Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Games to watch: CONCACAF and UEFA World Cup qualifying hits the home stretch

Updated after Friday's results, including the United States' disappointing ) 3-1 loss at Costa Rica, and Mexico's astonishing 2-1 home loss to Honduras. The U.S. can still clinch a World Cup berth by beating Mexico on Tuesday.

Games to watch: CONCACAF and UEFA World Cup qualifying hits the home stretch


Updated after Friday's results, including the United States' disappointing ) 3-1 loss at Costa Rica, and Mexico's astonishing 2-1 home loss to Honduras. The U.S. can still clinch a World Cup berth by beating Mexico on Tuesday.

And as you work through your post-defeat angst, please remember that the U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica. Furthermore, the Ticos are in first place in the standings through seven of the 10 Hexagonal Round games, and that's no accident.

FIFA World Cup Whiparound

2:00 p.m. Friday and 2:00 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN3.com

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World Cup qualifying days in Europe are always jam-packed. With over a dozen games at the same time, it can be hard to keep track of them all. So how about a Red Zone-style soccer show?

ESPN is up for the challenge. The network is putting together an online-only whip-around program with highlights and live look-ins of all the games on the Old Continent. It will run for three hours, covering 17 afternoon games on Friday and 14 on Tuesday.

United States at Costa Rica

10:00 p.m. Friday (beIN Sport at 9:30)

World Cup qualifying resumes for the United States with what has always been the national team’s most difficult road game. Costa Rica is especially motivated this time, after the U.S. forced the Ticos to play through a blizzard in Denver in March.

A major storyline for Jurgen Klinsmann’s crew is that nine players are one yellow card away from a one-game suspension: Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans, Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones.

With Mexico at home coming up next, it might be wise for Klinsmann to hold a few players out. But a full-strength U.S. squad could get a result in San José – especially since this game will be at the modern Estadio Nacional, not the famously hostile Estadio Saprissa.

Klinsmann’s nature is to go for it, no matter the risk. It will help having Landon Donovan back in the squad. For all the talent of Altidore, Bradley and Dempsey, Donovan is still the one player who other CONCACAF teams fear most.

Costa Rica’s team includes many names familiar to American fans. Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborío and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz lead the attack, while Portland’s Rodney Wallace is key on defense.

Honduras at Mexico

9:30 p.m. Friday (ESPNews, UniMás)

Mexico is CONCACAF’s perennial superpower, but El Tri has yet to score at home in the final round of World Cup qualifying. José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre’s hopes of reaching Brazil – much less keeping his job – rest on finally getting his team’s offense in gear.

Mexico has plenty of talent, most notably Manchester United’s Javier Hernández and Villareal’s Giovani dos Santos. If they can get it together, they should beat a Honduran squad led by Wigan’s Roger Espinoza and Houston’s Boniek Garcia. If they don’t, time could run out on Chepo and his team.

Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders

10:00 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN)

Like it or not, Major League Soccer keeps playing through FIFA breaks. (It isn’t alone, by the way – there’s Mexican league action this weekend too.)

This game has big implications for both the Eastern and Western Conference playoff races. Seattle has stormed up to third place in the West, and still has three games in hand on conference leader Real Salt Lake. The Sounders will be without Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson, but Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle can do the job.

Chicago is four points behind the fourth-place Union, and two behind fifth-place New England. Fire forward Mike Magee is second in MLS’ goal-scoring race with 14.

New York Red Bulls at Houston Dynamo

5:00 p.m. Sunday (UniMás)

Union fans will definitely want to watch this game, as Houston poses perhaps the biggest threat to Philadelphia’s place in the postseason. The two-time defending Eastern Conference champs are tied with New England for fifth place, and come to PPL Park next weekend.

New York stole headlines this weekend when manager Mike Petke benched superstar Thierry Henry after a midweek training ground spat. If Henry’s motivated, the Red Bulls can easily be the East’s best team. If the Frenchman goes back to sulking, the Big Apple will find itself trophy-less for an 18th straight year.

Mexico at United States

8:00 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN and UniMás at 7:00)

In theory, all World Cup qualifying games are created equal. In practice, one game stands out above all the rest for American fans. The quadrennial World Cup qualifying home game against Mexico is the biggest game on the soccer calendar, and for good reason.

It’s a rivalry that transcends the soccer field. The politics of immigration in America’s melting pot society mean that almost everywhere the U.S. plays its southern neighbor, the so-called road team has the majority of the crowd.

But there’s one big exception: Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Since the first-ever “Cold War” back in 2001, no venue in the nation has given the U.S. a bigger home field advantage. It’s especially true against Mexico, and it’s part of why every “Clasico” played there has ended with the same score: dos a cero, Estados Unidos.

Mexico has always had the talent to win in Columbus, but the U.S. has won with motivation and speed. Under Jurgen Klinsmann, the skill gap has closed.

As for motivation, here’s an extra helping. If the U.S gets a result in Costa Rica The Americans can clinch a berth in next year’s World Cup with a win over their biggest rival and a Honduras win or tie at home against Panama.

It's worth noting that ESPN's coverage will extend well beyond its pregame show and game broadcast. There will be a 90-minute edition of "ESPN FC on TV" starting at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2, airing live from the fan fest at Crew Stadium. After the game, ESPN3.com will have a 30-minute postgame show, and ESPN2 will have another edition of "ESPN FC on TV" at 2:00 a.m.

Univsion's coverage will start at 6:00 p.m. on Univision Deportes, then switch to UniMás at 7:00.

Both networks will include retrospectives on past U.S.-Mexico games as part of their build-up to kickoff. All of the details are here.

Panama at Honduras

8:50 p.m. Tuesday (beIN Sport)

An hour after the U.S. and Mexico kick off, two CONCACAF rivals chasing the continent’s big powers will face off in Tegucigalpa. These teams and Costa Rica are chasing the last World Cup qualifying spots. The third-place team qualifies automatically, and the fourth-place team will face a playoff against New Zealand in November.

Players to watch include Panama’s Gabriel Gómez, a former Union midfielder; and Honduras’ Óscar Boníek García, a stalwart for the Houston Dynamo.

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