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Sep 28, 2008

No surprises in CONCACAF qualifying so far

The halfway point of any competition is a good time to take stock of emerging trends, and so it is with the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF, where the biggest surprise so far has been, well, the lack of surprises. And it all points to a final round Hexagonal that will be more difficult for the United States than first appeared. So far, each of the region's heavyweights has put their stamp on their respective group. The U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica have gone a combined 9-0-0 with 23 goals for and just three against, and all three sides should clinch their passage to the next round when qualifying resumes on Oct. 11. Costa Rica appears to have a relatively easy match at Suriname, while Mexico has a slightly trickier encounter in Kingston against Jamaica. The U.S. has the easiest road, with a home game against an understrength Cuba side making for a mere speed bump on its way to reaching the Hex. But a somewhat unexpected development is that this predictability has extended to the remaining qualifying spots in each group. In the past, there was usually one overachieving team that made the final round, with Panama playing the role of party crasher during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. Not so this time. Honduras could progress to the Hex by dispatching Canada in San Pedro Sula on Oct. 11. Given the team's improved organization, as well as the increased dedication of foreign-based players like David Suazo, that seems a safe bet. That would make for another tough World Cup exit for Canada, who always seems to land in the toughest semifinal group, and whose performances easily count as the tournament's biggest disappointment. After losing a hard-luck semifinal to the U.S. in last year's Gold Cup, Canada appeared ready to do some damage during qualification, with talented players like Julian de Guzman, Atiba Hutchinson and Dwayne De Rosario leading the way. Instead, earning just one point from home games with Honduras and Jamaica will likely prove to be the Reds' undoing.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
Oct. 11
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Oct. 15
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

El Salvador has removed nearly all of the drama from Group 3, despite losing its opening match against Costa Rica. Two straight wins have followed, and a win at Haiti in the next round will clinch its spot. Even if El Salvador suffers defeat in Port-au-Prince, two remaining home matches should be enough to see it through. That leaves second place in Group 1 as the only qualifying spot still in doubt. Trinidad and Tobago edged out Guatemala for fourth place in the 2006 Hexagonal and parleyed that finish into a spot in the 2006 World Cup after dispatching Bahrain in a playoff. The battle for 2010 sees both T&T and Guatemala at it again, although the Chapines, courtesy of its 1-1 draw in Port-of-Spain on Sept. 6, currently have the edge. The two teams, even on four points after three games, square off in Guatemala City on Oct. 11, with qualification basically on the line. So what does this all portend for the U.S.? It likely means a Hex with far more obstacles than the relative stroll they encountered four years ago. This is especially true if Guatemala -- which has proven to be a much tougher team for the U.S. to beat than T&T -- manages to secure the second spot in Group 1. The top three finishers will qualify for the finals in South Africa automatically, with the fourth-place team taking on South American opposition in a playoff. And while Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. will start out as favorites, presumed opponents Honduras and Guatemala will do plenty to push the region's three favorites. Honduras, in particular, is well-positioned to upset the balance of power that has been in place for the last two qualification campaigns. Its compliment of foreign-based players is increasing, providing a valuable upgrade in experience. And in addition to Suazo, players such as Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa are meshing well with performers like Amado Guevara and a resurgent Ramon Nunez. Granted, the Catrachos have some major demons to exorcise, especially from the 2002 qualification campaign when a shocking home loss to T&T in their penultimate game basically cost Honduras a spot in the finals. The hope is that the failure of that cycle is far enough in its rearview mirror to have much impact this time. That makes for a total of four difficult opponents, excluding El Salvador who will count as the weakest team in the presumed Hex lineup. And it means that the U.S. must get past at least two of that quartet to automatically progress. Recent qualifying efforts have seen the U.S. make the most of its home-field advantage, having not lost a World Cup qualifier since 2001, when Honduras prevailed 3-2 in RFK Stadium. But it's certainly within the realm of possibility for the U.S. to drop points against Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, or Guatemala, especially if the Americans can't shake their near-total reliance on set pieces to score. Road results will also be tough to come by this time around. The past three qualifying campaigns have seen the U.S. garner between five and seven points on the road, and equaling that total could spell the difference between qualifying for South Africa and staying home. Fortunately, the Americans' improved road form under manager Bob Bradley should help in this regard. This road resilience, along with the Americans' advantages in depth and organization, is ultimately why the U.S. will qualify comfortably. Just expect a few more stumbles along the way. Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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