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    Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Feb 18, 2004
    Update Mar 4, 2004
    Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
    Preview May 30, 2004 Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004 Preview Aug 9, 2004 Update Sep 20, 2004 Update Oct 26, 2004 Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004 Preview Feb 2, 2005 Update Feb 26, 2005 Update Apr 8, 2005 Update Jun 8, 2005 Update Aug 22, 2005 Update Sep 14, 2005 Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005 Preview Oct 29, 2005 Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005



    Preview: CONCACAF qualifiers, Round 2

    by Peter Goldstein

        While those wimps over in Europe are playing some sort of regional tournament this summer, we intrepid CONCACAF types are forging ahead with the World Cup qualifiers. It's the second round, 12 knockout ties to determine the 12 teams for the semifinal group stage. It all happens very quickly--the games start on June 12 and finish by June 20 (except Mexico-Dominica, which ends a week later). This is where the big boys join the competition, and to be honest, several of the matchups are mismatchups. But there's plenty of stuff to say about the teams, and if you're not familiar with the CONCACAF roster, hopefully this will provide a useful introduction. For a rundown on the teams that played in round one, check the first round preview, update, and wrap-up. Here we'll concentrate more on the teams just entering the competition. The matchups, in roughly ascending order of competitiveness:


        Mexico is a team in transition, in both body and soul. On the physical side, a superb older generation of players (Claudio Suárez, Ramón Ramírez, Luís Hernández, Jorge Campos) have finished their international careers, and other standouts are starting to show their age (Jared Borgetti, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Jesús Arellano). There are some fine players in the current generation (central defender Rafael Márquez of Barcelona, defensive midfielder Gerardo Torrado of Seville, keeper Oswaldo Sánchez of Guadalajara), but as yet no nucleus of stars has emerged to match the group that performed so well for the Tricolores over the years.

        On the psychological side, the transition has been even more difficult. For nearly 50 years, CONCACAF football was Mexico. Sure, there were rare occasions they didn't take regional honors, or qualify for the World Cup, but you knew those were exceptions, and that soon the Tri would be at the top of the class once again. But in recent years the USA has emerged as their equal, and at times their superior. No Mexican fan who saw the USA's comprehensive 2:0 victory at Korea/Japan 2002 will ever forget it--it was final, unmistakeable testimony that Mexico could no longer take their superiority for granted.

        To their credit, the Mexican federation recognized that a complete overhaul was needed. For one thing, little attention had been paid to the youth teams recently--in fact, in one cycle, the U-17's, the U-20s, and the Olympic side had all failed to qualify from the region! Plus, there had to be a closer connection between player development and senior-level tactics. And of course there had to be a replacement for coach Javier Aguirre, who had gone to work his magic in Osasuna.

        The man they chose was Ricardo LaVolpe. It was, to say the least, a controversial choice. LaVolpe, although a veteran of more than 20 years playing and coaching in the Mexican leagues, was a native Argentine, not a Mexican. He was also known for his difficult relationships with the press, and tough treatment of his players. Hugo Sanchez, the most beloved Mexican footballer of all time, spoke out early, often, and violently against the choice, and just about everyone took sides.

        Of course, that's normal for Mexico. Coaching Mexico isn't for the fainthearted--it's like coaching Brazil, only at higher altitude. Even the smallest disappointment in a meaningless friendly breeds calls for resignation. When the team suffered through a number of mediocre results in LaVolpe's first months, it seemed only a matter of time before the roof caved in. And LaVolpe's brusque manner didn't help one bit: every other day it seemed as if someone was yelling at somebody else or refusing to talk to somebody else or apologizing to somebody else.

        But eventually the results started coming. After an ordinary start in the 2003 Gold Cup, Mexico gathered steam, defeated Costa Rica in the semifinal and the Brazilian U-23's in the final. Much much more importantly, Mexico's own U-23's, also coached by LaVolpe, and supported by a delirious home crowd of 55,000, stomped the USA 4-0 to take a berth at the Athens Olympics. Joining his boys on the field after the game, LaVolpe literally cried with joy. It was, to say the least, a most satisfying victory, and a sign that at last, the coach had earned his three-colored stripes.

        Except a couple of months later, the senior team ventured north to Houston for a friendly against the USA--and were once more embarrassed by the Yanks. The score was only 1-0, and the winning goal didn't come until second-half injury time, but there was no doubt who had been the stronger team. The headline in one Mexican newspaper: "the CONCACAF giant is dead." And so it goes. The Tri will almost certainly qualify for Germany, but LaVolpe is on perpetual probation until he re-establishes regional supremacy.

        Not that he has to worry against Dominica. Despite their gritty victory over Bahamas, the lads from the Nature Island will provide only token opposition. As in the first round, Dominica won't even get a home game, since they don't have an all-seater stadium available. Dominica's home leg will be played in San Antonio, Texas, USA--in fact another home game for Mexico. (Heck, when the USA plays there it's a home game for Mexico.) But at least they'll get to do the famous San Antonio riverwalk. And this is a great moment in their history: not only have they never played a team the caliber of Mexico, they've never played a team from outside the Caribbean. As one online Dominica fan enthused: "This is a unique opportunity for us because before the game starts (even if they are going to absolutely crucify us!!!) we will get the chance to fly our flag and sing our National Anthem…In fact, I think we should insist on singing the whole song to put off the drubbing we will get for as long as possible."


        One of the most interesting matchups of the round. No, Grenada isn't about to jump to the head of the class (although they're better than Dominica), and no, the USA isn't about to regress 20 years (although they're not quite as good as they played at WC 2002). But don't be at all surprised if this one gets international attention.

        Why? Because it's a rematch. The first leg took place in 1983, when the United States invaded Grenada. It's one of the more obscure episodes in American military history. Grenada's government, headed by charismatic Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, was explicitly Marxist, and had allowed a strong Cuban presence on the island. Unfortunately for Bishop, he and his fellow party members fell out; he was imprisoned and murdered by a rival pro-Cuban faction. As civil order threatened to break down, the USA swept down on the island with 7,000 soldiers (plus 300 from other pro-American Caribbean countries). Officially the USA intervened to protect the safety of American citizens attending St. George's medical school--but many believed it was just an excuse to intervene and counter Cuban influence in the region. The Marxist government was deposed, and new elections followed soon, resulting in a government friendly to the USA. In the surprisingly heavy fighting, 49 Grenadians, 29 Cubans, and 19 Americans died.

