Note: This is the second post of a series of posts reviewing the Club World Championships, the CONCACAF final round of qualifying, and the demise of the San Jose Earthquakes.
This post is a long time coming, but when I started writing a draft of my review I thought it would be mooted by the World Cup draw, so I shelved it. Now the draw has occurred, and I have some time in my schedule to write about the Hexagonal, so here it goes.
When I started a website about the Hexagonal in 2001 (not a very good website, but a learning experience nonetheless), I was genuinely excited about that tournament. I thought that all of the teams in the final round (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, T&T) had a legitimate shot of qualifying for Japan/Korea 2002, and I wanted to follow it as the tournament progressed. Sure enough, all of the eventual qualifiers had to sweat during the process, some impressive unbeaten streaks came to an end (USA and Mexico's home streaks), and Honduras were so close to knocking Mexico out of the World Cup -- which would have had implications for the seedings of the 2006 World Cup finals!
This edition of the Hexagonal did not have a similar effect on me. In 2001, the USA and Mexico were in a transitional phase, and at the same time a number of Central American and Caribbean sides were entering their "20-year moments", that is, that period that occurs almost every 20 years when they have a collection of players capable of qualifying for the World Cup finals. This time, because of a combination of lopsided groups in the semifinal round and a decline of some of those Central American/Caribbean teams, there was more of a consolidation of the Big Three teams at the top of the Hexagonal. The addition of the playoff slot made things interesting at the bottom half of the table, but if that slot wasn't there the competition would have been over after the sixth matchday.
More should be said about the semifinal round, because the imbalance between the three groups greatly affected the quality of the Hexagonal. There was a commentary on a website (don't remember the name, sorry) that explained the mechanics of the preliminary draw, but in the end we arrived at a relatively balanced group (USA, Jamaica, Panama, El Salvador), a ridiculously difficult group (Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Canada), and a ridiculously easy group (Mexico, St. Vincent & Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad & Tobago). A switch between the smaller Caribbean islands and Honduras or Guatemala would have made the groups more balanced and a little more interesting. But as I said before, the form of some of the teams wasn't as good as in 2002. Poor Canada was never going to advance out of that group, which was a shame because I feel that they are an improving side under Frank Yallop. Honduras and Jamaica underachieved from four years ago -- once again, it was Honduras' home performance that knocked them out of the World Cup, and Jamaica lost it when they gave up that late goal at home against Panama.
So in the Hexagonal we had the Big Three, a quadrenially underachieving side in Trinidad & Tobago, and two countries making their first appearance in the final round (Guatemala and Panama). Panama were out of their depth over the course of the Hexagonal, but they did overachieve at certain times (the home draws against USA and Mexico, almost winning the Gold Cup in the summer). Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago were expected to battle for the playoff position, and after the 5-1 victory in Guatemala City it looked like another underwhelming Hexagonal for the Soca Warriors. The hiring of Leo Beenhakker was a turning point for the Caribbean side, and he introduced a sense of discipline and teamwork that I have not seen before from a T&T side. The 3-2 home victory against Guatemala transformed T&T's chances for the playoff, and gave them the inside track due to their (marginally) favorable schedule. T&T's 2-1 victory at home to Mexico was perhaps the finest win in their history under enormous pressure, perhaps only surpassed by the 1-0 win in Bahrain the following month. As for Guatemala, they lost Carlos Ruíz twice due to suspension, which may have made the difference in the home match against the USA. In the end, Guatemala's defense let the team down at critical moments, such as the away matches against Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago.
This Hexagonal was not as strong as the previous edition's, so there was some opportunity for the Big Three sides to lose their focus and slip up. To their credit, this did not happen, or at least did not happen in such a way to put them under pressure.
The closest of the Big Three to missing out of the World Cup was Costa Rica, which has had problems with managerial stability in the past. They went through three managers this time, but such was the low quality of the group that they weren't threatened after the win against Guatemala. They remain the only side in CONCACAF - at club and national team level - that can threaten the USA and Mexico (ok, at home they're like that).
For the USA, the only question at the beginning of the Hexagonal was whether the first team or a selection of replacement players would take the field. After a labor truce was reached, the USA had the performance that I expected - five home victories, losses to Costa Rica and Mexico on the road, and better than average performance in Central America and the Caribbean. It was enough to clinch qualification with three matches to spare, which was better than normal and gave Bruce Arena time to evaluate more players.
I was most impressed with Mexico, even though in the end they lost first place on head-to-head matches with the USA. I did not know if Mexico's easy semifinal group would cause them to lose their edge in the Hexagonal, but their away win in Costa Rica set the tone for their style of play. Ricardo LaVolpe was under a lot of pressure from the press and from Hugo Sánchez during the qualifiers, but he has really been instrumental in getting his players to perform at a high level wherever they play. (BTW, is it not the least bit ironic to see an Argentine - especially one who played in the '78 World Cup - calling his coaching project "The Process"?) The only disappointing match for Mexico had to be the away match against the USA, because it was so atypical to their performance over the Hexagonal. But overall it was an excellent performance by Mexico and their players and staff. Right now I think the USA and Mexico are at parity -- the USA can beat Mexico on a consistent basis at home, but Mexico have performed better against European opposition and have such a huge advantage at Azteca that I'd give them a slight edge. With the talent coming up from the U-17 levels on both sides, CONCACAF dominance will be split between the USA and Mexico for years to come.
Now about my own predictions for the Hexagonal. I went back through my previews for each round (I didn't make one for Round 7) and checked my own match predictions against reality, and they resulted being 66% accurate. Not that great, but not bad either. My predictions were off for the first couple of rounds, when I didn't have much faith in the USA getting a good result in T&T given their labor troubles or in Mexico getting a positive result in Costa Rica. With more information, my predictions started to improve with each round, as all good models should, with the exception of the final round, when everything got turned on their heads. In summary, it was easier to make calls in this Hexagonal because the quality of the teams was not as evenly distributed as last time.
To conclude, this Hexagonal wasn't as interesting or balanced as last time, but it was good to see the USA finish in the top spot and Trinidad & Tobago qualify for the World Cup finals. My comments on the finals draw are well known - basically, I don't expect Germany 2006 to be as kind to CONCACAF sides as Japan/Korea 2002 - but I hope that the teams in this region show how much they have improved from the 1990s and 2002.