Column

CONCACAF Chronicles: World Cup Qualifying second window preview

Missing and returning players headline a potential cycle-defining qualifying window in CONCACAF.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, United States national soccer team player Timothy Weah attends a training session at Wembley Stadium in London.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

In a column that describes itself as “about North American soccer,” I would be remiss to omit the recent developments in the National Women’s Soccer League. The culture of exploitation, coercion and abuse outlined in the reports is completely unacceptable from many of those in power in the NWSL.

I am in no way qualified to outline this story for you, so I advise you to turn to the magnificent reporting done by Meg Linehan of The Athletic and Molly Hensley-Clancy of The Washington Post. Their work, and the courageous testimonies of former Portland Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, is the most important story in American soccer right now.

I beg you to go read some of what they have written in the last week before continuing with what I have to say for this week. If the paywall is an issue, Grant Wahl hosted Linehan and Hensley-Clancy on the most recent episode of the free-to-listen “Fútbol with Grant Wahl Podcast.”

There is no easy way to transition in these moments, but let’s take a look ahead at three things to look for in the second window of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.

Pulisic, Reyna and Brooks out for a stability-seeking USMNT

After consecutive draws to open qualifying, a statement 4-1 comeback victory at Honduras salvaged what could have been a downright disastrous first window for the United States.

Winning at home and drawing on the road is the tried and true recipe for qualification in CONCACAF, and, despite the roller coaster ride that was, the U.S. managed the five points that philosophy requires.

With two home matches during this window, even with the injuries, that bar climbs to at least two victories. Even falling short of three points in Panama City should be considered nothing less than a disappointment for a group as talented as this USMNT. Nine points is the demand. Seven is the requirement.

Unfortunately, the Americans are left to navigate the next three fixtures without wingers Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna and center back John Brooks. The trio have been nailed-on starters for Gregg Berhalter when healthy, and it’s on the likes of Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Chris Richards to mitigate their absence.

The emergence of Miles Robinson as one of the best defenders in CONCACAF has helped quell the once-ubiquitous fear of a Brooks injury. With Robinson’s solidity and the return of Richards, the U.S. defense should trudge on practically unimpeded.

Pulisic and Reyna, however, are hands-down the two most dangerous Americans with the ball at their feet. They are elite playmakers — lightning in a bottle — and their ability to draw a defense’s attention will sorely be missed.

Weah and Aaronson have been playing well in recent weeks, and the U.S. needs them to click from the jump if they are to keep the pace set by their own lofty ambitions.

Jiménez and Lozano return for Mexico

Without two of their best attacking threats, Mexico still managed to grab early control of the qualifying cycle. Their seven points have them two clear of the field, and a window with two home matches and a trip to Jamaica should see them strengthen their position.

After suffering a skull fracture during a Premier League game last November, Raúl Jiménez has returned to regular play with his club Wolverhampton.

Wolves refused to release Jiménez during the first window to avoid the quarantine period associated with traveling to a red-list country, but the striker will make his long-awaited return to the national team on Thursday.

Carlos Vela and Chicharito have long been out of the fold for Mexico, and Jiménez’s absence has stretched the national team even thinner up front. To make matters worse, Rogelio Funes Mori failed to stake his claim to the striker position with a suboptimal performance in this summer’s Gold Cup.

The Wolverhampton striker will hopefully provide a clinical goal-scoring punch to a Mexican attack that craves it.

After sustaining injuries to his head and neck during the Gold Cup, Chucky Lozano has made his return to Napoli and will do the same for El Tri during this window.

Lozano has started every competitive match he has played in for the Mexican national team dating back to the 2017 qualifiers. His presence means more attacking firepower and competitive experience for a Mexico squad that has already proved it’s up to the task.

Will Canada and Panama push the gap or slip back to the pack?

Both Canada and Panama racked up an impressive five points in the first window, enough to see them three points clear in third and fourth, respectively. (The top three qualify and fourth earns a spot in a playoff.)

The road only toughens for Canada as they host Mexico and travel to Panama in this next window, but attackers Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David have proven to be up to each international challenge so far in their young careers.

Davies proved himself the best and most dangerous player in CONCACAF in the last window, and his brilliance is required if the Canadians are to move closer to their first World Cup since 1986.

Panama earned an impressive draw against Mexico last window, and they’ll need the same result against the U.S. before they host Canada next week. Armed with a generation that brought them to their first World Cup in 2018, Los Canaleros have embraced operating under the radar.

Honduras seems to be their most likely challenger, but they play away twice during this next window and their only home match is against Mexico.

Their individual tests against the U.S. and Mexico combined with their head-to-head clash in Panama City render it unlikely for both nations to hold their early three-point advantages.

One will likely emerge from the second window with qualification firmly within their grasp with the other left to the bloodbath brewing behind them.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs every Tuesday.