        How this history will affect the games is hard to say. The USA and Grenada are allies now. But the reaction of the Grenadian, and Grenadian-American fans, should be interesting to watch. Unfortunately, Grenada is one of the few countries around that doesn't have a regular online newspaper, so we don't have much information about the attitude on the island. We do know that when Fidel Castro visited Grenada six years ago, he was enthusiastically received. The government has retained friendly relations with the USA since the invasion, but that doesn't tell us about the grass roots.

        The great irony is that the invasion provided a huge boost to Grenadian football. One of the most important outlets for Caribbean footballers is American higher education; college scouts regularly attend Caribbean youth games to spot promising talent and offer scholarships. If Grenada were still on the outs with the USA, native Grenadians wouldn't get much of a look from up north. Moreover, close ties between the countries encourage Grenadians to emigrate, so they can take advantage of the general prosperity and much more plentiful soccer resources. Of the Grenada side that defeated Guyana, midfielder Shalrie Joseph, striker Ricky Charles, and midfielder Anthony Augustine developed in American college soccer.

        Of course, it's still a mismatch. Grenada is certainly no pushover--they recently got a win and a draw at Cuba, and they have some solid UK- and USA-based professionals--but they're not in the Americans' class. The USA has risen to the top ranks of CONCACAF, and there's no reason to believe they won't stay there. Soccer has never been more popular at youth level, and the infrastructure is now in place to develop talent within the country. Young stars like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both of whom impressed at Korea/Japan, are MLS products. And although the Mexican league is stronger than MLS, many more USA players go abroad. From veterans like Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), to players in their prime like John O'Brien (Ajax), to new stars like Tim Howard (Manchester United), Americans are getting regular employment in Europe. (And it continues: Jonathan Spector was recently named Manchester United youth player of the year.) The team may have overachieved a bit at Korea/Japan, but it would be a tremendous shock if they didn't qualify for Germany.

        The USA has a habit of playing down to its opposition, so Grenada may be able to stay close for a while. It's a shame the draw has the opening game in the USA, since a close opener in Grenada would certainly have enlivened the second leg. Still, if the Yanks play beneath their potential in the opener, and somehow the Spice Boyz can keep them within range, we might be in for some interesting scenes in St. George's.

    Netherlands Antilles-Honduras

        Hey, Bora's back! The chameleon has turned blue-and-white this time, ready to lead his fourth CONCACAF squad into the World Cup. A Mexican in Mexico, a Costa Rican in Costa Rica, even an American in the USA, Bora dazzled the fans and marshalled the players to excel for their home country. And on August 22, 2003, the day he was hired as head coach of Honduras, he stood in the public square in Tegucigalpa, in front of the adoring multitudes, and proclaimed: "Ich bin ein catracho!"

        Well, he didn't really say that. But he didn't have to. Get this: only four months after arriving, having coached in exactly one friendly (and lost), he was named "Man of the Year" in Honduras for 2003 by the daily paper La Tribuna. Some guys just know how to connect.

        Except somewhere along the line you have to get results--and almost a year later, Honduras has yet to win a single full international under Bora. Four draws, four losses. And he's not so popular anymore. The press has questioned his tactics; fans have insulted him at the airport; even the Catholic Church has jumped in, upset that his salary is so high. This looks like the most talented Honduran side since 1982, their World Cup year--and yet they can't get a W on the board.

        Bora has stayed cool throughout, reciting the inevitable mantra: "friendlies don't matter." But you wonder whether he's the right man for this squad. They're by nature a free attacking side--for example, in the 2002 WCQ semifinal round, they racked up 25 goals in 6 games. With strikers such as David Suazo (top scorer for Cagliari in Serie B), Carlos Pavón (Monarcas Morelia) and Milton "Tyson" Nuñez (Necaxa), midfielders like Amado Guevara (Metrostars), Julio Cesar "Rambo" de León (Fiorentina) and Edgar Álvarez (Peñarol), they're at their best when they cut loose. Bora tends to run a controlled system, usually a tight 4-4-2, and even a 4-5-1, and so far the team just hasn't been able to adjust.

        On the other hand, what got Honduras into trouble last WCQ cycle was a lack of control. At times they seemed unstoppable, crunching Mexico 3:0 at home, coming from behind to take USA 3:2 on the road. But there was something missing, something in the defense specifically, and perhaps the discipline generally, and they also lost shockingly at home both to the USA and Costa Rica. Still, with two games to go in the Hexagonal, they were in second place, a point ahead of both Mexico and USA. The next game was a gimme, at home to Trinidad & Tobago, the weakest team in the field--and they lost. They hit the post four times, but never got it in the net, and the final score was 0:1. In the final, deciding match in Mexico, they appeared beaten from the first minute, and were swept aside 0:3.

        So it's still possible that Bora may provide the necessary ingredient. The team looked good in their most recent friendly, a 1:1 draw against Ecuador, combining a neat passing game with solid defense. But they're stuck in a brutal semifinal group, and will have to be at their best to make it to the Hexagonal, much less Germany. Everyone in Honduras knows the team has the talent to qualify, so once the games get serious, Bora will have to post immediate results if he wants to survive.

        Not that the games against Netherlands Antilles aren't serious. The islanders can rely on their Dutch league pros, who showed a lot of class and courage in their first round comeback against Antigua and Barbuda. They'll also have a couple of weeks to train together before the games; that's a couple of weeks more than they had in the opening round. But the last time the Antilles got a WCQ win against a Central American team was more than 35 years ago, and there's no reason to believe that'll change this summer. One advantage, though: they get the first leg in Willemstaad. So the tie may stay alive for a while--and you can bet in Honduras they'll be watching very very closely.


        If someone wants you to bet on who the 2006 WC debutantes will be, you could do worse than pick Guatemala. The chapines have emerged as a most respectable side: in the 1998 WCQ semifinals, they threw a brief scare into both Costa Rica and USA; at the same stage in 2002, they took Costa Rica all the way to a playoff. They won the 2001 Copa UNCAF (the Central American nations cup); in 2003, they finished second to Costa Rica, but in a dreary tournament were easily the most exciting team on show. You get the feeling that all they need is a little bit of luck to contend.

