World Cup qualifying is back!
For soccer nerds, this is the time you begin to salivate in advance of the World Cup -- which this time around will be played in South Africa next summer. It's the first time the tournament will have ever been staged in Africa, incidentally.
I should mention that next year's World Cup is the men's tournament. And as a matter of fact, a caveat: all the soccer optimism displayed below is for the men's team, because the U.S. Women's team is the best in the world, the defending Olympic champion, and two-time winners of the World Cup. The U.S. men play in a looooong shadow.
Anyway, we've reached the final round of qualifying, dubbed the "Hexagonal" because there are six teams left -- Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Trindad & Tobago, and the United States. Our regional federation is called CONCACAF, and comprises North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Each nation plays each other nation twice, home and away, for a total of ten games per team. At the end, the top three teams advance to the World Cup. Standings are kept by awarding three points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. After one game, a 2-0 home win over Mexico, the United States is tied for first place with three points. The U.S. plays its second match against El Salvador on Saturday. The game will be broadcast at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
The thing is, we are easily the class of the region, and have been for some time. Mexico was a colossus for years and years, but they haven't managed a win on American soil in 10 matches. Mexico's recent past has been full of painful losses to the Americans, including a memorable 2-0 elimination from the 2002 World Cup. We should easily finish in the top three, and will likely finish first.
It's really a relatively new, and strange, feeling as a fan of the U.S. national team. We're actually a respectable side now, and elite soccer nations no longer consider a game against us to be an easy win. It's a product, I think, of several generations growing up with the game. We still have a culture that draws our best athletes into basketball and American football, but the pool of talented young soccer players has grown to the point that we can field some pretty good footballers.
And just as importantly, as you can tell from the roster for Saturday's game, there are lots of Americans playing professionally in Europe, and some are even holding down starting positions in top leagues in England and Germany. Constant competition against world-class opposition will only make them better, and there are talented youngsters coming up all the time.
It's a good time to be an American soccer fan.