Michael Orozco Fiscal and Landon Donovan scrimmage during a U.S. men's… (Jamie Squire / Getty Images )
The U.S. has nothing to lose while Mexico has everything to gain in the final round of World Cup qualifying, which sees the Americans welcoming Jamaica to Kansas City, Kan., on Friday while a desperate Mexico plays host to Panama.
The U.S. has already secured a berth in next summer's World Cup in Brazil and with a victory over winless Jamaica it would also move a big step closer to a first-place finish in regional qualifying. Mexico, on the other hand, stands fifth in the regional standings with two matches to play, and only the top three CONCACAF countries automatically advance to Brazil in 2014.
For Mexico to finish third it needs a win over Panama — a team it hasn't beaten in three tries this year — and a good result Tuesday in Costa Rica while Honduras, currently third in the standings, must lose its final two games against Costa Rica and last-place Jamaica.
But there is one other way Mexico can avoid missing a World Cup for the first time since 1990: If El Tri can overtake Panama in the final two qualifiers and finish fourth, it would advance to FIFA's version of a wild-card series, meeting Oceania champion New Zealand in a two-leg play-in next month for one of two remaining World Cup berths.
"We know we have not done things very well so far," Mexican Coach Victor Manuel Vucetich told reporters this week. "It's the last chance we have to correct things."
One thing Mexico must correct is a lack of leadership, which is why Vucetich — the team's third coach in four weeks — called former national team captain Rafael Marquez into training camp. Marquez, a defender who participated in the last three World Cups, hasn't played a competitive match for Mexico in 21/2 years. Also back is goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who missed September's qualifiers because of a spat with former Mexico coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre.
For the U.S. the last two qualifiers — it travels to Panama for its final match Tuesday —- can do little more than build momentum heading into next summer. The Americans were 13th in the most recent FIFA world rankings and would have to move up six spots before the next poll is released to be seeded into December's World Cup draw.
FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke said the Oct. 17 rankings will be used to determine which eight countries will be kept apart in the opening group stage in Brazil and a jump of six spots for the U.S. in such a short time is extremely unlikely. But U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann insists next summer's tournament should be the main thing on his players' minds.
"The benchmark in the World Cup is far higher, so whatever we do now already prepares us for that," he said. "Everything we do now sets the tone for summer of 2014, and therefore it's important the players understand this is serious business.
"We want to see an improvement of the entire squad and we want to see competition in every spot. You only have to say one word: Brazil. Then you automatically get fired up."