        Unfortunately, luck is the one thing they never seem to get. For the third straight time, they'll be in the semifinal Group of Death, this time with Costa Rica (again!), Honduras, and Canada. If they can get to the Hexagonal, they should challenge for the 4th place playoff spot, and maybe even the top 3--but they have to make it first.

        And then there's the little matter of José Mauricio Caballeros, head of the FA. No big deal--there was just a tiny suspicion he had embezzled funds from the federation accounts. The government did the sensible, ethical thing, taking over the FA headquarters and locking Caballeros out. But good sense and ethics don't mean a heck of a lot to FIFA, who suspended Guatemala for government interference with the FA. The ensuing fight was extremely bitter. The Guatemalans knew this was a stick-up job, and made their frustrations very clearly known; FIFA went out of its way to insult them, among other things inviting Caballeros to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers as their personal representative. Just when it looked as if Guatemala was ready to stand firm and skip the qualifiers, FIFA surprised everyone by provisionally lifting the suspension. The compromise: they kept Caballeros as the nominal head of the FA, but appointed a normalization committee to run the show, with future elections in view. This seems to have satisfied everyone: a couple of weeks ago, FIFA declared Guatemala fully reinstated.

        But the suspension left its mark. For several months the team had no head coach, couldn't practice, and fell well behind the rest of the region in preparations. In late March they finally named their man: Ramón "Primitivo" Maradiaga of Honduras. (Great nickname, and if you want to know how he got it, just find an online photo.) It wasn't a popular choice; fans and press wanted an experienced European coach, or a local man. They quite rightly pointed out that Maradiaga had failed to qualify for the 2002 WC with an outstanding Honduran side. But he has a winning personality, open and straightforward, and in the few months of his tenure he's begun to convince the skeptics.

        He inherits a squad with plenty of attacking capability. Gonzalo Romero and Guillermo Ramírez are dangerous midfield options, the one smooth and technical, the other powerful and direct. Wide midfielder Fredy García is dynamic and creative. The great strength of the team is up front. There's big Dwight Pezzarossi, known as "El Tanque"; he's played in Chile and Spain, and was good enough to get a spot on Bolton's roster this year (although apparently not good enough to play). And top of the list is two-time MLS leading scorer Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz (LA Galaxy), still only 24, one of the best instinctive goal-poachers in the region.

        But right now Ruiz is just the latest piece of bad luck. A few weeks ago he sprained an ankle, and although it's not serious, it looks as if he'll miss the Surinam series. He probably won't be needed yet, but the big games begin in August, and Guatemala has to integrate him with the rest of the squad as soon as possible. MLS is a summer league, so even if Ruiz gets back to action quickly, he won't have much time with the national side.

        As for Surinam, they form an interesting contrast to their fellow ex-Dutch colony Netherlands Antilles. While the Antilles are relying largely on Dutch-league players, Surinam, blessed with a professional domestic league, is sticking with a home-based side. (Rather a quaint attitude these days, although money may have something to do with it.) But even with a few extra European pros, they'd be out of their depth here. The record shows that they once made the CONCACAF final 6, where they lost to Guatemala only 2:3--but that was seven World Cups ago. They get the opener at home, so, like the Antilles, they might stay close at first. But an upset is hard to imagine.

    Dominican Republic-Trinidad & Tobago

        The high-water mark of Trinidad and Tobago football came on July 23, 2000, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, when an 86th minute goal by Russell Latapy gave the home team a famous and well-deserved victory over Mexico in the semifinal round of the 2002 WC qualifiers. The game was the second in an incredible run of four, in which the Soca Warriors also blitzed Canada home and away, and crushed Panama at home. The goal tally in the streak: Trinidad & Tobago 13, Opponents 0. T&T was catapulted into the Hexagonal, and even a meaningless 0:7 loss to a revenge-minded Mexico couldn't dampen their enthusiasm.

        But it fell apart almost immediately. They opened with a disappointing 0:1 loss on the road to Jamaica, then an 0:3 loss at Costa Rica. A home draw with Mexico kept them in the fray for the moment, but an amazing 5 straight losses buried them in last place. Toward the end of the schedule they got a tiny piece of revenge, crippling Honduras' chances with a win in San Pedro Sula, but it was small consolation.

        T&T haven't been the same since. In 2003, for the first time in 10 years, they failed to qualify for the Gold Cup, losing out first to Cuba, then to Honduras and Martinique in the repechage. Later that summer, they lost both to Haiti and the hosts in the St. Kitts & Nevis football festival. The longtime Caribbean kings seem lost, without direction or coherence.

        But they were indeed the kings--make sure you remember that. The emergence of Jamaica, and the spotlight on the 1998 Reggae Boyz, have obscured one of the most dominant regional records on the books. Of the 11 Caribbean Cups from 1989 to 2001, T&T won 8. They finished second twice, and third once. Their record in those years: 40 wins, 3 draws, 9 losses.

        Can the Soca Warriors recover their former glories? They took a big step in January by re-appointing Bertille St. Clair as head coach. St. Clair led the team from 1997-2000, taking them to the 2000 Gold Cup semifinal; he's also coached the U-23s. He's a no-nonsense sort who has the respect of his players, and knows how to plan for the long term.

        There's plenty of talent there, too. Stern John (Birmingham City) is a reliable striker, and emerging star Cornell Glen (Metrostars in MLS) might be a perfect partner. There's quality in midfield with Carlos Edwards (Wrexham) and Arnold Dwarika (Beijing Guoan). The defense might be less sure, but in goal is Shaka Hislop (Portsmouth), at 35 still capable of the spectacular save. T&T's most famous son, Dwight Yorke (Blackburn), may or may not play, but even without him St. Clair has the nucleus of a solid squad. And don't forget that Trinidad has one of the stronger professional leagues in the region, with a number of local players ready to play key roles on the side.

        But however good or bad T&T is, they're going to make the Hexagonal. How do I know? Because they've been gifted with one of the easiest draws in qualifying history. They were lucky enough to get Dominican Republic, rather than a genuine threat like Cuba or Haiti, in this round. But it was simply ludicrous to be slated for a semifinal group where their rivals for second place might be Barbados and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Even a tattered T&T should be able to pass that test. Once they're in the Hexagonal, though, they won't have any minnows to feast on, and St. Clair will have to earn his salary to keep their heads above water.

