The fixtures may look less than daunting. But trips to Central America are never easy and with CONCACAF’s own version of murderers row coming over the Summer (@ Costa Rica, Honduras, @ Mexico) it’s imperative that the US take maximum points this week from the two relatively uncomplicated qualifiers in front of us.
The United States has performed well to this point in qualifying. But as the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup taught us, things can change quickly in a Confederation with so many evenly match teams and one group of finalists. Much like this year’s qualifying campaign, the US began the Hexagonal in 2001 with a game against Mexico in Columbus. The US won that game 2-0 thanks to goals from Earnie Stewart and Josh Wolff.
After five games the US hit a break sitting with 13 points. American based players went back to MLS while European players had time off since the European season had ended. When the national team reconvened things weren’t the same. Injuries began to pile up and the best team in history of the United States lost three consecutive qualifiers. First was the predictable loss at Azteca, then a home loss at RFK to Honduras and then an incredibly bad performance in San Jose against Costa Rica.
The US only barely recovered making tough work of Jamaica in Foxborough and then drawing with Trinidad in Port of Spain to finish third in the Hexagonal. The US qualified for the World Cup but would not have made it if not for the early buffer the team received from good results in February, March and April. The best US run in the World Cup since 1930 never would have happened had it not been for some early insurance.
CONCACAF isn’t the soft Confederation many in the European oriented football press believe it to be. On the club level, Mexico’s league is deeper and more talented than any league in COMNEBOL and most in UEFA. On the national team level, the US, Mexico and Costa Rica have all been impressive in the World Cup, Copa America and Confederations Cup at various times over the past twenty years.
US fans need to understand bumps on the road will happen in CONCACAF. Any negative result is not a need to panic and bring out the “Fire Bradley,” legion. Two good results this week and the US probably gives itself enough margin for error to limp on home throughout the rest of qualifying.