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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, Semifinal Group Stage

    by Peter Goldstein

            It's all World Cup all the time here in CONCACAF, 44 games down, 66 (plus 2 in the playoff) to go. We're in the semifinal round, 3 groups of 4, with the top two in each group advancing to the Hexagonal. Nothing like a 4-team group for excitement: with only 6 games on the schedule, every point is vital. (Of course, only one of the groups looks competitive, but we'll try to forget that for the moment.) The teams open play on August 18, except for Mexico and St. Kitts & Nevis, whose opener was pushed back because the Mexican FA is still laughing about the draw.

        Our second round preview looked at the teams from a broad perspective; the wrapup went over the second round ties. Now it's down to business: tactics, lineups, matchups, the nuts and bolts, guaranteed to make you a devoted CONCACAF fan. (Most of us are in therapy, but don't let that bother you.) The next update will be in September, after three rounds of games. Two quick notes: 1) in most cases players' clubs are listed only if they play outside their home country; 2) although I haven't seen this confirmed, I read FIFA regulations to say that players who got two yellows in the knockouts will be suspended for the opener.

    Group A--The Group of Relative Sanity

        When the draw came out, this looked like a nicely balanced group. The USA may have been a clear favorite, but Jamaica was certainly no minnow, and while Panama was a longshot, El Salvador looked capable of a surprise. As things have turned out, though, the group looks topheavy. Jamaica has gone up, El Salvador down, and although Panama is improved, you can't pick against the Yanks and the Reggae Boyz. But hey, this is CONCACAF, and we'll take it. Groups B and C are, each in their own way, ridiculous, and it's a relief to have something relatively sane to start off with. So let's go.


        It's been a good twelve months for USA soccer. In the three most important friendlies, they beat a decent European team on the road (1:0 at Poland), performed acceptably against a top-class eleven (0:1 at a full-strength Holland), and thumped those guys dressed in green from south of the border (1:0, but it wasn't that close). In the WCQ they eased past Grenada without too much fuss. In February the U-23's were knocked out of the Olympics, but go back into 2003 and the U-17's and U-20's both did well in the FIFA Championships.

        The individual news is pretty good, too. Tim Howard continues the insidious colonial takeover of the EPL, and if no one else has been quite as successful, most of the regulars are getting playing time in Europe. With the recent signing of DaMarcus Beasley by PSV Eindhoven, nine of the ideal starting eleven earn their living in the Old World. Only Eddie Pope and Landon Donovan play in MLS, and Donovan, the most gifted of all the outfield players, looks headed to Germany after this season. All of which means that while the USA is still 15-20 years from being as good as their FIFA ranking, they're still a strong favorite to qualify for Germany, and a prohibitive favorite to advance from this group.

        That's actually news, because the semifinals have traditionally been a tough go for the USA. In both 1998 and 2002 they wound up in the group of death with Costa Rica and Guatemala, and labored heavily to clinch qualification. In fact, four years ago they were 30 minutes from not making it at all: needing a win at Barbados on the final day, they were scoreless until the 63rd minute, and although they eventually ran out 4:0 winners, it was an uncomfortably close call. But this year the group looks manageable: although Kingston isn't an easy place to play, the USA has never lost to Jamaica on any field anywhere, and Panama and El Salvador don't have the bite of Costa Rica or Guatemala.

        That's not to say that the USA has all its problems solved. The fullbacks in the usual 4-4-2 have been a weak spot for a while. Steve Cherundolo (Hannover) is the best at right back; he's small, which could be a problem against teams like Jamaica, but he's quick, gets forward well, and is a good crosser on a team generally lacking that skill. On the left it looks like Greg Vanney (Bastia), a solid but unexceptional all-rounder. Carlos Bocanegra, an excellent young talent, plays left-back for Fulham, but is more naturally a centerback: slow but strong, and good in the air. Frankie Hejduk and Bobby Convey (Reading) have played on the left, but neither is a natural. If Bruce Arena puts Bocanegra on the left, the centerback roles will likely be filled by Eddie Pope and Cory Gibbs. Pope has never really fulfilled his early promise, but at 30 still has pace and overall athletic skills. Gibbs is less mobile, but a solid man-marker: in the Holland friendly, he did an exceptional job on none other than Ruud van Nistlerooy.