        Speaking of Dominican Republic, the good news is that their new top-level domestic competition looks like it's going to take place this year (last year's got postponed three times, and was finally cancelled). The bad news is that in April the team traveled to Netherlands Antilles and lost 1:3 to a home-based side, basically the Antillean second string. The team has a couple of players in the Central American leagues, but as of now it's not clear whether they'll participate in the qualifiers. In any case the quisqeyanos (love that name!) shouldn't give T&T much trouble, and the fans can go back to watching Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols, Moises Alou, Manny Ramirez, etc. showing their stuff in Major League Baseball.


        There are two Canadian soccer teams: the one that goes out on the field and the one that exists in the minds of their supporters. Canadian fans are among the best in the world: they're dedicated, knowledgeable, cheerful, and absolutely convinced their players are as good as Brazil's. As far as they're concerned, their lads can win every time they take the field, and they know deep down that it won't be long before the maple leaf soars triumphantly over the great football globe.

        The reality, though, is somewhat less joyous. It's been a long time since 1986, Canada's one and only appearance at the World Cup. They came ever so close in the 1994 cycle, actually leading Mexico in the decisive game before going down. They entered the 1998 Hexagonal with optimism and brio, but were hammered by Mexico and USA in their first two outings, and never really recovered. But certainly in the 2002 qualifiers their time had come; hadn't they just stunned the region with a Gold Cup championship? Alas, they didn't even make the Hexagonal: in their semifinal group, they were humiliated twice by Trinidad & Tobago, and scored a grand total of one goal in six games.

        So what's the deal with Canada? Hopeless mediocrity or unfulfilled potential? Are the fans deluding themselves, or is the talent really there to make a run at things?

        It's hard to say. Certainly Canada has produced some very good players over the years. Right now they can boast striker Tomasz Radzinski (Everton), fullback/midfielder Paul Staltieri (Werder Bremen), midfielder Julian de Guzman (Hannover 96), and exciting young attacker Iain Hume (Tranmere Rovers). And a surprisingly large number of Canadians play in the lesser European leagues. Yet they really haven't shown the depth of talent necessary to produce a consistent side. There's some encouraging news from the youth program: the U-20's have qualified for the FIFA championship the last two times out, and at UAE 2003, they even made the world quarterfinals, losing to Spain only in extra time. On the other hand, the U-17's haven't qualified since 1995, and the last time Canada saw the Olympics was all the way back in 1984.

        Compounding the problem is that there's no real domestic league. In fact, Canada is the largest country in the world without a functioning first division. Five Canada-based teams play in the A-League, which is the USA's second division--and that's it. You can send as many players abroad as you want, but without a place for the second-line veterans and young stars to get consistent experience, you won't have a deep enough talent pool. The USA learned this lesson well: it was only after MLS had been in place for several years that they finally made an impact at the World Cup.

        Anyway, the question is pretty much moot until August. The opponent in this round, Belize, shouldn't be much of a test. In their first WC qualifiers, 1998, they were beaten by Panama 2:6 on aggregate; in the 2002 cycle they managed only a draw in four group stage games with Guatemala and El Salvador. Geographically part of Central America, their real affinity is with the Caribbean: they're a former British colony, and take their cricket seriously. They've played fewer than 20 full internationals in their history, and to date they have yet to win a single tournament game of any kind.

        So what are they doing here, you ask? After all, this is a second-round match; how did they get past the first round? In the boardrooms. Because they're from Central America, they (and Nicaragua--see below) got a pass, and were allowed to sit on the sidelines while the Caribbean teams, several of them stronger, had to play to make it this far. It sounds like a good deal, but they probably would have been better off with a first-round tie. Then they could have played someone in their own class, and had a chance to score an historic victory. Now they'll just go home empty.

        But at least they're here. Over the past two years they've been involved in one of the crazier domestic disputes, with the league (BPFL) and the federation (FFB) at considerable odds. The usual issues: corruption, accounting failures, etc. At the nadir, the FFB, led by director Bertie Chimilio, simply refused to show up for a mediation meeting set up by the national sports council. Last January, the national government decertified the FFB, and it looked as if FIFA sanctions would be forthcoming; in February, an about-face recertified the FFB and a local court ordered the BPFL to begin; a few weeks ago, the BPFL players withdrew from the national squad; finally, the Prime Minister himself intervened, brokered a deal, and got things going forward (for the moment, anyway).

        Belizean football fans are understandably thrilled the worst is over, but the dispute has crippled the team. Belize's last tournament game was more than 3 years ago, and they haven't even played a friendly since April 2002. Stadium upgrades were set aside as well, so both games of the tie will be played in Canada. Belize isn't by any means a superminnow, and at their best, they might give Canada some nervous moments. But under the circumstances, they have next to no chance. (All the more reason for Canadian fans to stay optimistic!)

    Cuba-Costa Rica

        The big CONCACAF story in recent years has been Costa Rica. Yes, USA got all the headlines in Korea/Japan, but let's face it: it was only a matter of time before they reached parity with Mexico, and could compete respectably against the world. But Costa Rica is a tiny country, about half the size of Honduras or El Salvador--yet they're firmly established as the third side in the region. You may know they stormed through the Hexagonal last time out; you certainly know they performed respectably in Korea/Japan. But some things you may not know: 1) they've qualified for the FIFA U-17 championship 4 of the last 5 times; 2) they've qualified for the FIFA U-20 championship 4 of the last 5 times; 3) in 2004 they qualified for the Olympics. Right now they have an excellent generation of players--among others, Paolo Wanchope (Manchester City) and Ronald Gómez (Irapuato) at striker, Walter Centeno (Saprissa) in midfield, Gilberto Martínez (Brescia) on the back line--but when they retire, there'll be plenty of replacements. Erick Scott and Winston Parks up front, José Luis López in midfield, and Michael Umaña in defense are excellent prospects, and U-23 keeper Adrian de Lemos is ready to take over the top spot right now.

        It's a great story for the ticos: for many years the senior side were the most exciting team in the region, but much too erratic to get the key results. In the 1998 Hexagonal they started like world-beaters, outplaying Mexico in a 0:0 home draw and rolling over the USA at home 3:2. But then they lost the plot, dropping road games to El Salvador and Canada, and never recovered their rhythm, finishing fourth and out of the World Cup. Even in the 2002 qualifiers they had a shocking road loss to Barbados in the semis, and needed a playoff with Guatemala even to reach the Hexagonal. But now they start every regional tournament as one of the favorites, and if they don't qualify for Germany 2006, it'll be a big upset.

