In CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, MLS reigns supreme
After surviving the gauntlet of preliminary qualifiers, six CONCACAF nations finally kicked off the ten round round-robin tournament, known affectionately as “The Hexagonal,” or simply the Hex, that will send three (and a half) teams through to the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil. Home and away series will be contested throughout 2013, and the fates of these nations will become clear in the fall.
One national team will eventually lay claim to being the best in CONCACAF by that time, but perhaps more significantly, one domestic league may finally reach a new plateau of respectability in world soccer. Sure, Liga MX will by all accounts still be the most superior league in the region, but 18-year old newcomer Major League Soccer is primed to narrow the gap over its southern neighbor.
For those that want to scoff at the notion that the United States will play a major role in the outcome of the Hex, they might not be looking at the issue in just the right way. While Mexico is not a factor, the other five nations depend on MLS for a significant level of their success.
In three Hex qualifiers on Wednesday, three MLS players rose to the occasion in each respectively and can arguably be considered Man-of-the-Match. Costa Rica’s 2-2 draw against Panama saw Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio lead a furious comeback from a two-goal deficit to win on the road. In the mighty Azteca in Mexico City, a heroic performance by Portland Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts allowed the Jamaicans to steal a point against El Tri. And against the United States, Houston Dynamo forward Oscar Boniek Garcia was instrumental in host Honduras overturning an early goal from Clint Dempsey and helping the hosts collect an important three points.
Three big results. Three MLS stars leading the way.
Somewhat ironically, the nation that calls MLS home (sorry, Canada) was the only nation not to collect at least in point in Round One of the Hex. The mighty U.S. Men’s National Team, participants in the World Cup Finals in every tournament since 1994, sit dead last in the standings. Jurgen Klinsmann’s side did employ three current MLSers in the game — and another six alums of the league — but the side as a whole put in a, let’s put this politely, forgettable performance in San Pedro Sula. No amount of MLS players could save the U.S. from sinking to defeat.
But that wasn’t the case on the other side of the ball. Honduras looked active and dangerous in attack for much of the afternoon, with the trio Boniek Garcia, New England’s Jerry Bengston, and Seattle’s Mario Roberto Martinez consistently testing a raw USMNT back line. 2012 MLS Defender of the Year runner-up Victor Bernardez looked unflappable at center back, and even pressed forward on a corner kick to catalyze the Honduran’s first goal of the game. Add in the impressive performance from recent MLS alum Roger Espinosa from the center midfield, and Los Catrachos’ MLS fueled line-up made all the difference.
In Costa Rica’s battle in Panama City, RSL striker Saborio did not wilt when his side conceded two early goals. Lined up opposite to fellow MLSer Blas Perez of FC Dallas, the second most prolific scorer over the last three MLS seasons with 40 goals (San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski nearly lapped the field in this category netting 61 in that span — but is somehow not good enough to play for the national team!) scored the first of two Costa Rican comeback goals that earned Los Ticos a valuable Round One point.
The most surprising result in the Hex on Wednesday came courtesy of Jamaica. Entering Azteca Stadium — never an easy venue for visiting teams — the Reggae Boyz featured three MLS stars in the Starting XI and emerged with a valuable point from the scoreless draw. Ricketts was clearly the hero, but yeomen’s work by Houston’s Jermaine Taylor and Portland’s Ryan Johnson was also critical to the result. Mexico was whistled off their own hallowed pitch by the agitated fans in attendance at the 100,000 seat stadium. El Tri’s total number of MLS representatives: zero.
One round of qualifying does not make or break a team in the Hex, just as the multitude of commendable performances by the MLSers in the three matches does not mean MLS is the best league in the region. But, for at least one day, those who champion level of quality in MLS — growing better with each passing season — can enjoy the spotlight.
Perhaps the path to the World Cup truly passes through the United States after all.
Follow Robert Jonas on Twitter at @robertjonas