By DAN KARELL
Who said that CONCACAF wasn’t exciting?
Heading into the final day of World Cup qualifying, one of the region’s powers, Mexico, stood teetering on the precipice of qualification with destiny in their hands as long as they earned a point.
Before a ball was even kicked, El Tri fans knew that their national team could clinch a place in Brazil next summer with a big enough victory and a Honduras loss, or they could spiral out of qualification in embarrassment and spend the next three years waiting for the next round of qualifiers to play in.
After 90 minutes plus extra time of play across the region, Mexico found themselves still alive in for the 2014 World Cup thanks to Graham Zusi and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s 3-2 win in Panama, despite Mexico falling to Costa Rica, 2-1. With a 2-2 tie in Jamaica, Honduras secured an automatic berth in the World Cup, earning a place in the prestigious competition for only the third time.
Like they have done all year long, El Tri didn’t make it easy on themselves all evening. Manager Victor Manuel Vucetich decided to drop Giovanni Dos Santos out of the lineup and, against a battle ready Costa Rica backline, Mexico’s attack didn’t have enough firepower throughout the game, even after Dos Santos came on in the second half.
After a Gabriel Torres strike put Panama up one goal over the USA, Mexico had its first taste of the fear and pressure that comes with potentially missing out on a World Cup as Costa Rican playmaker Bryan Ruiz chested a pass down beautifully in the box and finished with a blast to put the hosts ahead in the 24th minute at Estadio Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica.
At that time, with El Tri trailing and Panama winning, Mexico would have been eliminated from contention for Brazil. Yet it was Oribe Peralta, who scored a key goal last Friday for El Tri, who came up big for his nation again.
Javier Hernandez, who had another poor day up top for Mexico, dribbled past Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas but lost control of the ball after a slight touch from Navas. Peralta arrived on the scene and fired home into an empty net to tie the game three minutes later, keeping Mexico’s hopes alive.
By halftime, all the scores stood level, including Honduras holding a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Carlo Costly just seconds into the match and Maynor Figueroa, while Je-Vaugn Watson was credited with scoring the Reggae Boyz tally in the third minute.
In the second half, Mexico were handed another lifeline as USMNT defender Michael Orozco scored to tie the USA with Panama at 1-1, leaving Mexico in a position to at least qualify through the playoffs. But minutes after Jamaica equalized against Honduras, Mexico would go down 2-1 thanks to some poor defending at a crucial part of the match.
Oft-injured Real Salt Lake Designated Player Alvaro Saborio rose the highest on a cross and found an open path in the net to head into, piling more pressure on El Tri in the 63rd minute. The goal came four minutes after Rodolph Austin equalized for Jamaica with a penalty kick goal.
To make matters worse, the USMNT went down a goal again in Panama after Luis Tejada scored from close range, leaving Mexico on the brink of elimination. El Tri’s attack, which had been renewed with the fresh legs of dos Santos, Raul Jimenez, and Isaac Brizuela, couldn’t break down the sturdy Ticos back-line, leaving Mexico to hope that the USMNT could defy the odds and score in the final few minutes of the match.
The soccer deities must have smiled down on Mexico because despite falling to Costa Rica, they did clinch a place in the play-off against New Zealand, thanks to two USMNT goals in stoppage time that brought all three points back to the United States. At the same moment that Mexico and Costa Rica players and fans all celebrated in San Jose, the Panamanian squad and their fans looked on in stunned silence with their sudden defeat, ending their dreams of a first-ever World Cup berth.
After 90 minutes of action in three locations, the final CONCACAF Hexagonal standings look like this (wins, loss, draw):
1. USA: 7-2-1, 22 points
2. Costa Rica: 5-2-3, 18 points
3. Honduras: 4-3-3, 15 points
4. Mexico: 2-3-5, 11 points
5. Panama: 1-4-5, 8 points
6. Jamaica: 0-5-5, 5 points
What did you think of Tuesday night’s results? Ever seen a night of soccer quite like this one? Did you want the U.S. to fall to Panama so Mexico would be out? Do you see Mexico improving ahead of their New Zealand tie?
Share your thoughts below.