Buckle up, US fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The 2013 CONCACAF Hexagonal kicks off on Wednesday when the US national team visits Honduras (4 pm ET, beIN SPORT), and while the final round of World Cup qualifying has almost always been a tough slog for the US (except in 2005, when the team clinched with three games to play), this year’s version could be 40 miles of rough road.
In addition to the usual obstacles associated with the Hex (hostile away venues, late-night disturbances outside hotel rooms, airborne bags of unidentified liquids), a combination of increased talent in the region, a dominant Mexican side and a tricky opening schedule could make this the toughest Hexagonal group the US have ever faced.
Let’s take a look.
In previous years, there was always at least one relatively soft touch in the Hexagonal — whether it was the 2001 Trinidad and Tobago team that lost seven games, or the 2005 Panama side that dropped eight, with a minus-17 goal difference.
But this year, the two candidates for the role, Jamaica and Panama, seem unlikely to follow the script.
Yes, Jamaica are fresh from a dismal three-and-out performance in the Caribbean Cup in December, but the Jamaican Football Federation took urgent action late last year to strengthen their side for the Hexagonal: They scoured England for players with Jamaican roots.
Hexagonal: Johnson, Ricketts hoping for "new" Jamaica
The search landed eight players, and four of them — two from the Premier League, two from the Championship — were named to the Reggae Boyz roster for Wednesday’s tilt in Mexico City (6:30 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMás).
That newly minted quartet will join Portland’s Ryan Johnson (right, battling with Clint Dempsey in Kingston) and Donovan Ricketts, Houston’s Jermaine Taylor and former MLSer (and current Burnley attacker) Dane Richards on the Jamaica roster.
They’ll need time to incorporate the new blood, but the last time the JFF took a recruiting trip to England, the Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
Panama, a baseball-loving nation of 3.6 million, might look like an easy mark from afar, but Los Caneleros are without question the most improved team in the region over the past few years.
Led by coach Julio Dely Valdés, a veteran of Serie A and Ligue 1, and his assistant and twin brother, former Colorado Rapids star Jorge Dely Valdes, Panama knocked off the US in the opening round of the 2011 Gold Cup and reached the semifinals of that event.
They have players at top-flight clubs in South America and Mexico, along with three guys familiar to MLS fans — FC Dallas striker Blas Pérez, former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gómez and ex-FCD defender Carlos Rodríguez.
They’re athletic and experienced, and they won’t be a pushover for anyone.
For the first time in the past four World Cup cycles, Mexico are the clear favorites in the Hex. El Tri are coming off the biggest win in their history, a 2-1 triumph over Brazil in the gold-medal game of the 2012 London Summer Games, and nine players from that team have been called for Mexico’s Hex opener against Jamaica on Wednesday.
The regional heavyweights are stacked with the likes of Santos Laguna striker Oribe Peralta (who scored both goals in the Olympic final), Villareal midfielder Javier Aquino, and Manchester United marksman Javier (Chicharito) Hernández, among others, and they’ll be a genuine threat for three points in every game they play this round, home or away.
Honduras have always been competitive in CONCACAF, but in recent years they’ve lifted their game considerably. They qualified for the 2010 World Cup, and at the 2012 Olympics, Los Catrachos beat Spain and reached the quarterfinals of the tournament, losing to eventual runners-up Brazil 3-2 in a hard-fought match.
The stars of that team — former Sporting Kansas City and current Wigan midfielder Roger Espinoza (right), Wigan defender Maynor Figueroa, New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson and Seattle midfielder Mario Martínez — will all be on the roster for Wednesday’s game against the US.
New Anderlecht signing and former D.C. star Andy Najar was also selected, though he picked up a knock in training recently and won’t be a part of the squad.
But the current Honduras squad is talented enough that the US, who have mostly looked like a work in progress under Klinsmann, can consider it a solid result if they escape San Pedro Sula with a tie.
In each of the four Hexagonals since 1998, the US played two of their first four games on the road and two at home. This year, three of their first four are away.
If the Americans fail to get a point in Honduras, things could get very tricky. Next up would be an essentially must-win game against Costa Rica in Colorado on March 22.
The Ticos will be hungry to make up for their narrow miss at 2010 qualification, and with proven MLS goalscorers Álvaro Saborío (Real Salt Lake) and Jairo Arrieta (Columbus) in their lineup, along with Fulham attacker Bryan Ruiz (right), they’re capable of hurting any team in the group.
Following that match, the US take on Mexico at Estadio Azteca, where the Yanks are 1-23-1 since 1937.
It wouldn’t be hard for a glass-half-empty sort of fan to imagine Klinsmann’s men emerging from their first three games with just one or even zero points. In any event, they’d then face a match-up with the rebooted Reggae Boyz in Game No. 4, in Jamaica — where the Americans lost 2-1 in the previous round.
But let’s not get all doom and gloom.
Sure, history has shown that the US will hit bumps in the road this round, but more importantly, history has also shown that the US have never failed to qualify from a Hexagonal.
If their team should drop a home game — as they did in 2001 against Honduras at RFK Stadium — or fail to beat an underdog opponent at home (see the 1-1 draw with Jamaica at the same venue in 1997), US supporters can be reasonably confident that the Yanks will make it up somehow — as they have every other year.
It could be through a surprise win in Honduras (see 2009, when the Yanks rode a Conor Casey brace to a 3-2 win), or a “golden point” in Mexico, as then-coach Steve Sampson dubbed the shorthanded US’ 0-0 draw at Azteca in November 1997.
Odds are they’ll get it done, but there are likely to be more twists and turns — and a lot more sweat — this year than in any previous Hexagonal.