The United States’ 4-0 blowout win against Trinidad and Tobago earned the team the top spot in Group C and booked them a date with Group A winner Mexico at an American site (TBD) on Nov. 11. Joining the U.S. and Mexico in the hexagonal round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia are Group B winner Costa Rica, and the three group runners-up Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.
The 10-match schedule for each of the participating countries will take place from November 2016 through October 2017. The top three finishers advance to compete in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fourth-place team will play home-and-away playoff matches in November 2017 against the fifth-ranked team from the Asian Football Confederation, needing to earn more points thant their rival in order to advance as well.
We’ve ranked the teams in the Hex from worst to first to predict which ones will advance and which will be eliminated from World Cup contention.
6) Trinidad and Tobago- After failing to progress beyond the preliminary round during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, the Soca Warriors seem to have improved under manager Stephen Hart. Trinidad and Tobago have played with heart and intensity, giving Mexico a particularly difficult time in the previous group stage. Unfortunately, T&T’s squad looks suspect in the back line, and are stretched too thin up front. Their main striker, Kenwyne Jones, is one of the better goal-scorers in CONCACAF, but it will take more than Jones to advance beyond the Hex stage.
Wild Card: Levi Garcia
At only 18 years of age, this AZ Alkmaar speedster could provide pace on the flank, opening up more goal-scoring opportunities for the T&T front line. Don’t be surprised if Garcia finds the back of the net a couple of times himself during Hex play.
5) Panama: The Canaleros barely missed qualifying for a playoff spot in the last World Cup, coming up short on the last day of qualifiers. In a country more renown for baseball, manager Hernan Dario Gomez led Panama to a third place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. While Panama was dispatched quickly in this summers’ Copa, it managed to advance out of their World Cup group, defeating a dogged Jamaican squad along the way. The squad is anchored by defensive midfielder Gabriel Gomez and goal-scoring veteran Blas Perez. But with both players fast approaching their expiration date on the international stage, this is a team in dire need of more youth on the squad.
Wild Card: Roman Torres
Having missed all of the semifinal round of qualifying due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Torres has been cleared to play alongside captain Felipe Baloy, giving a much-needed boost to the Panamanian back line. Having the Seattle Sounders man healthy on defense will be a must in order for Los Canaleros to have any chance to progress beyond the Hex.
4) Honduras: After leading Costa Rica to World Cup success in 2014, manager Jorge Luis Pinto has tried to continue his success with Los Catrachos, forging a team that is defensively sound and quick on the counter-attack. The transition to Pinto’s style has been uneven at best, with Honduras crashing out of the 2015 Gold Cup and failing to qualify for the Copa America. But Honduras fought to a 0-0 draw against Mexico at the Azteca on Tuesday night to secure passage into the Hex. Their defense is anchored by FC Dallas player Maynor Figueroa, who has already amassed over 130 caps for his country. But the real challenge will be their offense, which has sputtered at times in the past year.
Wild Card: Alberth Elis
Striker Alberth Elis’ two goals eliminated the U.S. from Olympic qualifying earlier this year, and the Monterrey attacker now represents part of the next generation of Honduran players. In a team that has been “offensively challenged” of late, Elis will need to spark the offense if Los Castrachos are to have any chance of playing beyond the Hexagonal stage.
3) Costa Rica: Duplicating the success that took the Ticos to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup hasn’t been easy, especially after manager Jose Luis Pinto resigned to take the helm of Honduras. Next manager Paulo Wanchope was forced to step down after being involved in a scuffle with a match steward during a U23 game against Panama. But Oscar Ramirez has provided some success—an early exit at the Copa America Centenario notwithstanding — and Costa Rica went on to take 16 out of a possible 18 points in the World Cup qualifying round that just ended. The Estadio Nacional remains a formidable venue for the Ticos, having lost just one World Cup qualifier (against Mexico) since it opened in 2011. With a squad that has remained largely intact, the players complement each other well, with captain Bryan Ruiz’s attacking midfield prowess critical to their goal-scoring success.
Wild Card: Joel Campbell
While the Arsenal striker has spent his team career on loan to various European teams, Campbell possesses a deadly combination as a striker- mobility, power and quality finishing. Having just arrived at Portuguese side Sporting CP for the season, he will be eager to showcase his skills to his new squad-and to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for not retaining his services yet again this year.
2) Mexico: With so much talent in this country, El Tri continues to churn like a Telenovela. Heading into the Hex, it appears little has changed. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio has lost just once in his 13 games in charge as the team cruised through the last round of qualifiers. But his lone defeat was a whopper, the 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Chile in the quarterfinals of the Copa America. Combined with Tuesdays’ draw against Honduras, Osorio finds himself in a vulnerable position. Mexico is still as talented a team as there is in the Hex, but external pressures remain its biggest challenge. While their back line is still serviceable and their forwards can strike with proper service from the midfield, they must get more production out of offensive midfielder Hector Herrera. If he can hit his stride, Mexico can as well.
Wild Card: Rafa Marquez
El Tri’s mainstay on defense has lost a few steps in recent years, but his leadership and organizational skills on the Mexican back line remains invaluable. The real question that remains to be seen is whether Marquez can hold up physically to the rigors of his club team as well as his international duties.
1) United States: It doesn’t seem that long ago when the U.S. was abruptly eliminated from the 2015 Gold Cup semi-finals by Jamaica and seemed on a nose-dive. Having risen to a semifinal appearance at the Copa America (losing to #1 ranked Argentina is hardly something to cry over), Jurgen Klinsmann’s side appears to be improving at the right time. The defensive chemistry between Geoff Cameron and John Brooks looks solid. The midfield as a whole, with Michael Bradley now in a holding role, has improved. And in Christian Pulisic, the U.S. has an up-and-coming player who could be a mainstay for years to come. The main concern for the U.S. is the injury status of some key starters, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones. With Dempsey having been diagnosed with heart irregularities, one would suspect Klinsmann has already forged ahead with a new strategy to replace him if needed. While not currently injured, striker Jozy Altidore has been a big part of the U.S. attack, with his goal pushing the U.S. through the World Cup qualifiers just two years ago. But his recent spate of injuries, most notably his recurring hamstring issues, brings to the fore the need for more depth up front for the U.S.
Wild Card: Christian Pulisic
Pulisic’s creativity and vision give the U.S. the kind of attacking weapon it has lacked in recent years, making it hard to believe that he is just 17. Already registering his eighth appearance for the U.S., he was heavily involved in three of the four goals scored against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday. While he might have problems breaking into the starting 11 for club team Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, the consensus is to play him as a starter for the U.S. Men’s National Team and see where he goes. After all, he will be 18 later this month.