Wednesday, February 06, 2013

2014 World Cup Update: Where We Stand

As 2013 gets underway, I figured it's high time to take a look around the world and see where everyone stands as competition resumes in North America on Wednesday (and everywhere else in late March). So we'll start close to home first, and then we'll take a stroll around the world.

Starting Wednesday is the final phase of CONCACAF qualification, known in English and Spanish alike as the Hexagonal. The six teams in question are the top-two teams from each 3rd round group. To review, those teams are (in order of their FIFA ranking/ELO ranking): Mexico (15/7), the United States (28/27), Panama (46/37), Jamaica (58/72), Honduras (59/45), and Costa Rica (66/42).

To be blunt, Mexico and the US should qualify. That's not to say there won't be drama, however. Last time around, the US lost 3-1 at Costa Rica, for instance. There was also the really annoying tendency to give up early goals. At El Salvador, the US was down 2-0 in the 72nd minute before rallying to for the draw. The US went down 1-0 early at home against Honduras. The one time they did manage to score with in the first ten minutes was at Mexico, when Charlie Davies stunned the Azteca crowd to put the US up 1-0 in the 9th minute. The Mexicans tied 10 minutes later and finally broke through in the 82nd minute to secure the US's only other loss. In their next four games, other than a 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, the US was losing at some point in the contest. Perhaps none wound up being bigger than the last two games. The US surrendered a goal almost immediately after the half to go down 1-0 at Honduras with qualification on the line. Conor Casey came out of nowhere to become Man of the Match, as he scored in the 50th and 66th minutes to put the US up 2-1, and had an assist on Landon Donovan's clincher in the 71st minute. The US ended up winning 3-2 after getting lucky with a missed Honduras penalty in extra time.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment ever in CONCACAF qualification occurred four days later in Washington, DC. Mexico and the US were already through to the World Cup. Mexico drew against Trinidad and Tobago earlier in the day, giving the US a shot to top the group with a win. The teams that cared about the results this day the most, however, were Costa Rica and Honduras. Costa Rica had 12 points at the time and Honduras had 10. In order to avoid a tough intercontinental playoff game against a South American team (which ended up being Uruguay, not exactly an easy match) Honduras needed to beat El Salvador and needed the US to draw or win against Costa Rica. The US decided to go for the points and started their full-strength lineup, however the team struggled throughout the match and surrendered two goals in quick succession in the 20th and 23rd minutes. Micheal Bradley finally broke through in the 71st minute, but it looked like the US (and Honduras) would fall short. The 90th minute came and 4 minutes were put on the board. Finally, with the referee liable to blow his whistle at any second, the US were given a corner kick. Robbie Rodgers kicked it, and Jonathan Bornstein instantly became a national hero in Honduras as he headed the ball into the net in what would be noted in the box score as the "90+4" minute. It looked something like this:

I still remember watching the footage from Honduras on Youtube later. First was the audio feed from the Honduran radio guys, who were still on air providing updates as they got them. (The Honduras game had been over for awhile at this point.) In the clip, you hear what sounds like someone shouting from the entrance to the room "Goal Estados Unidos!" followed by "Goal Estados Unidos?" "GOOOOOAAAAAALLL ESTADOS UNIDOS!!!!!! GOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLLL" Other clips included people celebrating the streets, many with Honduran flags but also several waving American flags. Even though he scored with his forehead, the Honduras football federation asked for Bornstein's cleats. It was the first time the country had qualified for the World Cup since 1982.

Other than that, things weren't great in Honduras then (Sports Illustrated international soccer writer Grant Wahl got mugged when covering the US's away game there in 2009), and they're a hell of a lot worse now. San Pedro Sula is possibly the least safe city on the planet right now (it currently has the highest per capita murder rate in the world), which probably has a lot to do with the game will start at 3PM local time on Wednesday. Of course, it probably also doesn't hurt that it will be a very balmy 90 degrees at kickoff, either. In addition to the heat and security situation, the US has the other worries that traditionally come with qualifying in Central America. Hostile fans throwing anything and everything at the players (though the one upside of the Estadio Olimipico in San Pedro Sula is that the stands are relatively far away from the field), an around-the-clock party may be continuously occurring outside the team hotel, rather questionable playing surfaces, and sometimes even more questionable officiating. The US will be trying for three points, but don't be surprised if in the end we have to settle for one.