        But there's one question mark on the team, and that's the coach. When Alexandre Guiamares left after the 2002 World Cup, the federation surprised everybody by appointing Steve Sampson. If you don't know much about Sampson, that's OK: just go online in a USA soccer chatroom and mention his name. And duck. Sampson was the coach for the USA's 1998 World Cup disaster, and is about as popular in America as George W. Bush is, well, everywhere else.

        But many forget that Sampson also guided the USA to a stunning fourth place in the Copa America back in 1995, when American soccer was still a worldwide joke. He's also fluent in Spanish, and has always had a good rapport with Latin American players. But with Costa Rica you need something extra, something to release the magic. Does Sampson have it?

        The jury is still out. In the 2003 Copa UNCAF, perhaps the dullest tournament in the history of football, they finished first, with four wins and one draw--but all four wins were by 1:0. That's not Costa Rican football. In the ensuing Gold Cup, they played an uninspired group stage, losing to Canada and laboring to a win over Cuba. They awoke in the knockout phase, crushing El Salvador, but went down to Mexico in the semifinals and USA in the third-place game (both, admittedly, on the road). The press has been supportive so far, but there's not much room for error in the qualifiers, and a few bad results will almost certainly put Sampson out of a job.

        Cuba will be an important test. Not because they're likely to win the tie, but because they're talented and unpredictable enough to give Costa Rica a scare. Cuba knows how to play against the open style, and in Lester Moré they have a striker who can beat almost any defense. Wanchope, his knees perpetually fragile, will miss the series, saving himself for the semifinal round. Watch closely to see if Cuba can make it a contest.

        And now I'll say one last time what I've already said too often on this site. Cuba shouldn't be worrying about whether they can make it a contest. They should be playing Barbados, or St. Vincent & the Grenadines, or Panama, or even Canada. They were handed one of the most disgraceful deals in recent qualifying memory, left at the mercy of the draw while minnows Nicaragua and Belize got favored status. Justice says they should have an even shot at the final 12; now all they have is a chance at respect. And while respect is great as far as it goes, in the qualifiers it doesn't go far enough. I'm a long-time Costa Rica fan, but if Cuba scores the shocker, I won't be at all disappointed.


        Jamaica has taken the mantle from Trinidad & Tobago as the top team in the Caribbean. They've finished ahead of T&T in the last two qualifying cycles, and in 2003 Gold Cup qualifying, for only the second time ever, they outpointed T&T in a Caribbean competition without home advantage. The phenomenal success of the 1998 Reggae Boyz awakened a whole nation to football, and made them realize that goals, while perhaps not as respectable as runs and wickets, were well worth cheering for.

        The irony is that the 1998 Reggae Boyz were a fluke. Outside of Mexico, it was a weak year for CONCACAF: USA were solid but nothing special, Costa Rica was in now-you-see-it-now-you-don't mode, and the rest of the pack was pedestrian. In the Hexagonal, Jamaica scored only 3 wins in the 10 games, relying largely on a bumpy home pitch that neutralized opponents' attacks. And although they finished third out of six, they scored only 7 goals in 10 games, allowing 12, becoming the first team in almost 50 years to qualify for the World Cup with a negative goal difference. In the 2002 Hexagonal, they had almost the same GF/GA, 7:14, but in a much tougher field, it was good for only a distant fifth.

        In fact, although the "Reggae" tag gives Jamaica an image as freewheeling attackers, up until now they've been the exact opposite. In their rise to power, they've depended mostly on an aggressive, physical game, keeping the scores low. Another stat: in the semifinal group stage in the 2002 cycle, they advanced in second place with a GF/GA of 7:4. Honduras, who finished first, scored 25:5; El Salvador, who finished third and was eliminated, 13:13. Appropriately, their number one man up front has been Onandi Lowe (most recently at Coventry City), a massive powerhouse who began his career as a defender.

        But Jamaica may be moving toward a more technical approach. Players like Ricardo Fuller, the striker for Preston North End, and midfielder Jermaine Johnson, currently on loan to Oldham from Bolton, showed their stuff in the stunning 2:0 upset of Uruguay in a February friendly. On the other hand, when Venezuela came to Kingston in April, it was back to the old ways, pounding out a 2:1 win. Which face they show is likely to depend on the opponent, or the standings.

        Powerful or elegant, Jamaica is looking strong right now. Head coach Carl Brown has been riding a rollercoaster for some time; lots of people want an experienced foreigner in the job. (Remember, it was Brazilian Rene Simoes who took the Reggae Boys to France.) But those wins over Uruguay and Venezuela have convinced a lot of people, and a 3-0 victory over El Salvador, their most likely rival for a Hexagonal berth, bodes well for the qualifiers. There's a good mix of veterans and new boys: stalwarts like keeper Donovan Ricketts (Bolton), defender Ian Goodison (Tranmere Rovers), and midfielder Andy Williams (Chicago Fire) have lots of international experience; fresh faces like striker Damani Ralph (Chicago Fire) and left back Garfield Reid (Rivoli United) provide important new options. A caution: Jamaica is traditionally much stronger at home (the national stadium in Kingston is known as "The Office"), and hasn't played on the road in the current string.

        How serious are Jamaica's chances for Germany? Even as the best team in the region, they're still well short of the CONCACAF summit. When they qualified for France 1998, they became only the second Caribbean team since WWII to make it to the World Cup. (Haiti, in 1974, was the other.) And in the 2003 Gold Cup, after defeating Guatemala in the group stage, Jamaica were demolished by Mexico 0:5 in the quarterfinals. More than any other team in CONCACAF, they've taken advantage of FIFA's eligibility rules to bolster their team with non-residents. That sort of thing is fine at the early stages, but it can only take you so far. Despite Brown's success, people have accused him of relying too heavily on UK-born players (the latest addition, Marlon King of Nottingham Forest, notched a goal against Venezuela). But Jamaica's domestic league has chronic financial troubles, and is clearly inferior to T&T's. And cricket is still king on the island.

