FIFA World Cup qualifying has been ongoing in North America, Central America and the Caribbean for more than 19 months and has whittled the hopefuls from 35 countries to six.
This has set the stage for Friday’s start of the “hexagonal,” the fifth and final round of regional CONCACAF qualifying.
The “hexagonal” nickname — derived from the six-team format — was tagged by a Spanish-language sportswriter in Latin America when the format debuted in 1998 and has been shortened to just “The Hex” by American reporters. The competition has since been credited with intensifying the USA-Mexico rivalry, and it’s been marked by games that have been branded with names such as “La Guerra Fria” (The Cold War), Dos-A-Cero (2-0) and “Snowmageddon.”
On Friday, it all begins again with the United States hosting Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. Trinidad and Tobago hosts Costa Rica in another game, while Honduras hosts Panama.
“It’s not your mother’s CONCACAF anymore,” former U.S. midfielder-turned-broadcast analyst Brian Dunseth said. “It’s much more difficult.”
Because CONCACAF stretches from Canada in the north to Guyana on the South American continent and is comprised of teams from as large as the United States to as small as Anguilla, the confederation uses a variety of qualification methods from head-to-head elimination to small round-robin groups over the early rounds.
The final six teams meet in the Hex, where they battle over the next year for three guaranteed berths from CONCACAF in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A fourth team could qualify for the World Cup if it beats a country from Asia in a two-game playoff late next year.
Each team will play the other five at home and away, with the top three finishers automatically earning a trip to Russia. The fourth-place team must go through the playoff.
Team USA has finished atop the Hex in the last three World Cup cycles, and it has not failed to qualify for the quadrennial World Cup since ending a 40-year absence in 1990. The United States is one of only six teams to qualify for each of the last seven World Cups, along with Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea.
“I find myself in a moment of surprising optimism,” said former Team USA defender and 1992 Olympian Alexi Lalas, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “It comes not just from the play of the team, but the individuals involved. Much of it stems from the exuberance that youth provides.”
The double World Cup veteran said he is encouraged by the emergence of young players such as 22-year-old forward Jordan Morris of the Seattle Sounders and 18-year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic of German club Borussia Dortmund.
“When players like Pulisc and Morris start to emerge, the future automatically looks very bright,” Lalas said.
The U.S. team’s opener is set for Mapfre Stadium, home of MLS’ Columbus Crew. The 20,000-seat venue has been a favorite of Team USA ever since Feb. 28, 2001, when the Americans beat Mexico 2-0 in 29-degree weather, conditions so frigid the Mexican press dubbed the match “La Guerra Fria.”
The U.S. team has returned to Columbus to host Mexico in each of the past three World Cup Hexes and won 2-0 (“dos-a-cero”) every time.
Conversely, Mexico always has hosted the U.S. team in its home game at the hallowed Estadio Azteca, 7,200 feet above sea level in Mexico City, where it has won 2-1 twice, 1-0 once and was held to a 0-0 draw in 2013.
After facing Mexico, Team USA will travel to Costa Rica on Tuesday to play the Ticos in San Jose and then not have another pair of World Cup qualifiers until March. It will have another pair in June and August-September before finishing next October.
Costa Rica is still smarting from its encounter in the United States during World Cup qualifying in March 2013. With the game in Commerce City, Colorado, just outside Denver, snow began to fall shortly after the opening kickoff. Team USA scored in the 16th minute, and more than an inch of snow fell by the early second half. As grounds crews cleared the lines with shovels, Costa Rica wanted the game abandoned, but the referee continued and Team USA won 1-0.
“Whether its Columbus in the cold or a game in snow, it’s wonderful how it worked out,” said Lalas, who like others of his generation can recall playing at altitude in Mexico City or having coins, lit seat cushions and other debris rain down on them in venues in Costa Rica, Honduras and other places throughout the region. “Old timers like me remember difficult situations on the road.
“I’m very happy we can create environments that are adversarial.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.