Pulisic can provide U.S. X-Factor in World Cup qualifying Hexagonal
World Cup qualifying began in CONCACAF 17 months ago when the U.S. Virgin Islands defeated Barbados 1-0. Four rounds and 81 games later, 29 teams have been eliminated, leaving six countries to contest the final round.
The format of the Hexagonal is forgiving to say the least. (Find the full Hex schedule here.) The top three finishers qualify automatically for Russia 2018 while the fourth-place team will take on the fifth-place side from the Asia Football Confederation in a playoff to help fill out the tournament's qualifiers. Yet even for regional powers like Mexico and the U.S., there are bound to be more than a few detours along the way and devastation for those who miss out.
With that in mind, here's a brief rundown of the countries that have made it this far.
The U.S. has recovered well from the disappointment that was the 2015 Gold Cup, when it was bounced by Jamaica in the semifinals, and with the help of a semifinal appearance at the Copa America, Jurgen Klinsmann's side appears to be gelling at the right time. The defense, led by Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, looks solid. The midfield balance, with Michael Bradley now in a holding role, has improved. And in Christian Pulisic, the U.S. has an up-and-coming player who could be a mainstay for years to come. About the only concern for coach Klinsmann is the health of some key performers like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, but so far, the U.S. has weathered those absences.
Key player: Jozy Altidore
It's easy to forget that Altidore's goals propelled the U.S. through qualification for the 2014 World Cup, and he could do so again now that his hamstring injuries appear to be a thing of the past. His ability to play with his back to goal makes him a big part of the U.S. attack.
X-Factor: Christian Pulisic
Pulisic's creativity and vision give the U.S. the kind of attacking weapon it has lacked in recent years, and while he is just 17, he already looks like a veteran out there.
Turmoil always seems to find El Tri, and heading into the Hex, little has changed. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio has lost just once in his 13 games in charge, and the team cruised through the semifinal round of qualifying. But the lone defeat was a whopper, a 7-0 hammering at the hands of Chile in the quarterfinals of Copa America. Combined with the aforementioned draw against Honduras, Osorio finds himself in a vulnerable position. Mexico is still as talented a team as there is in the Hex, but facing -- and handling -- external pressures remains its biggest challenge.
Key player: Hector Herrera
The Porto captain was among those responsible for the disaster against Chile at the Copa and it's imperative that he shakes off that disappointment. His two-way presence in midfield makes him a vital piece for Osorio and El Tri.
X-Factor: Rafa Marquez
El Tri just can't quit Rafa. While Marquez has lost a step, his leadership remains invaluable, and no other El Tri player can organize the team's defense like he can. The question is, can he hold up physically?
Recapturing the form that took the Ticos to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup hasn't been easy, especially after manager Jose Luis Pinto resigned and took up the reins for Honduras. Paulo Wanchope was forced to step down after being involved in a scuffle with a match steward during a U23 game against Panama. But Oscar Ramirez has provided some stability -- a group stage exit at the Copa America Centenario notwithstanding -- and Costa Rica went on to take 16 out of a possible 18 points in the semifinal round. The Estadio Nacional remains a formidable venue, with the Ticos having lost just one World Cup qualifier (against Mexico) since it opened in 2011.
Key player: Celso Borges
Bryan Ruiz may get many of the accolades, but Borges is still the hub through which much of the Costa Rica attack runs. He puts in plenty of work on the defensive side of the ball as well, and at 28, the Deportivo La Coruna man is at operating at his peak.
X-Factor: Joel Campbell
The perpetually on-loan Arsenal striker remains a critical piece of the Ticos' success due to his mobility, power and finishing. Campbell has been sent to Portuguese side Sporting CP this season and Ramirez's hope is that a steady dose of playing time there will keep the forward sharp.