        Haiti, the nomads of CONCACAF, won't go down easy. With the politics at home still uncertain, and Haitian league play suspended, they've been travelling around the hemisphere together: from Brazil, to the USA, to Uruguay, back to the USA, etc. But that just means they've had a lot of time to train as a group. They've had good news from the professional front: defender Jean-Jacques Pierre (Peñarol) and striker Jean-Phillipe Peguero (Colorado Rapids) are holding down first-team jobs at their clubs, and figure to contribute significantly when the time comes. The team plays aggressively and has plenty of speed, and although they're technically erratic, on their day they can give almost anyone a game. The first leg will be played in Miami (USA), Haiti's home away from home. Look for a close, difficult match; if Jamaica gets rattled, we could have ourselves a competitive tie.

    El Salvador-Bermuda

        One of the sadder stories in recent CONCACAF history has been the decline of El Salvador. Back in the day, the cuzcatlecos were one of the most respected sides in the region. The very first time they entered the tournament, in 1970, they qualified. In 1982, they qualified again, along with hated rival Honduras. As late as the 1994 qualifiers, they finished in the top three in the confederation. But lately they've been very ordinary, and sometimes not even that. In the 1998 Hexagonal they were a badly beaten fifth, and they didn't even make the 2002 edition, going down decisively to Jamaica and Honduras in the semifinal round. (Particularly humiliating was an incredible 2:10 aggregate in the two games with Honduras.)

        The failure extends to regional tournaments as well. In the seven UNCAF tourneys since 1991, they've never finished higher than third. Only twice have they made it as far as the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup, and have been smashed both times, 0:4 by the USA, 2:5 by Costa Rica. Local editorialists regularly bemoan the state of the national team, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it. The decline is particularly galling when they look at Honduras, a country of about equal size and prosperity, who these days are looking like consistent contenders for regional honors.

        Corruption at the top hasn't helped. The most celebrated recent scandal involved the national team visiting Zimbabwe--the scandal was that it wasn't the national team. It was a league Select XI which was fraudulently passed off as the nationals, and when the Zimbabweans finally figured it out, the squad fled the country, not even bothering to play their second scheduled friendly. The chief culprit in the fraud appears to have been FA official Roger Barberena--and in the most amusing detail of all, it was discovered that Barberena, a nationalized Salvadoran born in Nicaragua, had in fact entered the country under a false name more than 30 years ago! He's gone now, but there are plenty more leaders to mistrust. Even in the USA they're noticing: in a recent friendly against Colombia, played in Washington, Salvdoran-American fans hung banners calling for a federation housecleaning.

        It isn't all bad news. In the 2002 Gold Cup, El Salvador managed a win over Guatemala, and in last year's Copa UNCAF the side had one of its best showings ever, defeating Nicaragua, Honduras, and host Panama. But recent friendlies have been mostly dismal, including an 0:3 disaster to Guatemala at home. Coach Juan Ramón Paredes has tried just about everything to find the right combination of players, and the right tactical scheme. On their best days, Gilberto Murgas and Ernesto Góchez are decent playmakers; striker José "Chepe" Martinez is on a hot streak in league play; striker Ronald Cerritos of DC United should bolster the attack (although right now he's mad because the FA didn't pay his way to a recent friendly). On paper the defense is solid with Victor Velásquez and Marvin González. But the overall quality doesn't seem to be there, and right now a Hexagonal berth looks like too much to ask.

        And they might not even get by Bermuda. When the draw came out, this looked like another walkover, but Bermuda has come up with their best team in years. True, 20:0 over Montserrat doesn't tell us much; but shortly afterward Bermuda defeated Nicaragua convincingly in back-to-back friendlies at home. Ecstatic Bermudian fans were convinced they were headed for the Hexagonal, if not the World Cup itself. But a trip to Central America brought them down in a hurry--although Bermuda were missing some starters, including top striker Shaun Goater (Reading), 1:4 to Panama and 0:2 twice to Nicaragua showed they still have far to go. If they're at Nicaragua's level, they're not particularly strong. But if they're a little better, and El Salvador comes out flat, the upset is definitely within reach.

    Panama-St. Lucia

        In their own way, Panama are the most anonymous team in the region. Places like Turks & Caicos and Anguilla are simply invisible; places like Bermuda and Bahamas are known, but mostly as vacation spots, and assumed to be minnows. But what about Panama? Everyone's heard of Panama, if only for the canal, and everyone knows they must play football. But is there anyone out there who knows how good they are? Who can give any of their results in recent competitions? Who can supply even one fact about Panamanian football?

        The fact is, Panama just about defines football mediocrity. The strong American influence in the country put baseball first for many years, and only recently have they taken an interest in football. They're not really bad: they've been in the region's final 12 the last two WCQ cycles, they've always been better than minnow Nicaragua, and over the years they've claimed a scalp or two against the stronger Central American teams. But they're not very good, either: they have yet to make any sort of impact on the Gold Cup, they've never finished in the top 3 in UNCAF, and the only team they've beaten in the round of 12 has been Cuba.

        For 87 minutes back in the summer of 2000, it appeared all this might change. Earlier in the year Panama had played well in an early WC qualifying stage, and they were hosting Mexico in the opening game of the semifinal round. Expectations were high--and the team didn't disappoint. They were brilliant, holding off the opposition with ease, controlling midfield, attacking with verve and creativity. They just couldn't get the ball in the net. And as so often happens, they lost: in the 88th minute, Ramón Ramirez of Mexico got a rare scoring chance, and converted it. The final was 0:1, and Panama collapsed. They managed only one draw in the next five games, and wound up with a GF/GA of 1:16.

        Since then, same old story: a few wins, a few losses, some encouragement, some frustration. Their biggest disappointment was the 2003 UNCAF tournament, held in Panama for the first time, at which the team was expected to make history. But they bombed, winning only one of five games, finishing tied for fourth with Honduras--and in the final indignity, they lost the coin flip for a spot in the repechage for the Gold Cup.

        But believe it or not, the canaleros have a future. With the American influence waning, football is slowly assuming greater importance. In 2003, for the very first time, the U-20's qualified for the FIFA world championship. In the regional qualifiers for Athens 2004, Panama made it into the final 8, and even beat Canada in their group stage game. Defender Felipe Baloy has crashed the most foreigner-resistant league of all, playing for Gremio in Brazil. The team has had some excellent results in the runup: a scoreless draw at Honduras, a 4:1 home win against Bermuda, a surprise 2:0 win at Guatemala. They're not going to become a power overnight, but it may not be long before you'll know a fact or two about them.