In Mexico City, El Tri will be starting off with Jamaica. This shouldn't present much challenge for the high-flying Mexicans, which makes it even more imperative for the US to get a result at Honduras. Rounding out the first set of games is Panama-Costa Rica. The Ticos just won the Central American Cup and Panama came in fifth. Most sources I've read indicate they're a little weaker side than they were four years ago. They may have some issues on the road in Panama but I think they could still get three points.

CONCACAF is the only confederation playing in February, as the 6th is actually a FIFA friendly date, not what's known as a "full international date". The one downside of this is that for full dates, national teams can recall their squads up to a week in advance of the games, whereas it's only a few days for friendly dates. For the Central American teams this isn't a huge deal. For Mexico it's becoming more a big deal, as 5 of their starting 11 are now based on Europe. For the US, though, it wouldn't be surprising if as many as 8 or 9 of the starting 11 are based in Europe. This means that they flew to Miami Sunday night, and flew on to San Pedro Sula Monday night. That's pretty rough. Add that into the other elements mentioned above, and fatigue could be a factor. One potential advantage could've been that the players will at least be in form, but Honduras were the runners-up in the tournament I mentioned above. For more on the calendar, you can view the FIFA match calendar here.

Let's take a quick look at the situation abroad, though I'll probably follow up with another post as we get closer to those dates in late March.

It probably wouldn't be a shock, per se, but I'd still be pretty surprised if Uzbekistan topped Group A in Asia ahead of South Korea. The Koreans will get to exact some revenge on them and Iran as they close out with them in June, but the current status quo is likely to prevail as South Korea faces Qatar and Uzbekistan faces last-place Lebanon in March.

Japan has a very good shot at being the first team (other than the hosts) to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. They currently have an 8 point lead over Australia, Iraq, and Oman in their group and need only to beat last-place Jordan to get in. (That, or draw with Jordan and hope the Aussies draw with Oman.) The game is in Amman where the Jordanians did shock Australia 2-1 last September, so it's not certain. Speaking of the Socceroos, "lackluster" might not be adequate to describe their campaign so far. Their only win has been over Iraq, where they had to come from behind after getting down 1-0 in the 72nd minute. Their best result could very well be a 1-1 draw at home with Japan.

Not much has changed in Africa, as most national teams have been playing in the Cup of Nations tournament the past few weeks. No World Cup qualifiers have been played since last June, and all teams still have four games to go in their qualification groups right now, so it's tough to really make any bold statements. The most interesting thing so far might be that Ghana isn't topping its group, but they still have plenty of time to rectify that.

South America has, of course, the most elegant qualifying format: a simple double round-robin between all the teams in the confederation. The top four go to the World Cup, and the fifth place team gets to beat play a team from the AFC. Currently Argentina tops the table with 20 points, three ahead of Ecuador. Colombia has also had a strong showing so far, going 5-1-2 (W-D-L). However, most of the teams still have 6 games to play, so there's plenty of action left before they wrap up in October.

With a win on March 22, New Zealand will qualify for the Interconfederation Playoff to be played in November against the 4th place team from CONCACAF. Even though they shockingly lost to New Caledonia last year, the All-Whites should be able to clinch it at home.

Most teams still have six games to play, so again, there's no grand pronouncements to be made so far. We can note some surprises, though, such as Israel sitting in second in Group F ahead of Portugal on goal difference. It stands to reason that may change when the two sides face off in March, though. In Group G, Bosnia is currently tied for the lead in the group with Greece, and both are ahead of 2010 qualifier Slovakia. Exhibit A of why you can't really tell anything yet is Group H, though. Montenegro are currently topping a group that also has England, Poland, and the Ukraine in it. Don't get me wrong, they appear to be a quality side, but they've also already played hapless minnow San Marino twice. If you dislike potential chaos, though, Group I will make you happy, as Spain and France are currently topping the group.

That's all for now. Don't forget to check out the other resources on the sidebar on the right.