Most of the hard work still remains for the five teams still vying for three direct berths to Brazil and a consolation spot in the playoff against New Zealand. The final group includes six teams, but Jamaica, try as it might to recover from its current predicament, must shift its focus to 2018 after suffering four straight defeats.
The rest of the combatants harbor genuine hopes of securing a place on the main stage next year. Not all of them, however, enter the homestretch in similar positions in the quest to hit the usual magic number of 16 points (the minimum total posted by third place sides in the past three Hexagonals).
Perhaps the clearest path belongs to the U.S. after victories over Jamaica and Panama on the past two matchdays. Jürgen Klinsmann's side climbed to the top of the table and increased its haul to 10 points with an impressive 2-0 result over the Panamanians in Seattle on Tuesday night. A similar result against Honduras in Sandy, Utah next Tuesday night would leave the Americans with four matches to procure the one required triumph.
Honduras' rather uninspiring away form – scoreless defeats in Panama and Costa Rica so far in the Hexagonal – leaves Klinsmann and his players in the perfect position to sort out its World Cup place sooner rather than later and take control of the group. The surprise at this stage lays with the team poised to give chase.
Costa Rica sits tied with Mexico for second place on eight points after the two teams played out a 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night. Jorge Luis Pinto's side holds a game in hand on the sputtering Mexicans and possesses a scheduling advantage with three home matches and a trip to Jamaica among its final five outings. The final day showdown between the two countries in San Jose could prove more influential than expected for El Tri, but Pinto and his players will hope to claim the necessary points to eliminate any potential hiccups at the end and sidestep a repeat of the disastrous conclusion to the 2010 qualification efforts.
Mexico faces a trickier task after settling for eight points from the first six matches. The unexpectedly poor form in Mexico City – three scoreless draws from three attempts – leaves José Manuel de la Torre fighting for his future and his players grappling with a difficult quartet of matches to close the Hex. The visit from Honduras on Sept. 6 looms as a must-win for El Tri to quell talk of significant peril, but the final three matches – including another visit to Columbus on Sept. 10 – provide scant margin for error for a side expected to progress through this gauntlet with a minimum of fuss.
Honduras and Panama both possess games in hand over the Mexicans, but the difficulty of those particular matches on Tuesday – trips to the United States and Costa Rica, respectively – likely means those teams must close their deficits over the final four matches.
The two sides enter the back half of the slate in nearly identical circumstances, though the Hondurans have a modest one-point edge at the moment. Both teams will play two home matches and toil through three road trips (Honduras at least benefits from an excursion to Kingston on the final day). If everything unfolds more or less according to plan and Mexico starts to produce the expected results, then the potentially decisive encounter in the race to face New Zealand will take place when Panama visits San Pedro Sula on Sept. 10.
Relying on consistency and form in this six-team pool represents something of a fool's errand, though. Look at the way Mexico sputtered out of the gate or how Jamaica crumbled after two creditable draws to start its Hexagonal campaign. Home teams hold serve more often than not, but the margins between the team – especially when comparing Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama – remain slight on the whole. The narrow gaps leave plenty of room for surprise and suspense to emerge once more as the Hexagonal winds to a close.
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