        You might know one Panamanian already: Julio Cesar Dely Valdés, the long-time striker in the Spanish leagues. At 37, he's come home to finish his career, and it's been a fine one--he's sort of the Hugo Sánchez of Panama. Without a supporting cast, he's never made an impact in the WCQ, but for many years he's been one of the best forwards in the region. And he's still a force: he got the two goals in the friendly against Guatemala, and figures to start up front as long as he can. (Don't confuse him with younger brother Jorge, who should also see some time in the attack.)

        If Panama isn't in good form, St. Lucia might prove a surprisingly tough foe. They have several talented pros in Trinidad, and over the years they've consistently been near the top of the Caribbean minnows. On the other hand, their preparations have left something to be desired. A proposed trip to Venezuela fell through, and the team is upset at the FA for providing insufficient funding. The FA itself appears to be on the verge of collapse, with league competition suspended and several important posts vacant. It's all charges, countercharges, and refusals to comment. But someone's managed to schedule a friendly at Grenada for June 2, and we presume the boys will get on the field against Panama eventually. Don't count them out just yet--if it's 11 against 11, they have an outside shot.

    Barbados-St. Kitts & Nevis

        In January of this year, Ronald Jones, president of the Barbados Football Federation, publicly announced that he expected Barbados to make the Hexagonal. Really, that's what he said--the Hexagonal. So…he's crazy, right? Barbados in the Hexagonal?

        Yes. He's crazy. But there's no denying the strides Barbados have made under Jones. The Bajan Rockets joined FIFA in 1968, but were just another damp squib until the 2002 WC qualifiers, when they turned the Caribbean zone on its head. First they shocked fancied Grenada, tying them on aggregate and winning with a golden goal (on the road!). Then they hammered Aruba 7:1 over two legs. And then, for a spot in the final 12, they met heavily- favored Cuba--and prevailed on penalties.

        Heady stuff, and plenty for one qualifying cycle. But the most amazing feat was still to come. In the opening game of the group stage, playing at home against Costa Rica, they fell behind 0:1 in the second half. Only a minute later, they got an equalizer from Llewellyn Riley. And only a minute from time, Michael Forde got the winner. Barbados over Costa Rica!

        At this point, anything was possible. USA? Mexico? Brazil? But reality finally caught up--Barbados dropped their five remaining group games. Still, it was one of the most remarkable accomplishments in CONCACAF qualifying history.

        Was it a fluke? The evidence suggests no. Barbados performed poorly in the ensuing Caribbean Cup, but in the most recent Gold Cup qualifiers, only a 90th minute goal kept them from beating Jamaica. They then beat Grenada on the road, and only an upset loss to Guadeloupe in the final game kept them from qualifying for the Gold Cup for the very first time.

        This is, without doubt, a team with ambition, off the field as well as on. This season Jones ordered prices to be raised at league games so the FA could operate consistently at a profit. They planned to build a new national stadium with funds from the FIFA Goal program--local residents objected to the lighting, though, and the project will have to be scaled down. But the FA continues to actively pursue funding for improvements.

        What makes Barbados' on-field success particularly remarkable is that they're an exclusively home-based team. Most of the middling Caribbean squads have at least a few professionals in England, or the USA, or even Trinidad and Jamaica. Not Barbados. They rely on players from their own 10-team CBC Premier League. Some of the big names are veterans of the 2002 campaign: striker Riley, midfielders Gregory Goodridge and Kirk Cox, keeper Horace Stoute. But there are new stars as well: midfielder Neil Shepherd, 17-year-old striker Quincy Atherley.

        The plus to a home-based squad is that you can always get your team together, which means a lot in a confederation where the smaller teams rarely play. For the runup to the qualifiers, Barbados set out a full schedule of friendlies--and in a region where friendlies are often very fluid (even USA and Mexico sometimes have to switch opponents on short notice), they kept closely to the script. Results have been solid, too, including wins over Bermuda and Grenada. And they're always on the lookout for more action: when Dominica flew into the island to obtain visas for an unrelated trip, Barbados quickly organized a match, and won it. They've also scheduled Northern Ireland on its upcoming Caribbean tour. As we've said, a team with ambition.

        But the Hexagonal? Yeah, it's crazy--until you look at the draw. In the round of 12 four years ago, Barbados found themselves in the Group of Death, with USA, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. This time, if they get by St. Kitts & Nevis, they'll be in the Group of Sitting Back in Your Armchair With Pretzels and a Coke While Watching Your Favorite Movie. At worst, they'll face Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Mexico is of course out of reach, but if the Rockets are on, really on, and T&T continues to flounder, they could finish second. It's a longshot, yes, but not unthinkable.

        Of course, there's no guarantee they'll get by St. Kitts & Nevis. The Sugar Boyz are an experienced and talented squad, and they should have an even stronger lineup than the one that stomped USVI. Their big star, Malaysia-based striker Keith "Kayamba" Gumbs, is expected home, and they've dug up several new eligible players, including striker Calum Willock (Bristol Rovers) and defenders Sagi Burton and Adam Newton (both Peterborough United). With the draw in their favor (they could easily have been matched against Mexico), they know this is the best chance they'll ever get to make the final 12. It's potentially the most exciting of all the matchups: if you can't find it on streaming audio, try the ticker at the St. Kitts & Nevis official site,

    Nicaragua-St. Vincent & the Grenadines

        The World Cup qualifiers, by their very nature, produce some pretty odd matchups--but few are odder than this one. Before we look at the details, remember that

    1) both these teams had byes into this round;
    2) the winner of this tie will go into the round of 12, just like USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

    Got it? OK, let's go.

        St. Vincent & the Grenadines have the coolest name in FIFA. Just the sound makes you want to break out your Motown CD's, or hit a local club for some progressive jazz, or take steel band lessons. Or maybe imagine yourself sitting on the beach, sunglasses, bathing suit, a cool liqueur in your hand, thinking those totally cosmic psychedelic metaphysical thoughts, man. St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Yeah.

