The two perennial powers should glide to the top two spots in the table. Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Costa Rica face a battle for third and fourth spots.1. Mexico
The top priority in a crowded fixture list this year: qualify for the World Cup in some style. And all of the pieces are in place to fulfill that goal. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernández leads a deep and talented group from the front. His predatory instincts offer plenty of cutting edge to moves concocted by Andrés Guardado and Giovani dos Santos in midfield. Veteran operator Carlos Salcido supplies a bit of pragmatism in central midfield with fullbacks overlapping and wingers flying into dangerous areas. The central defensive duo of Héctor Moreno and Francisco Rodríguez provides the necessary solidity to a side that operates in possession frequently and sometimes leaves gaps to exploit on the counter.
Best case scenario: Mexico coasts through its home fixtures and snatches road victories at Jamaica and Honduras early in the schedule to confirm its place as the top side in the region by some distance.
Worst case scenario: The neat work in midfield falters in front of goal. Somehow, one of the rivals – potentially the United States – sneaks out of the Azteca with all three points. Qualification is secured with time to spare, but questions are raised about whether de la Torre is the man to take this talented side to Brazil.
2. United States
Nothing less than a fairly comfortable ride through the Hexagonal will suffice for the region's second-best side. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann hasn't enacted the sweeping revolution many expected, but he has cobbled together a side capable of churning out results. Clint Dempsey offers most of the imagination and sharpness in the final third, particularly with Landon Donovan currently unavailable. Michael Bradley performs much of the hard work linking the play through midfield and shuttling the ball into advanced areas. Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard lead a rearguard bolstered by the presence of dynamic fullbacks Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson. Klinsmann must hope the potential frailty in central defense and the dearth of wide options does not impair his side's efforts, but the overall strength of the side means this particular gauntlet should unfold in a relatively straightforward manner.
Best case scenario: Klinsmann guides the Americans through a difficult opening slate (away to Honduras, home to Costa Rica, away to Mexico and away to Jamaica) with a minimum of fuss. Those early points – five or more would do – build the foundation for a berth before the final day.
Worst case scenario: Early success eludes a group impacted by the relative inexperience of several starters and the Hex turns into its usual slog. A place in Brazil is ultimately secured, but the arduous path ultimately prompts inquiries about how far this group can progress in the main event next year.
Los Catrachos enter this Hexagonal with their sights set on a second consecutive World Cup berth. Longtime fixtures Amado Guevara and Carlos Pavón (top scorer in the Hex last time around) retired from international soccer after the trip to South Africa, but plenty of talented players still remain to replicate that Hexagonal success. Most of the key regulars – familiar figures like Jerry Bengtson, Roger Espinoza, Maynor Figueroa and Boniek García – ply their trade in MLS or the United Kingdom. Central defense and wide play loom as potential strengths, but there are concerns that Espinoza won't receive the proper support in central midfield with Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas out of the mix or the goals might dry up if Bengtson and Carlo Costly fail to receive the proper service.
Best case scenario: Victory over the United States in the first fixture – and perhaps a home draw against Mexico in the second – paves the way for a relatively simple qualification process. A repeat of Jonathan Bornstein's late equalizer against Costa Rica isn't necessary to cinch a trip to Brazil.
Worst case scenario: The difficult pair of matches to open the Hex create some doubt about the quality of this side. Those doubts increase in June and prompt an unexpected scrape for fourth place instead one of the three guaranteed berths in Brazil. A potential journey to New Zealand awaits.
This baseball-mad country returns to the Hex after a one-cycle absence to pursue its first World Cup berth. Former star Julio Dely Valdes manages a veteran-laden group capable of producing the necessary results to make history. The strength of this team comes straight down its spine: Jaime Penedo in goal, Felipe Baloy in central defense, Gabriel Gómez in central midfield and Blas Pérez (and the currently injured Luis Tejada) up front. Direct play and set pieces play to the physical strength of the side, though the counter is always an option given the pace available on the flanks. Depth up front, imagination and quality in midfield and vulnerabilities at fullback present potential trouble spots.
Best case scenario: A bright start inspires belief that a first World Cup berth isn't out of reach. The hard work through the first eight matches renders the final two matches – away to Mexico and home to the United States – irrelevant.
Worst case scenario: Dely Valdes watches his team stumble through a manageable start to the campaign. The early missteps prove costly with those final pair of matches likely to ensure the World Cup drought continues for another four years.
5. Costa Rica
The pain of last cycle – Bornstein's last-second intervention at RFK Stadium prompted a playoff defeat to eventual semifinalists Uruguay – still lingers as the Hex approaches. This Costa Rica side isn't as strong as the group that nearly traveled to South Africa last time around. Established stars Bryan Ruiz and Álvaro Saborío offer plenty of potency in the attacking third, but a suspect rearguard may place too much emphasis on producing goals. Jorge Luis Pinto will try to accelerate the development of several young players – including Arsenal starlet Joel Campbell and Everton reserve Bryan Oviedo – to supply additional support. He may need all hands on deck to ensure this group somehow manages to squeak into World Cup contention.
Best case scenario: Pinto accentuates the positives with Celso Borges and Christian Bolaños providing plenty of help to Ruiz and Saborío from midfield. The young players continue to develop, particularly at the back. And the final match – home to Mexico – means something.
Worst case scenario: Ruiz and Saborio find themselves isolated. The defense crumbles in front of the stranded Keylor Navas. Pinto starts to search for another gig by early fall as Costa Rica turns its focus to 2018.
Reggae Boyz boss Theodore Whitmore will hope to conjure up the magic of 1998 to direct his country back to the World Cup. In a nod to the work Rene Simoes did that year, Whitmore enticed five English-based professionals – including Huddersfield Town striker Jermaine Beckford and Reading midfielder Jobi McAnuff – to join the ranks. Those players increase the available options, but they do not solve the cohesiveness concerns and the selection issues (Darren Mattocks and Luton Shelton were both omitted from the squad to face Mexico). Former midfielder general Whitmore organized his side well and relied on the counter during the semifinal round, but the usual problems – profligate finishing and spotty service – popped up on cue. If the recent imports fail to sparkle or undermine the defensive efforts, then the Jamaicans will struggle to compete.
Best case scenario: All of the fresh faces settle well and take to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying immediately. Whitmore steers his team to fourth spot and a playoff victory over New Zealand.
Worse case scenario: Chaos reigns. Results suffer. Viewings of those three cherished group stage games from France replace the usual debates about the national team as the Hex progresses.
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