The United States got a rude welcome to 2009 this morning. A day after agreeing to a friendly with Sweden to conclude the traditional January camp, Bob Bradley’s men were handed an opening date of qualifying versus Mexico at home. The United States has not lost at home to Mexico in qualifying since 1972 but El Tri coming off a pathetic display which saw them fortune to advance beyond the semi-final round of qualifying will be no doubt motivated to erase the painful memories of the previous round. Mexico continues to have far more talent than the United States and top footballers playing at top clubs in Europe and Mexico something the US cannot claim. However, the US has had Mexico’s number winning 9 of the 12 most recent meetings with El Tri. With new parts being integrated for the United States including the long overdue call up of Kenny Cooper, Bob Bradley’s side is beginning to resemble the team it should have a year ago. Opening with Mexico is not easy but when the US opened with the Mexicans in 2001, Crew Stadium was rocking and El Tri never had a chance. Let’s hope for a similar crowd to spur on the US in this match. That February day the United States got great performances from injury replacements Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff. If the American reserves can create similar magic in 2009, the US should win. But the US enters this Hexagonal round with less proven parts in qualifying than we had in 2001 or 2005.
The CONCACAF draw for the Hexagonal was pretty straight forward otherwise. Honduras who must be counted as among the favorites will open with Costa Rica, participants in three of the last five World Cups. Costa Rica won the Hexagonal in 2001. Honduras is my pick to win the Hexagonal this time and advance to the nation’s first World Cup since 1982. Right now Honduras has the most skilled team in CONCACAF. This could change if American starlets Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu continue to develop or if we see a sudden improvement from disappointing Mexican youngsters Gio Dos Santos and Carlos Vela.
Mexico has problems beyond a lack of scoring punch from its youngsters. Sven Goran Eriksson’s defense is a mess. Based on El Tri’s performances under Sven beginning with the matchup against Belize where Sven was already the coach but not present, we can clearly see why he failed with England. His Mexican side lacks shape and an identity. The players are quick to the ground on any slight contact and also anxious to manipulate the officials into giving them calls. This gamesmanship worked in the opening match of the semi final round against Honduras as El Tri erased a goal deficit late thanks to some dubious calls. But ElTri’s gamesmanship could not sustain the team through tough times on the road and the Mexicans were fortunate to get a draw against Canada when Paul Stalteri and Ali Gerba both hit the post late. That draw saw Mexico through over Jamaica on goal differnece.
Mexico will be hard pressed to advance to the World Cup. At this point in time despite boasting superior talent to almost any nation on the planet Mexico’s FA and Eriksson has combined to place El Tri squarly behind Honduras and the United States in the CONCACAF hierarchy. It can be strongly argued Costa Rica is currently more prepared for the Hexagonal than Mexico. That would likely place Mexico in a playoff against the fifth place South American qualifier, a risky proposition for any CONCACAF nation.