After leading Costa Rica to World Cup success in 2014, Jorge Luis Pinto has replicated his approach with Los Catrachos, forging a team that is disciplined defensively and quick on the break. The transition to Pinto's style has had its ups and downs, however. Honduras endured a dreadful 2015 Gold Cup, a showing that saw it fail to qualify for the Copa America Centenario. But Honduras recorded a rugged 0-0 draw against Mexico in the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night to secure passage into the Hex. A new crop of attacking players is also emerging and Honduras' run to the semifinals of the Olympic soccer tournament could be a harbinger of things to come.
Key player: Maynor Figueroa
Pinto's emphasis on defensive organization requires experienced heads at the back and Figueroa fits the bill, with over 130 caps for the national team. The FC Dallas defender has been a constant presence for Pinto even as the manager has switched between four and five-defender alignments.
X-Factor: Alberth Elis
U.S. fans will recall that it was Elis' two goals that helped eliminate the U.S. from Olympic qualifying, and the Monterrey attacker now represents part of the next wave of Honduran players. In a team that might find goals hard to come by, Elis will need to deliver.
After letting a playoff spot slip through their fingers on the last day of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the Canaleros are determined to move on from that heartbreak. In Hernan Dario Gomez, Panama has an experienced manager at the helm, one who led it to a third-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. While Panama was dealt some harsh lessons at the Copa, it navigated a tricky qualifying group, dispatching Jamaica along the way.
Key player: Gabriel Gomez
Gomez's experience and physicality make him a mainstay in the Panamanian midfield. He's also a favorite of Hernan Dario Gomez, who spoke recently of how indispensable the 32-year-old is to this team.
X-Factor: Roman Torres
The Seattle Sounders defender missed all of the semifinal round of qualifying due to a torn ACL, but Torres has been cleared to return to his club, and his play alongside captain Felipe Baloy could help a solidify a Panama defense that will need to be at its best in order for Los Canaleros to qualify.
Trinidad & Tobago
After failing in the preliminary round during qualification for the 2014 World Cup, the Soca Warriors have bounced back nicely under manager Stephen Hart. T&T has shown it is more than willing to play the region's powerhouses straight up, and they have given Mexico a hard time in particular. At the moment, T&T is a team that looks suspect in the back, a concern for Hart as he prepares for the Hex.
Key player: Kenwyne Jones
T&T is going to need to score goals, lots of them, in order to qualify, and Jones -- recently signed by new MLS side Atlanta United -- remains one of the more lethal strikers in the region.
X-Factor: Levi Garcia
T&T seems to have no shortage of pacy players capable of getting into the attack, but they have high hopes for the 18-year-old, who currently plays for Dutch side AZ. Garcia could provide a valuable additional scoring option to the likes of Kenwyne Jones, Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino.
Five key games
1. U.S. vs. Mexico, Nov. 11, 2016
The first day of the Hexagonal is witness to a titanic clash between the region's two heavyweights in a venue -- Crew Stadium -- where the U.S. has historically fared well. The game starts a brutal stretch for El Tri that sees it play three of its first four on the road.
2. Costa Rica vs. U.S., Nov. 15, 2016
For all that's been written about the U.S. team's struggles in Mexico, Costa Rica has proved to be a brutal trip. The U.S. is 0-8-2 all-time in Costa Rica.
3. Mexico vs. Honduras, June 9, 2017
During the 2014 World Cup cycle, Honduras handed El Tri just its second World Cup qualifying defeat at home in 78 games. After recently tying Mexico at the famed venue, Honduras will be a difficult opponent indeed for El Tri.
4. Honduras vs. Costa Rica, March 28, 2017
Honduras and Costa Rica have often proved themselves to be the equal of Mexico and the U.S., but if the form book holds, they will likely be battling for the third and final automatic qualifying spot. That makes this encounter critical for both teams.
5. Panama vs. Costa Rica, Oct. 10, 2017
A defeat to the U.S. on the last day of 2014 qualifying dealt Panama's World Cup hopes a fatal blow. Panama will face the Ticos on the last day of qualifying and will hope to banish that memory once and for all.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.