CONCACAF lessons: Arena boosts U.S., Mexico restored, Panama eye history
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is past the halfway mark for both the United States and Mexico. With that in mind, there is plenty to digest as the final four rounds loom this September and October.
1. Arena makes the difference
There was a decent dose of skepticism when Bruce Arena was hired as head coach back in November for a second time, but the former L.A. Galaxy boss has shown why U.S. Soccer turned to him in such a desperate hour of need after the disastrous start to the Hexagonal.
Look no further than Sunday's 1-1 draw in the Azteca against Mexico.
"We told the team on day one of this camp that we would play that way in this game," said Arena following the match. It is hard imagining that the same would have happened under Jurgen Klinsmann. As noted by defender Omar Gonzalez, things were often last minute under Klinsmann, which left the players feeling anxious and unprepared.
Not so with Arena. For each of the two matches, he had a plan, one that was drilled into the players and that they executed well. You could make the case that a Klinsmann-led team could have gotten that home win against Trinidad and Tobago, but it was the Mexico game where the Arena difference was felt, and Sunday's point could be worth its weight in gold by the time the Hexagonal concludes.
With four points collected in their last two matches, the U.S. is poised to reach Russia and with each passing day, U.S. Soccer can rest easier that they made the right decision to replace Klinsmann with Arena.
2. Mexico on course with Osorio
Mexico's World Cup qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 is like night and day. Four years ago El Tri were in shambles, chaotically shuffling through a trio of coaches -- Jose Manuel de la Torre, Luis Fernando Tena and Victor Manuel Vucetich -- before Miguel Herrera managed to right the ship after the famous lifeline from the U.S.
Now, under Juan Carlos Osorio, it is a much different story. Mexico are top of the Hexagonal with 14 points and waltzing their way to Russia after a dominant 3-0 home win over Honduras and a hard-fought 1-1 draw with the U.S. at the Azteca. They could well have their ticket stamped by the end of round eight with an unbeaten record, which stands in stark contrast to their abysmal mark (two wins, five draws, three defeats) during the 2013 Hexagonal.
To boot, Osorio's rotation policy is also reaping rewards, evidenced by the Honduras win which had four different starters than the 11 fielded against the U.S. on Sunday, so much so that criticism of Mexico's performance against the U.S. seems unfair. Certainly the chances were there for Mexico to win it in the final 20 minutes although the same could be said for Arena's side.
Overall, Osorio deserves credit for the work he has done. He has made Mexico a better and more balanced team while managing to avoid, or at least limit, the drama that has riddled past Mexico coaches.
It is a refreshing change that should be appreciated more.
3. Panama edging closer to history
The final four weeks of the Hexagonal will have no shortage of intrigue and just like in 2013, Panama will be a major player.
In glancing at the Hexagonal table, Mexico are a lock to reach Russia with Costa Rica a close second, assuming the Ticos handle their business on Tuesday at home against Trinidad and Tobago. With a win at home vs. Honduras, Panama would leap back ahead of the U.S. and into third place with nine points, one ahead of the Yanks and five points in front of the fifth-placed Catrachos.
Panama's 0-0 draw at Costa Rica last Thursday was a perfect example of the influence of coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who took over in 2014. Panama were strong both in attack and in defense, which allowed them to secure a first ever point on Costa Rican soil. Yes, they played against 10 men for much of the second half, but it was the type of match that in previous cycles Panama would have lost. They will need that same solidity in their final two road matches against Mexico and the U.S.
After suffering heartbreak four years ago, Panama's time for a World Cup, whether secured with direct qualification or the more likely scenario of the playoff, appears to be coming.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .