MIAMI: The final matchday of the CONCACAF qualifying Hexagonal was packed with drama as Mexico squeezed into the play-off slot – against New Zealand – and Panama missed out.
Honduras did exactly what they needed to do in order to avoid complications, sealing up the third and final direct qualifying spot from the Hexagonal with a 2-2 draw over last-placed Jamaica in Kingston.
The game, played on a soaked pitch and in front of precious few fans, began frenetically with a pair of goals inside the first three minutes. Carlo Costly opened the scoring from close-range in the first minute, but Je-Vaughn Watson scrambled home to even the scores after some dreadful defending at the other end.
Maynor Figueroa took the lead again for Honduras with a deflected free-kick from distance in the 33rd minute before Rodolph Austin drew level once more for the home side, playing only for pride, near the hour mark.
Honduras got the point they needed with a minimum of fuss, showing a maturity that has been a hallmark through the whole campaign.
All the drama came from the other two games. Mexico kept up their woeful form, losing out to Costa Rica 2-1 in San Jose.
Brian Ruiz, who has been outstanding for the Ticos in their run to Brazil 2014, wriggled into the box and opened the scoring with a sharp volley after 25 minutes.
The Mexicans responded through Oribe Peralta, who slammed in off the crossbar three minutes later. But top Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio sealed all three points in the second-half with a free header to keep theTicos’ perfect home record in the Hexagonal intact.
Panama would have been the team sliding into the fourth-place play-off spot, instead of Mexico, had they been able to hold on to their lead at home against an experimental USA.
The Panamanians, needing a win, opened the scoring through Gabriel Torres after 18 minutes.
Michael Orozco tied it for the States in the second half, but Panama looked to be on their way when veteran striker Luis Tejada came off the bench to hit past Brad Guzan from a few yards out.
The Canaleros, who have improved like no other CONCACAF team in the past decade, needed only to hold on for the last seven minutes to send Mexico out and keep their own dreams alive.
However, the US – Mexico’s old rivals – came to El Tri’s unlikely aid. A pair of stoppage-time goals from Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson (his first for his new national team) banished the Panamanian fans and players to a pit of deep despair.
Player of the day was the US’s Jozy Altidore. The Sunderland striker’s contributions to the Stars and Stripes’ Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign have been massive.
Handed the captain’s armband for the first time in his international career for the game against Panama, the 23-year-old striker was famously left out of the team in the semi-final round by coach Jurgen Klinsmann for a lack of motivation and output.
The bitter medicine worked wonders, too, as Altidore scored eight goals in his last seven USA games, making him a good bet to partner Clint Dempsey at next summer’s finals.
While he failed to find the net against Panama, the player often criticised for being aloof and drifting out of games, showed the kind of determination, style and leadership that will have Klinsmann beaming.
Gabriel Torres did his all in trying to seal a first-ever qualifying win for Panama over USA, where he plays his club football for MLS outfit Colorado Rapids.
A deft ball up through midfield from Alberto Quintero was flicked on cleverly by the lively and much-improved Marcos Sanchez and up stepped the 24-year-old ace, who slammed an unstoppable low drive past the American keeper to establish a 1-0 lead.
In the end, it all fell apart for the home side. But for a brief moment, they were flirting with the world’s best, with the top of the mountain.
THE LAST MATCHES
Costa Rica 2-1 Mexico
Jamaica 2-2 Honduras
Panama 2-3 USA
1. USA (22 pts. Qualified)
2. Costa Rica (18 pts. Qualified)
3. Honduras (15 pts. Qualified)
4. Mexico (11 pts. Play-off with New Zealand)
5. Panama (8 pts. Eliminated)
6. Jamaica (5 pts. Eliminated)