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North, Central America and Caribbean

USA cruise, Mexico ride the hard road

Clint Dempsey #8 and Brad Guzan #12 along with other players of the United States celebrate
© Getty Images

USA overcame an early wobble to finish top of the heap in the CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Costa Rica, with their sturdy defence and supreme home form, finished not far behind and Honduras rode their physicality and speed to a third-place finish. Mexico, on the other hand, had to struggle through the hard way, eventually securing a place through an Intercontinental play-off with New Zealand. for a look back at the qualifying road in the New World.

The qualified teams 1. USA
2. Costa Rica
3. Honduras
4. Mexico (via play-off with New Zealand)
* Memorable moments*Honduras shock the Azteca
Honduras’ win in Mexico City on 6 September 2013 will live forever in the history of CONCACAF. Down a goal at the half, coach Luis Fernando Suarez went for broke, adding a second Catracho striker to the equation. The move paid immediate dividends as Honduras pegged back their hosts. New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson poked home from close-range after 63 minutes and veteran Carlo Costly raced through the Mexican defence to seal the historic 2-1 win two minutes later. The result saw Mexico’s direct qualifying hopes fade to dust and cost then-coach Chepo de la Torre his job. For Honduras, the Aztecazo will remain one of the proudest moments in their sporting history.

US survive false start
The Stars and Stripes looked tired in the mid-day heat of San Pedro Sula, their shirts soaked with sweat after 20 minutes of their Hexagonal opener. The motivated hosts roared to a 2-1 win and the Americans sat, for a short time, at the foot of the table. A media backlash followed, with a major sports newspaper claiming members of the US team were unhappy with new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his new ideas and new methods. If there was indeed a locker-room mutiny, it was quickly put to rest as the States didn’t lose in their next five games.

Costa Rica’s mean rearguard
Los Ticos, historically, like to attack. Defence has never been a hallmark. That’s all changed, however, and to great effect. Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto has coaxed a level of defensive assurance from his side unseen in previous years. The rangy backline of Michael Umana, Cristian Gamboa, Bryan Oviedo and Giancarlo Gonzalez comprised a dynamic rearguard in front of Keylor Navas, who remains one of CONCACAF’s top keepers. The numbers tell the true story, with the Costa Ricans conceding just five goals in the eight games it took them to reach Brazil 2014.

Rivals rescue Mexico
Mexico’s passage to the play-off with New Zealand was secured by a pair of late goals in Panama City, where USA – Mexico’s eternal rival – beat ambitious minnows Panama to keep the Mexicans alive. TV Azteca commentator Christian Martinoli’s high-volume rant at the final whistle will live long in the memory. “We love you! We love you forever and ever! God Bless America!” said the Mexican journalist, before lambasting the underperforming Mexican players, who had lost their final contest in Costa Rica. US Soccer’s tweet at the final whistle: #YoureWelcomeMexico, seemed to say it all. 

El Tri get it right, finally
Mexico usually stroll to a direct qualifying spot, but the 2013 Hexagonal posed myriad problems for the ailing giants. The team went through four coaches, earning only 11 points from their ten games. They lost at Azteca and only won once at their fabled and hallowed ground, but when it was all on the line – in the play-off with New Zealand – they got it right. Coach Miguel Herrera of Mexican top flight leaders Club America banished Europe-based stars like Chicharito Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Memo Ochoa, opting for an exclusively domestic side, with ten of the squad members from his Aguillas team.  And it worked. They won the play-off first leg 5-1 at Azteca and followed it up with a 4-2 result in Wellington. * Players to watch*Jozy Altidore (USA)
The mercurial striker scored in all three of the Americans’ June qualifiers (all wins) and found a consistency sorely lacking in previous years. Alongside strike partner Clint Dempsey, the pair produced seven of the Americans’ Hexagonal goals.
*Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)
*With preternatural pace and a keen eye for goal, it’s no wonder the San Jose-born striker caught the eye of Arsene Wenger at the tender age of 19. Currently on loan from Arsenal at Greek giants Olympiacos, Campbell can cause trouble even if he’s alone up front.

*Roger Espinoza (Honduras)
*The hardest-working man in CONCACAF, this box-to-box midfielder turned down a chance to play for USA in order to represent his Central American birth nation. He’s the proud owner of an FA Cup winner’s medal with club side Wigan Athletic and has tireless energy and an ability to play centrally or out wide.

What they said“A lot of times the media doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” USA defender Clarence Goodson responds directly to press talk of a changing-room mutiny after the opening-day loss in Honduras.

“Four coaches in a month says it all. The team lacks a style and an idea of what we should be doing on the field,” a frustrated Gio Dos Santos on Mexico’s problems just days before he was dropped for the two-legged playoff against New Zealand.
The stat2 – the number of times, in a grand total of 79 home qualifiers, that Mexico have lost at their Estadio Azteca. With a record of three draws, one win and one loss there in the Hexagonal, Mexico appear to have lost their home-field advantage. The power of the giant stadium, with a capacity of over 100,000 and an altitude of over 7000 feet, has faded.* *

Top scorers (through the semi-final and Hexagonal rounds) 1. Deon McCauley (Belize) 11
2. Pete Byers (Antigua and Barbuda) 10
3. Blas Perez (Panama) 10

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