By JOSE M. ROMERO
The CONCACAF World Cup qualifying final round, or hexagonal, will be here in February 2013, but it’s never too early to look at some key matches in the six-team double round-robin.
Three automatic qualifiers for Brazil 2014 will come from the six participants, plus a fourth team in a two-leg playoff with an Oceania representative for one more potential spot. Soccer by Ives examined the U.S. draw earlier; here’s a look at what the other teams in face in their respective home-and-away matchups.
The team to watch the most is undoubtedly Mexico, and no doubt El Tri has the U.S. already circled on its schedule for March 26. That will be the second of what could be challenging back-to-back games for Mexico, as they must travel to San Pedro Sula on March 22 to face Honduras, a team that should contend for a top-three spot.
The U.S. now has a win at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on its ledger, so beating the Americans won’t necessarily be a given for Mexico.
In early June, Mexico must play at Jamaica on the 4th, go to Panama for a match on the 7th and return home to face Costa Rica on the 11th. On paper, they probably won’t lose any of those games, but June might be brutal for Mexico because after the World Cup qualifiers, the team heads to Brazil for the Confederations Cup.
On Sept. 6, Mexico hosts Honduras before going to the U.S. for the Sept. 10 date. And Costa Rica could give them a run on the last qualifying date, Oct. 15. Costa Rica could be playing with a World Cup berth on the line that night, or at least a spot in the play-in series.
Aside from Mexico and the U.S., Honduras and Costa Rica appear to have the better shot at making it to Brazil or the play-in series than Panama and Jamaica.
Honduras gets to host Costa Rica on Oct. 11, with Los Ticos at home June 7 at Estadio Saprissa.
Bottom line — winning away from home soil probably won’t be easy for any team, the only exception being Mexico and not more than a couple of road games, at that. Home teams enjoy an advantage by keeping their matches at one central location, for example, Azteca in Mexico, the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica and Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City.
The U.S. must try to capture that home-field advantage with the federation’s selection of venues around the country.
The summertime matches in Central America and Jamaica also might give those countries an advantage over the U.S. because of the weather conditions. Those shouldn’t be an issue in games between teams south of the U.S.
What are your thoughts on the other games in the hexagonal? Where can Mexico be possibly tripped up in its pursuit of the top spot? Who will round out the top four? Share your thoughts below.