Bradley. After becoming a regular starter in Italy for AS Roma, Bradley is arguably the most important player on the U.S. team, a two-way central midfielder who controls the rhythm of the game. Will Klinsmann also consider making Bradley the new U.S. captain in 2013?
? Change in the central defense? Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron has already solidified one of the center back spots thanks to a breakthrough 2012, but who will play alongside him? Captain Carlos Bocanegra, now 33, is on the decline, which could leave a starting spot up for grabs for towering 24-year-old Omar González.
? Whither Landon Donovan? The U.S.’ all-time leading scorer, now 30, has barely played under Klinsmann due to injuries and a self-described decline in his hunger for the game. Donovan won’t be involved in the qualifying opener at Honduras, but will he rejoin the U.S. effort now that he has decided to continue playing with the Los Angeles Galaxy?
? Can Klinsmann keep the team? Lately the German coach has called out some of the biggest U.S. names — including Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Donovan — and focused on the “What have you really done?” theme. Will the U.S. stars listen to Klinsmann or tune him out?
? Is there still a gap with Mexico? The U.S.’ archrival has gained the upper hand, beating the U.S. emphatically in the 2011 Gold Cup final and winning the Olympic gold medal and the most recent Under-17 World Cup. The U.S. gained a small measure of revenge by beating Mexico on the road for the first time in a friendly last August, but the big showdown comes on March 26 in Mexico City.
I’ve gone over and over these picks in my head over the past few months, changing my mind a few times, and here’s how I see it playing out:
1. Mexico. El Tri has become the class of CONCACAF once again, and its younger players now expect to win trophies on the global level, not just in the region.
2. United States. The U.S. is the only team in the group that has to play three of its first four games on the road, and two of them are at Mexico and Honduras. But a 10-game tournament provides more margin for error than the semifinal round, and it says here the U.S. has the mettle to qualify with a small cushion to spare.
3. Honduras. The Catrachos are a hard-nosed group with more athleticism than other Central American teams, and they’ll benefit from their experience at World Cup 2010 and the 2012 Olympics, where they beat Spain and outplayed Brazil in a quarterfinal loss.
4. Panama. Forward Blas Pérez and defender Felipe Baloy are two pillars whom Panama can build around, even if reaching their nation’s first World Cup will require them to go on a long playoff road trip to New Zealand and back in November.
5. Costa Rica. The Ticos are never easy to play against, but this is a nation that has slipped from its high-water mark of being the first CONCACAF team to qualify for World Cup 2002.
6. Jamaica. Borrowing a page from their qualification for World Cup ’98, the Reggae Boyz have recruited new English players with Jamaican roots, like former Everton forward Jermaine Beckford, but will they suffer from a lack of chemistry?
Check back for updates from San Pedro Sula leading up to the game …