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Sorting the CONCACAF nations on the road to Qatar 2022

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The United States men’s national team picked up a feel-good win over Mexico on Tuesday in Nashville, and there’s no reason to feel bad about enjoying the win.

Yet as general manager Earnie Stewart sorts through his options regarding the next full-time coach of the USMNT, where do the Yanks sit in the race to qualify for Qatar 2022?

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Yes, the World Cup is still going to Qatar. Yes, the games will be played in December in the middle of the night local time. Had to be said, again.

First and foremost, assuming the World Cup stays at 32 teams in the 3+1 CONCACAF qualifying format, who are the front-runners to make the Hex?

Let’s say the chalk plays out through qualifying and these 12 teams make the fourth round of qualifying. Since the Hex began for the 1998 cycle, the following nations have participated: USMNT (all), Mexico (all), Costa Rica (all), Honduras (4), Trinidad and Tobago (4), Panama (3), Jamaica (3), El Salvador (2), Guatemala (2006), Canada (1998).

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We still don’t know which U-20 sides will qualify for next summer’s U-20 World Cup — qualifying is in November — but the U.S. won the CONCACAF U-20 title in 2017, with Mexico winning the previous three, and Costa Rica before that. Panama were runners-up in 2015, so it’s a pretty good predictor of the pipeline.

Here are the current Elo Ratings and FIFA world rankings for CONCACAF sides:

Mexico — Elo 20, FIFA 16
USMNT — Elo 26, FIFA 22
Costa Rica — Elo 43, FIFA 32
Honduras — Elo 58, FIFA 61
Panama — Elo 63, FIFA 69
Jamaica — Elo 67, FIFA 54
Canada — Elo 73, FIFA 79
Guatemala — Elo 80, FIFA 146
Haiti — Elo 84, FIFA 104
El Salvador — Elo 87, FIFA 72
Trinidad and Tobago — Elo 96, FIFA 91
Curacao — Elo 132, FIFA 81

For now, we will only rank the sides who have qualified to a prior Hex, though Haiti has a chance to impress us and join in the next power rankings some time in the future.

Long shots: El Salvador, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica

Hex candidates: Panama, Canada, Honduras

Yes, Panama qualified for the World Cup, but it happened via a goal that never crossed the line and the poor performances of an American team that rarely showed up to work and a Honduran team which just couldn’t pull it together. Still, it’s best player at the World Cup were young: Ricardo Avila (21), Yoel Barcenas (24), and Jose Luis Rodriquez (20). Need to figure out life post-Felipe Baloy, Blas Perez, and (probably) Jaime Penedo.

Honduras is going to be in the discussion due to home field advantage alone. Even when Los Catrachos aren’t shining at San Pedro Sula, they are a handful. A bit longer in the tooth than you’d like for a tournament run, young forward Alberth Elis has to join Romell Quioto, Bryan Acosta, and Anthony Lozano in taking the next step.

The wild card here is Canada, which remains a green project and has new leadership in former WNT coach John Herdman. He will have a trio of teens at significant clubs when Alphonso Davies leaves Vancouver for Bayern Munich, joining Jonathan David at Gent and Liam Millar at Liverpool (Alessandro Busti is with Juventus B and Zahcary Brault-Guilard, Lyon). TFC’s Jonathan Osorio is in his prime, Cyle Larin isn’t there yet, and goalkeeper Milan Borjan starts on Red Star Belgrade.

Hex participants: Costa Rica, USMNT

Let’s start with the one of the bunch which played in the World Cup; Costa Rica is a difficult team to read. It will qualify for the Hex because it’s never failed to and it won’t be too old… yet. Of the 13 players to play more than 100 minutes for Los Ticos at the World Cup, only Joel Campbell and Francisco Calvo (both 26) were under the age of 28. All five players who manned all 270 minutes of the World Cup were 30 or older.