        But the name doesn't do any good out on the field (and besides, it's tough to fit on the uniforms). St. Vincent & the Grenadines have made it to the CONCACAF semifinal group stage the last three World Cup cycles, and here is their aggregate record:

       Games played:   18
       Games won:       0
       Games drawn:     0
       Games lost:     18
       Goals for:       8
       Goals against:  84
        Depending on where you're situated, you want to laugh, or cry, or pity. Pathetic, right?

        But here's the point: St. Vincent & the Grenadines have made it to the CONCACAF semifinal group stage the last three World Cup cycles. The only other Caribbean team that can say that is Jamaica.

        A look at their other results makes you wonder how it happened. When they play in Caribbean events, St. Vincent & the Grenadines are pretty ordinary. They've failed even to make the final 8 (!) of the Caribbean Cup the last four times out. Their one and only success in the tournament was back in 1995, when they reached the Final before going down to Trinidad & Tobago. True, they've been beaten out by some solid teams--St. Lucia, St Kitts & Nevis, Martinique--but that's hardly an excuse. Remember, if we're talking recent World Cup history, this is one of the best teams in the region.

        But this is the World Cup, and a look at the record shows that St. Vincent & the Grenadines do one thing very very well: they win WCQ aggregate knockout ties. In the 1994 cycle, they beat St. Lucia 3:2, then Surinam 2:1. Boom, they were in the semifinal round. In the 1998 cycle, they routed Puerto Rico 9:1, then beat St. Kitts & Nevis on away goals. Bam, there they were again. In the 2002 cycle, they beat US Virgin islands 14:1, then St. Kitts & Nevis 3:1, then Antigua & Barbuda 5:2. Three in a row. Simple, really.

        But look closely at those scores. Do you see a first rate opponent--even a first-rate Caribbean opponent? Where's Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago? In fact, if you examine the qualifiers closely, you see how incredibly lucky St. Vincent & the Grenadines have been. Back in the 1994 cycle, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago had to face each other, while SVG got Surinam. In 1998, Haiti got stuck with Cuba, Barbados with Jamaica, but SVG had only St. Kitts & Nevis. In 2002, their third round--third round!--opponent was only Antigua & Barbuda, who got there themselves on a walkover against Guyana and a mere away goals win over Bermuda. Meanwhile, Haiti was stuck with Trinidad & Tobago, and Cuba and Barbados were matched against each other.

        And The Luck Of The Vincents (And The Grenadines) stretches all the way back to their one Caribbean Cup achievement, that second place in 1995. In a final tournament of 8, in their pool of 4, they were somehow matched with Cayman Islands, Antigua & Barbuda, and French Guyana. The other group had Trinidad & Tobago, Cuba, Jamaica, and St. Lucia. The next year, they made it to the final 8 again, but their group had some real quality: Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique. They finished last, and haven't been back since.

        We can't blame it all on luck. St. Vincent & the Grenadines are obviously better than the average Caribbean side, and they deserve credit for those two WCQ wins over St. Kitts & Nevis. They can't seem to beat SKN in the Caribbean Cup, but those things happen. A jinx, perhaps. Overall, though, you have to admit that St. Vincent & the Grenadines have been amazingly fortunate over the years.

        And their luck is continuing. Boy, is it continuing. In 1994 and 1998, they had to win two series to get to the semifinals. In 2002, they had to win three. But in the current cycle, they have to win only one. Only one. And do they play Cuba? Or Haiti? Or even St. Kitts & Nevis? No--they play Nicaragua.

        Nicaragua's place here is a story in itself. The pinoleros are from Central America, and we all know that Central American football can be good. Just not in Nicaragua. You see, the Nicaraguans are baseballers. If it doesn't involve a bat, a ball, and a pine tar rag, they don't care. Besides Belize, they're the only Central American nation who has never hosted the Copa UNCAF. And now it's time for some Nicaragua statistics. In their 7 appearances in the Copa UNCAF, against their fellow Central Americans, here's the tally:

       Games played:   18
       Games won:       1
       Games drawn:     0
       Games lost:     17
       Goals for:       7
       Goals against:  63
        But how about that win, huh? It was during the 2003 tournament, and it came against host Panama. I watched that game: Panama had possession for something like 80 out of the 90 minutes, and by my count had one hundred and forty-seven scoring chances. Nicaragua had exactly one scoring chance, and right on schedule, they converted it for the win. But a legitimate win, right? Nope--the goal was, in fact, offside. And it was the only goal they scored in all 5 tournament games.

        So what are they doing here, one step from the round of 12, playing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, of all teams? As noted, Nicaragua, like Belize, were exempted from the opening round of knockouts, for no other reason than they were Central American. By FIFA ranking, which was how the draw was structured, they should have been forced to play. And then, in one of the most outrageous decisions in the history of World Cup qualifying, they (and Belize) were deliberately drawn against a pool of the weaker bye teams. And as luck would have it, they drew the weakest of them all, St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

        How do you handicap a tie like this? In the past, CONCACAF's preliminary qualifiers have been zonal, so Nicaragua has always been matched against their fellow Central American teams. In their last six World Cup qualifying games, two each against Guatemala, Panama, and Honduras, they've scored 1 goal, allowed 13. But Nicaragua has never played a tournament game of any kind against a Caribbean team.

        There's a scattering of friendlies in recent months, if that helps. They drew a couple of games with Haiti (not bad); they split four games with Bermuda, winning two at home, losing two on the road (OK). Ask the players, and they'll tell you this is the best- organized runup Nicaragua has ever had, and that the team has never been stronger. But is Haiti their true level? Is Bermuda? Who knows?

        As for St. Vincent & the Grenadines, they've played Central American teams several times in the CONCACAF semifinal round. If you go back to the stats at the beginning of this section, you can guess the results: as a sample, in the last cycle, 1:2 and 1:7 vs. El Salvador, 0:6 and 0:7 vs. Honduras. But that's El Salvador and Honduras. Nicaragua is much easier meat.

        And here's one more stat. St. Vincent & the Grenadines have played a few recent friendlies: against St. Lucia (2:1 win on the road, 1:1 draw at home) and Grenada (1:1 draw on the road). Before that, they had played exactly zero games for more than three years. How the heck can you read a team like that?

        So it's your call: I'm not sticking my neck out. I haven't the slightest clue how this one will go. All I know is that either Nicaragua or St. Vincent & the Grenadines will be in the CONCACAF final 12--and I despair for my confederation.


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