“Sunil Gulati should get a nice present from the Mexican Federation president. That’s for sure,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid smiled this week after the U.S. National Team helped Mexico remain in contention for the 2014 FIFA World Cup with two late goals on Tuesday against Panama. “I’m sure we’re not going to get any gifts from Panama. Obviously our result did a great deal for Mexico. What more can you say?”
Countries in the CONCACAF region are now just one month away from ending a three-year-long process of determining the top teams in the region that qualify for the World Cup and it has been an adventurous task to reach this point – a journey filled with dramatic competition that has ultimately led for ecstasy for some and agony for others.
There was no better window into the extreme emotions than on Tuesday when all six teams in the Hexagonal Round kicked off at the same time. The United States, Costa Rica and Honduras all clinched berths in the World Cup while Panama and Mexico played in separate countries vying for the opportunity to play against New Zealand in a playoff for the final World Cup bid.
In dramatic fashion, the U.S. scored two stoppage time goals to emerge with a 3-2 win to finish with a 7-2-1 record and eliminating Panama (1-4-5), who needed a victory to jump past Mexico (2-3-5), but let a 2-1 lead slip away in the waning moments.
It was a result that led to mixed emotions among U.S. fans, and players weren’t immune to that.
“It was a good win for the guys. I’m happy to see some guys get a chance and they really did themselves justice,” said Sounders FC forward Eddie Johnson, who played in all eight Hexagonal Round matches for the U.S. before a groin injury held him out of the final two matches. “In a perfect world … I wouldn’t want to see Mexico go to the World Cup. It just shows our mentality as a national team. Even when a game’s not meaningful, our pride and determination to do better and get better … my hat’s off to the guys.”
Johnson finished the tournament with two goals, including one at CenturyLink Field in a 2-0 win over Panama in June and the game-winner against Mexico at Crew Stadium in Columbus in September that clinched a spot in the World Cup.
U.S. and Seattle teammate Clint Dempsey was also quick to point out the resilience of an American team that was made up mostly of players fighting for roster spots and playing time with the U.S.
“Credit to the U.S. team for going out and playing hard even when they already had it wrapped up to go to the World Cup,” he said. “Still to go out there and they fought for a win against a team that was trying their best to win. So hat’s off to them.”
Dempsey had three goals in the tournament, trailing only the four goals scored by Jozy Altidore for the team lead. The U.S. captain started all eight matches before the two most recent games, staying behind in Seattle to nurse a hamstring injury.
The only Seattle representative for the U.S. in the final two qualifying matches was Brad Evans, who started five matches in the round at right back, all coming in the last seven games.
His emergence as a consistent option at right back was just one of the major takeaways for Jurgen Klinsmann after a dominating Hexagonal Round performance by the U.S. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler solidified roles at center back, Altidore returned to form at forward and Graham Zusi arose as a serious contender for playing time, where he will compete with Landon Donovan for playing time in the coming eight months before the World Cup kicks off in Brazil.
The countdown clock reads 236 days and there are still plenty of questions to answer for Klinsmann and the U.S. But the most important question for the 13th ranked team in the world has already been answered emphatically. Yes, we are going to Brazil.