The reason the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for Russia was considered a disaster is that the Yanks should never, ever, ever miss a World Cup given their talent and resources. Even with Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore getting on in years for their respective positions, the new manager could instantly trot out this lineup in CONCACAF and not worry about experience or age (at least not too much, and we’re not yet including Geoff Cameron):

Steffen

Yedlin — Miazga — Brooks — Lichaj

Adams — D. Williams — McKennie

Pulisic — Altidore — Wood

Subs: Guzan, Acosta, Weah, Green, Bradley, Ream, Sargent

The unquestioned No. 1: Mexico

Sure the U.S. was missing big names Pulisic, Brooks, Cameron, Bradley, and Altidore in the 1-0 win over Mexico, but El Tri was without a whole lot more. Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, Diego Reyes, Miguel Layun, Hector Moreno, Raul Jimenez, Carls Vela, Hirving Lozano, Chicharito (I’m just gonna stop now).

Mexico’s very best players are playing for some of the best clubs in the world, and Liga MX is still plenty ahead of MLS in depth and churning out youngsters.

FIFA bans coach for 2 years in World Cup match-fixing case

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has banned a former El Salvador coach for two years for his role in offering players money to perform well in a World Cup qualifying game, and thereby help his native Honduras.

FIFA ethics committee judges found Ramon Maradiaga guilty of “bribery and corruption” and failing to report the plot, soccer’s world governing body said Wednesday.

El Salvador’s players were offered cash by a third party if they managed to win – or at least avoid losing by two goals or more – in a qualifier against Canada in September 2016. A big defeat risked helping Canada progress ahead of Honduras. It’s against FIFA rules for third parties to offer cash incentives to teams.

FIFA said Maradiaga let the meeting happen “in which financial compensation was promised to the players in exchange for their altering the result of the game between El Salvador and Canada.”

However, El Salvador players revealed the cash offer at a news conference before the game in Vancouver.

Maradiaga captained Honduras at the 1982 World Cup, the first time the Central American qualified for the tournament.

He was also fined 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,000), FIFA said.

Honduras progressed from the regional qualifying group by drawing 0-0 with Mexico in its final game, meaning Canada could not advance despite a 3-1 win over El Salvador.

Honduras ultimately did not qualify for the World Cup in Russia, losing an intercontinental playoff against Australia last November.

A previous match-fixing scandal forced El Salvador to rebuild its national team for the 2018 qualifying program.

FIFA imposed a range of lifetime bans and other suspensions on players who were involved in fixing games, including a 5-0 loss to Mexico at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

World Cup spy: Honduras accuses Aussies of clumsy espionage

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SYDNEY (AP) Jorge Luis Pinto has accused Australia of a clumsy espionage attempt after a drone hovered over his Honduras squad’s practice session ahead of the return leg of their World Cup playoff.

The first leg last Friday ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving a spot at next year’s World Cup at stake Wednesday at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

The Australian squad flew directly home from Honduras on a charter flight brimming with rehabilitation equipment for the players and landed on Sunday, a day ahead of Pinto’s squad.

The Hondurans were upset when officials saw a drone flying over their practice session late Monday, and posted a video of the drone on the team’s Twitter account with the message: “Selection of Honduras upset by Australian espionage with a Drone.”

Pinto didn’t back away from the claims at his match-eve news conference, saying he didn’t accept the explanation from stadium staff that it was an accidental case of a father and his child playing with the drone in a nearby park.

“Let’s not be innocent. It’s espionage in football,” Pinto said. “Just like VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has made it into football, drones have made their way into espionage.

“It just takes some of the merit away from the fair play and the sporting event that will be held tomorrow.”

Pinto said it was “embarrassing for such an advanced country” and added that the Socceroos had checked “every bathroom, every box at the stadiums where they trained” in San Pedro Sula to ensure there was no spying on their own sessions.

Football Federation Australia said it had nothing to do with the drone.

Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said he wasn’t getting distracted by the claims, and was focused only on getting the Socceroos to a fourth consecutive World Cup.

“There was a fair bit of drama around the first game, but we stayed well out of it,” Postecoglou said. “Ultimately, it’s all pretty irrelevant when the game kicks off tomorrow night. It’s all about those 90 minutes and anything said beforehand is meaningless.”

