And then there were six. The final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, known simply as the Hexagonal, begins on Friday in mouth-watering fashion with a meeting between old rivals USA and Mexico. The undercard on the evening has Honduras hosting Panama while a powerful Costa Rica travel to Trinidad an Tobago hoping to start strong on the road. FIFA.com previews all of the action as temperatures rise in the New World.
The big game
“In our region, this is the big one,” USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann told FIFA.com on the eve of the CONCACAF clasico. A fitting opener to the final, six-team round, both bosses have assembled dynamic, attack-minded sides. The home team, who had their struggles in the semi-final round, will rely on in-form Jozy Altidore and 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic to add spice up front. But without injured defender Geoff Cameron, the Americans might suffer up against a high-octane Mexico. Juan Carlos Osorio has recalled Carlos Vela and Gio dos Santos both, with Germany-based Javier Chicharito Hernandez in the form of his life and Porto’s Jesus Tecatito Corona looking to cause problems out wide. Adding wisdom and grit farther back are Andres Guardado and Rafa Marquez, 37, with a wealth of experience in his pouch.
Despite watching their side fly through the semi-final phase undefeated, Mexico fans have not forgiven Osorio for the humiliating 7-0 loss to Chile in last summer’s Copa America Centenario. Amazingly, the coach’s job could be on the line, a fact that will make the opening-day clasico even spicier.
Honduras and Panama square off earlier in the day in an all-Central American contest in San Pedro Sula. The Catrachos are led by former Costa Rica boss Jorge Luis Pinto and their home stadium, the Olimpico Metropolitano, is a fiery cauldron where the traveling Panamanians will not be welcomed warmly. Honduras, bolstered by a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics in the summer, are looking to return to their third world finals on the trot. For Panama, a debut on the world stage still eludes. And for a generation of players like Roman Torres, Felipe Baloy, Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, this might just be the Canaleros best, and their last, chance.
Trinidad and Tobago host Costa Rica with a team of hungry youngsters and a true leader in the form of captain and No9 Kenwyne Jones. Considered by many as the weakest team left in the CONCACAF qualifiers, the islanders have shown steady improvement of late and will be desperate to start well at home. They will, however, have their hands full against a Costa Rican team loaded with stars who helped set the Brazil 2014 finals alight with a run to the quarter-finals. Among these Tico heroes are Real Madrid keeper Keylor Navas, playmaker Bryan Ruiz and Sporting CP's Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell.
Players to Watch
All eyes will be on the big match between USA and Mexico. American hopes are pinned on the narrow shoulders of their new young hero, Christian Pulisic. He’s broken into the first team at Borussia Dortmund, getting a taste of the adulation of the Westfalenstadion and the excitement of UEFA Champions League football. He recently became the youngest American to line up in World Cup qualifying. With three goals already in just nine caps, coach Klinsmann is pleased. “He’s the piece of the puzzle we were hoping for this year,” he said. “Pulisic is writing his own story.”
On the other side of the pitch, Javier Chicharito Hernandez is the hit-man aiming to do damage to Tim Howard’s goal. After failing to develop into a star at Manchester United and Real Madrid both, The Little Pea has found his home in Germany. Since joining Bayer Leverkusen in 2015, he’s scored 22 times in 36 appearances and is hitting the high notes like never before.
Did you know?
Columbus, Ohio has become a good-luck charm for USA against Mexico. In the last four qualifying cycles, the Stars and Stripes have beaten their neighbors to the south at the Mapfre stadium, and each time by the same score of 2-0. It has become a rallying cry for the American fans, who chant Dos a Cero to bait the weary Mexican players and their traveling supporters.
What they said
“It’s always been a tough, tough fixture. It’s hard enough to play away, but it’s even harder when it’s USA. They have fine players and their standard of play is getting better all the time. We’re desperate to hit the ground running,” Mexico No1 Guillermo Memo Ochoa on the big clash with the States.
Fixtures (Round Five, matchday 1)
Trinidad and Tobago-Costa Rica
Up next (Round Five matchday 2)
Honduras-Trinidad & Tobago