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As recently as a year ago, Mexico was perceived as the king of CONCACAF after Gold Cup and Olympic triumphs. But the USA has stepped up to leave no doubt who wears the crown now.

Two years ago, the Mexican national team had the look of a powerhouse ready to dominate the CONCACAF region for years to come, but Tim Howard wasn’t buying it. Even after being on the losing end of the 2011 Gold Cup final, Howard was never willing to concede that there was a gap between Mexico and the U.S. national team.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Howard made a point to remind people who finished at the top of the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying.

“We’re proud (of topping the Hexagonal) because, depending on who you asked, we were a million miles away from Mexico, and we never believed that,” Howard said. “When you talk about the semifinal round and the Hex, doing it over a long period of time shows that we’re once again the best team in CONCACAF. That’s not lip service, that’s what the standings tell us, so we’re proud of that.

“Over the last two years all we’ve been hearing about is how dominant Mexico’s been, and look, that’s what happens at the top, there’s going to be that ebb and flow.”

In 2011, after Mexico handed the USA a 4-2 loss in the Gold Cup final, it looked as though Mexico was set up for a run of dominating form. The gold medal in the 2012 Olympics only boosted El Tri’s credentials, and with the USA not even qualifying for that tournament, it gave the feeling that Mexico was leaving the Americans in the dust.

Things started to really change from the start of 2013, when Mexico’s own struggles began. El Tri failed to win any of its first five qualifiers, while the USA shook off a Hex-opening loss to Honduras to eventually take over the group.

“For us, it wasn’t a shaky start,” Howard said. “It was a tough loss on a hot day in Honduras, and it was only one game. After that match we still had nine to go and we hadn’t played a home game yet. It was all part of the process.”

The U.S. team hit its stride this summer, eventually taking control of the qualifying group while Mexico’s struggles continued. The capper for Howard and the USA was the latest 2-0 victory over El Tri, which came last month.

Friday’s win versus Jamaica didn't just help the USA clinch first place in the group on a night Mexico needed a dream bicycle kick from Raul Jimenez just to take fourth place, and have a chance to qualify for the World Cup via a playoff. The U.S. win also marked the Americans' fifth qualifying shutout in a row for a perfect 5-0 Hex at home.

“For me, and for Brad (Guzan) and the rest of the boys in the back, that stat means more than anything,” Howard said. “Without that foundation you can’t move forward, and we’ve set the bar real high. I don’t know if it’s done before, but it feels real good and it’s tough to do.”

The U.S. team’s outstanding run through the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, coupled with its dominant run to win the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, has left little doubt which is the best team in CONCACAF. After having to hear for a while how Mexico was king, you can't really blame Howard and the USA if they want it made clear just which team is on top now.

WHAT ROSTER CHANGES WILL MEAN TO LINEUP

With Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler sent home after Friday’s win versus Jamaica, Jurgen Klinsmann will have several changes to make to the lineup that takes on Panama on Tuesday.

Some of the changes have already been laid out, with Klinsmann making it clear he wants Brad Guzan and Clarence Goodson to get games against Panama. That leaves two other spots up for grabs.

Graham Zusi looks like the easy pick to replace Donovan in the starting lineup, while Kyle Beckerman should ease into the slot left open by Jones’ departure.

Sacha Kljestan and Terrence Boyd are other options at Klinsmann’s disposal, but Zusi and Beckerman look like better bets based on recent national team form.

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