It has been a long campaign for both squads. Australia went through the last round of Asian qualifying with just one loss from 10 games, yet still missed out on one of the four direct entries to Russia on goals difference.

A lack of finish in front of the goals was evident again in the Asian playoff against Syria, which the Australians won courtesy of Tim Cahill’s two goals in Sydney to reach the intercontinental playoff.

Honduras finished fourth in qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean, securing a spot in the playoff at the expense of the U.S.

Australia failed to convert two clear chances to score in San Pedro Sula last Friday, but Postecoglou said he was content to come back to Australia on level terms. Cahill, who didn’t play in the first game because of an ankle injury, is fit and ready for selection, and Mark Milligan and Matt Leckie are available again after being suspended for the series opener.

Postecoglou has foreshadowed changes for the return match and so has Pinto, saying there could be up to three changes for Honduras with veteran skipper Maynor Figueroa and pacy winger Alberth Elis coming back.

Pinto said Figueroa would add some field presence and composure to his team, and Elis could create space out wide.

The Honduras coach didn’t elaborate too much further on what tactics he’d use, but had a tongue-in-cheek poke at Postecoglou on the theme of surveillance.

“Without a doubt we’ll be employing long balls tomorrow,” he said. “So if the head coach of Australia is watching this press conference he has some insight into the game!”

The Sydney news conference was broadcast on TV in Honduras, and Pinto was asked if he had a message for the team’s fans.

“Just as we faced situations against Mexico and El Salvador, which were tough, we always made it through,” he said. “Tomorrow is not going to be the exception. We’ll make it through.”

Australia puts in dominating effort, but settle for draw against Honduras

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The Socceroos will surely be frustrated to not have come away with a goal (or several) on Friday, and now 90 more minutes will determine which nation goes to the World Cup.

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Honduras and Australia settled for a 0-0 draw at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, despite the latter dominating the game’s chances.

Tomi Juric was a threat throughout the match, and had his header in the 54th minute gone anywhere other than straight at goalkeeper Donis Escober the AFC side would’ve gone ahead.

The Socceroos had several big opportunities to break the deadlock in the first stanza, but none better than when Tomi Juric found himself in on goal in the 34th minute.

Unfortunately for the striker, Juric scuffed his left-footed attempt wide of goal, keeping the match scoreless as the teams moved towards halftime.

Both sides came out a bit nervy in the opening minutes, and Australia nearly used that to its advantage in the 12th minute when Massimo Luongo forced an important save out of Escober.

The hosts were held to just one shot on target in the match, as Australia held strong defensively through 45 minutes.

The draw keeps Honduras’ unbeaten run in San Pedro Sula alive though, with Los Catrachos not having suffered defeat at home in their last six matches (since losing to Panama on Nov. 11, 2016).

Honduras and Australia will meet again on Nov. 15 in Sydney to decide which nation advances to Russia.

Despite Honduras’ lack of chances, a win or scoring draw (1-1, 2-2, etc.) will put Los Catrachos through to the World Cup on Wednesday.

WATCH LIVE — Honduras, Australia duel in WC playoff first leg

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Only one country will advance, and Friday’s matchup in San Pedro Sula will likely dictate a large say in which team that is.

[ WATCH LIVE: Honduras vs. Australia on Telemundo ]

Honduras will host Australia from the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano on Friday at 5 p.m. ET, as the CONCACAF and AFC nations vie for a spot in Russia next summer.

The Aussies reach this stage of qualifying after narrowly knocking out Syria, 3-2 on aggregate, in an AFC playoff last month, while Honduras finished fourth-place in CONCACAF to guarantee themselves this opportunity at qualification.

Previously, Australia has qualified for four World Cups, including the past three editions of the tournament.

Meanwhile, Honduras is seeking its fourth trip to FIFA’s greatest competition. Los Catrachos have never won a match at the World Cup, though, and scored just three goals in their previous three appearances.