THE HEX IS COMING
The January transfer window has come and gone, and this year has been much quieter than recent ones in terms of Americans moving overseas. Many of America's stars in Europe are riding the pine, hoping for brighter days to come over the summer transfer window.
The dearth of overseas transfers leaves fans in a quandary, especially in the midst of the long MLS winter. Besides Landon Donovan's latest adventure in Germany, there is less to follow right now in Europe. So what's an American soccer fan to do while waiting and hoping things will get better in the fall?
Worry not. This year brings non-stop action for the Stars and Stripes on the international stage to keep even the most soccer hungry fan satisfied.
While the World Cup is obviously the most exciting individual soccer event, the year before a World Cup is arguably a more exciting year for international soccer. For the US national teams, the schedule for 2009 is tantalizing, as youth teams with a good deal of potential join the full national side in a full slate of action.
The US will have further chances this year to earn respect on an international stage, This summer, the full national team will take on top competition, including Brazil and Italy, in its quest for the Confederations Cup in South Africa. The Gold Cup follows that, with the Americans looking to defend their title.
Then in the fall, very promising American U-20 and U-17 teams, if they can qualify this spring, will be searching for the United States' first ever FIFA championship at tournaments in Egypt and Nigeria, respectively.
So American teams will be in action throughout the year, starting with the World Cup qualifying match February 11th at Columbus Crew Stadium. The preliminary stages are over, and the real deal for the Americans begins when they take on arch rivals Mexico in a match that will set the tone for the entire year.
The Mexico match comes at a pretty good time for the Americans. The Mexicans are still reeling from their near-death experience in the semifinal round, from which they advanced over Jamaica on goal differential alone.
Add that a few injuries to top players, and a typically Mexican row over Sven Goran Eriksson's calling of four nationalized players into the squad, and El Tri is in disarray.
Never has a US team been so resounding a favorite over the southern neighbors, and never has the resulting pressure for a result been so high.
So, with the first game that counts approaching, let's take a look at Hexagonal field. While prognosticating a year long tournament with numerous unknowns is clearly fool's errand, I won't let that stop me.
The US can get a result against Mexico that sets the tone for the Hexagonal. For reasons outlined below, I expect the match in Columbus to be as tight as ever, and an American victory is far from guaranteed.
Even if the Americans can't find a way to win, though, there's just not enough quality and depth in this year's hexagonal to challenge Bob Bradley's deep and disciplined unit. The Americans will sail through to South Africa, atop the Hexagonal group for the second straight time.
Bob Bradley's squad, with by far the deepest and most experienced team in the "Hex," can handle the pressure. Experience and poise are important attributes over the grueling, year-long, ten match day schedule.
Those are also attributes that the disciplined Bradley has in spades. Though Bradley has received substantial criticism in the past, much of it from here, he is an ideal coach for this qualifying format. In the Hexagonal, Bradley's ugly 1-0 wins will give the US the same three points as the multi-goal thrashings of El Salvador other teams will post.
Though there may be a few setbacks and moments of individual brilliance from certain teams, especially on the road, Bradley's win by any means approach will be more than enough to see the Americans through comfortably.
Even with all the disarray outlined above, I have more faith than most in Sven-Goran Ericksson's project south of the border. By the end of the year Mexico should also be celebrating yet another World Cup qualification.
Frankly, if it weren't Mexico, with their alarmist soccer media, it would be hard to understand what all the fuss is about. True, the Mexicans lost to the same Swedish team that the US "B" team dominated, but Mexico was also playing with the majority of its starting lineup, just called in from Europe. Take Sasha Klejstan out of the American's lineup and the result might have different as well.
Mexico has unquestionable quality all over the field. When their stars are healthy and playing at their clubs, which, right now, they are not, Mexico's lineup is every bit as formidable as the Americans'.
Whether Mexico gets through the hexagonal comfortably or suffers this year depends largely on the team's executives. Ericksson could be out of a job at any moment, even as soon as following the game against the US.
If there is another change, Mexico is likely to continue without direction and will have to battle for qualification. If Ericksson is left to put his plan in motion, Mexico will qualify easily and perhaps surprise in South Africa. I don't, however, think that's going to happen, especially with an American victory in Columbus.
Those who follow international soccer closely have great respect for the Honduran game. In recent years, Honduras has, arguably, had as many as or more players receiving quality minutes in leagues abroad than any other CONCACAF team.
But Honduras is traditionally inconsistent, and it has cost them in the past. The 2001 team that came to RFK and handed the USA its first home qualifying defeat in decades turned around and lost two of its last three games and failed to qualify.
This year's team is a mix of veterans, many of who were on that 2001 team, and young stars, some of whom ply their trade in Europe. It's impossible to underestimate how important World Cup qualification is to this soccer crazed nation, and this will finally be their year.
If the "Catrachos" get off to a good start and believe in themselves, they will be the team challenging the United States for first place.
The ascendancy of a strong Honduran side in the "hex" is balanced by a Costa Rican team less strong then in previous years.
Costa Rica's golden generation, which won the Hexagonal going away eight years ago, and made waves at the World Cup, has slowly tapered into retirement.
Those players have been replaced by a number of promising young stars, but it is not the team of the past. Expect Costa Rica, with its youth, to improve throughout the year. Finishing fourth, they will make the play-in against South America's fifth place team very interesting.
Trinidad and Tobago
Always a scrappy team, T & T surprised some by supplanting Guatemala and taking second place in the United States' semifinal group.
Led by Sunderland star Kenwyne Jones, the Soca Warriors have some fire power, but will find winning on the road nearly impossible.
The islanders have the potential to challenge for the fourth spot and the play-in, but they are a very long shot to repeat their 2005 feat of qualification.
El Salvador has gotten this far only because of the completely unbalanced semi-final format, in which they shared a group with the likes of Haiti and Suriname. This is one of the weakest teams ever to make the final six.
El Salvador hosts Trinidad and Tobago in the first round. The USA comes calling next. If they can't win that first match, it will be a long year for the Salvadorans, one which could see them setting the record for futility by taking less than four points from ten matches.
So mark your calendar now for an exciting string of international soccer action, and take full advantage of this year. That is, up until December, when the crushing reality of the World Cup draw, and the inevitability of another Group of Death, takes hold.