CONCACAF may not be the most glamorous region in FIFA, but the rest of the world will be unlikely to outdo the Hex for pure thrill.
An outsider, perhaps. In truth, CONCACAF's final phase of World Cup qualifying is a grueling series of eye-gouging, shin-kicking, cups-of-questionable-substance-throwing, gritty bare-knuckle grudge matches. Mixed martial arts may have an octagon, but CONCACAF has the Hexagonal. Ten games are played across nine months, relative fixture isolation undermined by the back-to-back nature of transcontinental travel and playing two games in the space of five days. It's a one-two punch where you could find yourself playing in heavy rain in Kingston followed up by heat and smog and altitude in Mexico City. Momentum from wins is dispelled by the long wait for the next round, while the toxic rot from a poor performance can fester for weeks before the next set of games.
CONCACAF nations have close ties economically and politically, and the North and Central American and Caribbean teams play each other frequently, a byproduct of a shallow pool of quality teams and the biennial Gold Cup. As a rule, these teams have long histories of not liking each other, loading every game with subtext.
Mexico nearly fell victim to the unforgiving nature of this Hex this year. Under the disastrous leadership of Jose Manuel de la Torre, El Tri displayed disastrous home form, going 1-3-1 in Mexico City, the single victory requiring Raul Jimenez's 85th-minute bicycle kick against Panama in the final home game. In the course of a year, the perception of Azteca changed from an impenetrable fortress where points were lost forever into an easily plundered ruin.
Coming into the final day of the Hex, three teams - Honduras, Mexico and Panama - were unsure of their fates. The United States and Costa Rica were guaranteed first and second place finishes, while winless Jamaica was eliminated from contention. By a fateful bit of scheduling, the three teams with something to win or lose were paired with the teams whose fortunes were settled.
Honduras entered the day on 14 points. Mexico had 11, and Panama eight. Goal difference was such that it wouldn't really matter if the results broke in the right ways. Honduras was guaranteed a spot in the playoff with New Zealand at the very least, and needed at least a point to secure automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup. A point or more would give Mexico the playoff spot, and a win coupled with a Honduran loss to Jamaica would send El Tri straight to Brazil. If Mexico lost, a Panama win would send Los Canaleros to Wellington and back.
The games all kicked off at the same time. Honduras, always the most likely winner, took just two minutes to find an opener for Carlo Costly, but that good work was immediately undone by a third-minute own goal from Jorge Claros. It would take a little while longer for all hell to break loose.
A Mexican move found Chicharito with a wide open goal at his mercy, but somehow his wayward stab at the ball put it into the offside Oribe Peralta, killing a brilliant opportunity for Mexico. Then Gabriel Torres scored for Panama against the United States. It was a lifeline for the Central American nation, but wouldn't count for anything as long as Mexico didn't lose. And then Mexico gave up a goal, Bryan Ruiz volleying a shot in to send two crowds hundreds of miles away into raptures and giving Mexico its first non-qualification terrors of the evening.
It didn't last long. Peralta scored a few minutes after Ruiz to restore parity and Mexico's hold on the playoff spot. Maynor Figueroa scored for Honduras, and Jamaica's Rudolph Austin converted a penalty in the second half to settle that game as a 2-2 draw.
Things soon got interesting again. Alvaro Saborio scored for Costa Rica after the hour mark, putting Panama back into the playoff spot, and then almost immediately, a goal by USA's Michael Orozco-Fiscal pushed it back out. Until Luis Tejada, the veteran who nearly gave Panama a draw against El Tri on Friday, scored.
Suddenly, with less than 10 minutes to go in the matches, Panama was at home beating the USA and Mexico was losing away to a Costa Rica team looking increasingly confident and dangerous. Some USA fans on social networks were openly rooting against their own country, hoping to see the great rival humiliated. Panama fans were dreaming of a shot at the nation's first-ever World Cup berth. Broadcasters and media executives on both sides of the Rio Grande were placing tearful orders for gallons upon gallons of red ink.
And then, like some old Western movie, the American cavalry arrived at the last second and saved the day for Mexico. Edgar Castillo, who made three friendly appearances for Mexico before switching to the Stars and Stripes, dribbled inside and sent a pass out wide left for Brad Davis, whose one-time cross was met by the head of Graham Zusi and sent into the back of the net to equalize. Panamanian hearts sank. Mexico exploded. One Mexican announcer shouted in English, "We love you forever and ever, God bless America!" before ripping apart the Mexican team in Spanish.
A minute later, all of Panama's hopes were dashed, as Aron Johannsson scored his first U.S. goal to put Mexico's spot firmly onto safe ground. The games ended. Terrence Boyd consoled the exhausted and broken Panamanian captain Felipe Baloy, who at 32 is unlikely to ever come so close to a World Cup again. Mexican fans rushed to praise the professionalism of the American team. #GraciasUSA trended on twitter in Mexico City. Americans responded with #YoureWelcomeMexico, demonstrating the pitfalls of an under-funded public school system on contraction abuse.
Mexico still has its problems. Rafa Marquez may bring a steady hand and valuable leadership, but he's cost Mexico a goal in each of the games he's played in. Giovanni dos Santos needs to rediscover his ability to drive the Mexican attack. And poor Chicharito is simply a shattered man right now. Victor Manuel Vucetich will have a chance to address these problems however, thanks to the crazy final night of the Hexagonal; unpredictable, unbelievable, and somehow appropriately CONCACAF.
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