Can Mexico be CONCACAF's long-awaited savior?
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- The road to Rio officially opened last weekend when FIFA provided maps in the form of continental qualifying that will eventually lead 31 countries to join host Brazil in the summer of 2014 for the chance to win the Jules Rimet trophy.
CONCACAF may have the most to prove of any federation in Brazil. Rebuffed for a full fourth spot after FIFA decided to keep the World Cup berth allotments similar to 2010, it did catch a break when the interfederation playoff draw pitted the region's fourth-place team against the Oceania champion - likely 2010 participant New Zealand - in a two-legged playoff.
That team, however, will not do much in the grand scheme of things in three years. The biggest issue CONCACAF faces is finding a breakthrough team to reach the semifinals for the first time in more than four generations.
No CONCACAF team has reached a World Cup semifinal since the federation was formed in 1961. The United States is one of only seven countries to qualify for the last six World Cup tournaments, but its best showing was a quarterfinal appearance in 2002. That also was one of only two occasions a CONCACAF team reached the round of eight without being host, the 1930 U.S. squad that finished third in the original 13-team World Cup the other.
Mexico, however, is poised to finally end this drought. El Tri are cycling upward on two fronts - the senior national team toppled the U.S. in June to win the Gold Cup and secure the all-important spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup, and the U-20 squad is basking in the glow of winning the World Cup as host.
That success has justifiably ratcheted the already high expectations of its fan base. Mexico has reached the knockout round each of the last five World Cups, only to go no further. El Tri have not been to the round of eight since hosting in 1986.
Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre has a legitimate global star in striker Chicharito Hernandez, who blossomed in his first season at Old Trafford - helping Manchester United win the English Premier League title and reach the Champions League final. The 23-year-old was most valuable player of the Gold Cup after scoring seven goals in six matches, raising his international total to 21 in just 29 matches.
El Tri have quality young depth beyond Chicharito - Pablo Barrera, Aldo de Nigris, Carlos Vela, Jonathan dos Santos, Andres Guardado are all 25 or younger. Rafa Marquez likely will anchor the back line for one more go-round, while Jonny Magallon, Ricardo Osorio and Carlos Salcido create a formidable last line in front of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Mexico was given perhaps the toughest semifinal draw of the top CONCACAF teams, facing a four-team group that will have Costa Rica and potentially El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago.
As El Tri have ascended, the United States finds itself in a state of transition on the pitch and on the sidelines. The loss to Mexico exposed an inadequate backline and ultimately cost coach Bob Bradley his job less than one year after being given a new contract to lead the Yanks after his round of 16 appearance in South Africa.
The hiring of Juergen Klinsmann as coach gives the U.S. a sexy name with a star resume and a happy ending to federation president Sunil Gulati's five-year infatuation and, at times, torturous flirtation with the German. Klinsmann did lead Die Mannschaft to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup as hosts, but questions linger after failing to last a full season at the club level with Bayern Munich.
Klinsmann does not have the luxury of Germany's deep player pool, but his attacking style should mesh well with the pieces he does have. Landon Donovan gets an opportunity to qualify for a fourth World Cup to cement his status as the best American forward of this generation alongside a player who may eventually surpass him in Clint Dempsey.
Jozy Altidore will need to provide more than flashes of brilliance, and Klinsmann likely will give teenager Juan Agudelo every opportunity to crack the starting XI.
The issue for the Yanks is their defense in front of 'keeper Tim Howard. It is very possible a kiddie corps backline of Timothy Chandler, Tim Ream, Eric Lichaj and Omar Gonzalez could emerge by the time of the final hexagonal, though there will be use for veterans Carlos Bocanegra and the seemingly tireless Steve Cherundolo.
Klinsmann was given a fairly easy path down that road with a semifinal group that will include Jamaica and potentially Guatemala and Haiti.
There is a huge dropoff in world-class quality after Mexico and the U.S., though the race for third and fourth may be contested more intensely than the top spot. Jamaica should be in the mix as Theodore Whitmore's rebuilding of the Reggae Boyz appears ahead of schedule following a group win at the Gold Cup.
Luton Shelton, Ryan Johnson and Demar Phillips formed a potent attacking trio, though an aging backline in front of 'keeper Donovan Ricketts provides question marks.
Honduras claimed the third and final CONCACAF spot for the 2010 World Cup and should challenge again after pushing Mexico to extra time in its semifinal Gold Cup loss. There is quality in the midfield with Hendry Thomas, Wilson Palacios and Ramon Nunez - all of whom play in England - to provide service for striker Jerry Bengston.
The other contenders that should emerge for the final two hexagonal spots are Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Canada. The Marea Roja gained notoriety for their upset of the U.S. in Gold Cup group play and challenged the Yanks again before losing in the semifinals.
Luis Tejada, who plays for Peruvian club side Juan Aurich, showed a knack for the dramatic with two 90th-minute goals in the Gold Cup. Additionally, coach Julio Dely Valdes has a fleet of young midfielders brimming with confidence to help Tejada and fellow striker Blas Perez.
Costa Rica has a bye to the semifinal round of qualifying while Guatemala, Canada and Panama must all navigate through the second round. Guatemala looked uninspiring except for a 4-0 rout of overmatched Grenada at the Gold Cup, while Canada failed to score a goal in the run of play in its three matches.
Updated August 4, 2011