By Michael Lewis
Even in June, it's starting to become crunch time in the CONCACAF hexagonal.
The final round of World Cup qualifying matches already has reached the halfway point for two teams -- Mexico and Jamaica -- and their four rivals will join them in yet another round on Tuesday night.
There is a logjam at the top of the group with Costa Rica (2-1-1, seven points) leading the way by goal differential, followed by the United States (2-1-1, seven) and Mexico (1-4-0, seven). Just behind them is Panama (1-3-0, six), Honduras (1-1-2, four) and Jamaica (0-2-3, two).
Jamaica must find a way to depart Honduras with three points or the Reggae Boyz's window to qualify for Brazil will close even further.
Here is a quick look at Tuesday's three games:
Mexico v Costa Rica
The Ticos certainly have done well to top the group after four games, taking the lead via goal differential -- by a single goal over the United States. Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto has crafted a way to get the most out of his side. Obtaining a point or more at the Estadio Azteca would further boost the Costa Rican cause. Pinto, however, said that his team will go for three points, not one. "Our intention is to go out and win a victory," he said. "We like the football environment that exists in Mexico. I feel that the selection of Costa Rica is much better prepared than before." Costa Rica remains the only team to ever win a World Cup qualifier over Mexico at the Azteca, prevailing 2-1 on June 16, 2001.
A good part of Mexico's problems have stemmed from its lack of offense. As talented as he is, Javier Hernandez (five goals in 11 qualifiers) cannot do it by himself and needs support. His partnerships with either Aldo De Nigris or Giovani dos Santos have not been as productive as needed. Carlos Vela's absence from the national team has been noticeable.
Simply put, the Mexicans need to win at home, not just to boost their position in the standings, but to regain the passionate backing of their supporters. After two scoreless draws against Jamaica and the U.S., El Tri has lost some of its invincibility at the Azteca. Regardless how it fares, Mexico has some other fish to fry after these series of qualifiers -- the FIFA Confederations Cup looms in Brazil.
Honduras v Jamaica
In a match involving the fifth and sixth place teams, Honduras and visiting Jamaica will square off in Tegucigalpa. Neither will want to fall further behind the pack and the Hondurans have the advantage of playing at home. That task will be made more difficult due to the suspension of striker Carlo Costly (27 goals in 60 international matches), who will serve suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Coming off two devastating losses to Mexico and the U.S. at home last week, the Reggae Boyz face a must-win situation. Usually a tie would be considered an acceptable result on the road, but given the Jamaicans' place in the table, three points are a necessity. It is possible that head coach Theodore Whitmore will shake up his lineup to inject some new energy. One player he probably will stick with is striker Jermaine Beckford, who has scored six goals in as many games at the club and international level, including one against the U.S. last Friday.
USA v Panama
This encounter is being played on grass that has been placed over artificial turf at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. It has been a debated decision as U.S. players have spoken for and against the temporary field.
He might not have been running the team then, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann might want to remind his troops that Panama stunned the Americans in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 2-1 win in Tampa. That result snapped a 26-game, first-round home unbeaten streak (24-2-0) in the competition. However, in this confrontation, the Canaleros won't have standout striker Blas Perez, who was left behind in Panama, suffering from gastroenteritis. It is not known when he will return.
Coming off a scoreless home draw with Mexico, Panama has another opportunity end another long U.S. streak. The Americans enter this match with a 23-game undefeated run (21-2-0) at home in qualifying dating back to a wild 3-2 loss to Honduras in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 1, 2001. Midfielders Graham Zusi (yellow-card suspension) and Jermaine Jones (concussion in Jamaica game), plus striker Herculez Gomez (knee) will miss the game. The U.S., though, has shown that is has some depth and probably won't be hit as hard as Panama will be by Perez's absence.