        In midfield there's again strength coupled with uncertainty. Landon Donovan is probably the best midfielder in CONCACAF: fast, creative, excellent on the ball, he's best either on the right or at the point of a diamond. His one weakness is at the kill, where he's been known to waste a chance or two. On the left side is Beasley, an all-out two-way 90-minute man, very fast, who loves to go right at people, but is an indifferent crosser and finisher. He's backed up by Eddie Lewis (Preston), the flip side: only average pace, but he uses space effectively, and can cross and score. Claudio Reyna (Manchester City) at 31 remains an excellent linkman, reading the game beautifully and passing accurately. The fourth spot is open. The best choice would be John O'Brien (Ajax), agile and creative, but he's almost never healthy enough to play. Chris Armas is passable, and Pablo Mastroeni more than that, but both are purely defensive midfielders. Clint Mathis (Hannover) is a possibility as a pure attacker: he isn't the star he was three years ago, but can still deliver the occasional flash of brilliance.

        Up front, veteran Brian McBride (Fulham) is a sure starter as target man: he's still strong in the air and is a reliable finisher. The other slot could be filled by Josh Wolff, a pure striker, pacy and inventive, or Mathis in a withdrawn role, or possibly even Donovan withdrawn as well. Arena has also tried centerforward Conor Casey (Mainz) in a twin-towers setup with McBride; right now he's injured, but eventually might get a look in against the smaller Latin American teams.

        Not much to say about the keeper position. Brad Friedel (Blackburn), Kasey Keller (Tottenham), Tim Howard (Manchester United): probably no team in the world, much less CONCACAF, has that kind of depth. Friedel, the official number one, is coming back from a thigh injury and might not be ready for the opener. Keller, with his big game experience, is the logical substitute, but no one will complain if Howard gets the nod.

        The USA generally wins with hard work rather than inspiration, but in this group they simply have the most talent. Injuries may be a problem: Pope, Reyna, O'Brien, Mathis, Wolff, and McBride always seem to have a knock of some kind. But there's more than enough depth for a top-two finish. Because the tougher games come early (3 out of the first 4 on the road), they may not clinch a spot until near the end. But this time they shouldn't have to sweat the last 30 minutes.


        You have to wonder what they're thinking down in Jamaica. Judging by results, the team looks stronger than they have in years. In the runup to the WCQ, they scored wins against Uruguay (2-0) and Venezuela (2-1). Then, faced with a difficult tie against Haiti, they took it just the way you're supposed to: a gritty draw on the road and a convincing victory at home. All's well in Reggae Land, you'd think. And yet, only a few weeks before the semifinals, starting against the USA no less, they hire a new coach. And not just any new coach, but Sebastian Lazaroni of Brazil.

        OK, so they got to the World Cup in 1998 with a Brazilian (Rene Simoes), and they're trying it again. Makes sense, sort of. But Lazaroni? Do they actually know who they're getting? The Jamaica Observer, in its lead article, reported that Lazaroni "was credited [with] introducing the five-man midfield philosophy to the Brazilian game which paid dividends for the five-time world champions in 1994." Um, no. He was credited with introducing the five-man midfield that BORED everyone to death and got Brazil their earliest exit of the last NINE World Cups. At a stretch, you could argue he pioneered a defensive attitude that Carlos Alberto Parreira brought to fruition in 1994--but Parreira played a four-man midfield, not five. And Parreira won the Cup, not Lazaroni.

        So history isn't Jamaica's strong point--but at least they should remember what Lazaroni did last time he was in town. That's right, Lazaroni himself once coached the Reggae Boyz. Don't remember it? Here's why: he lasted only 3 months. Back in 2000 he led the team to 1 draw and 4 losses, then quit because he couldn't get players to commit to the squad. What's wrong with this picture?

        The move might make some sense if Jamaica were struggling. But by any standard, Carl Brown has done an excellent job so far. The results are more than adequate, and he's integrated some important new players into the squad. True, he'll stay on as assistant coach and overall technical director of the program. But his hand won't be on the tiller. Lazaroni has a good record at club level, but he's never had to qualify for the World Cup with a team that wasn't named Brazil.

        So is there any justification for the switch? Maybe the inevitable one: money. The team needs corporate sponsorship, and the big donors haven't been lining up. Brown himself said that a famous name like Lazaroni might bring more people on board. In fact, Brown had recommended Lazaroni as technical adviser for the Haiti series--but of course Jamaica did fine without him. Oddly enough, the press reaction to the move has been favorable: they've been bashing Brown for years, so they can't exactly backpedal now. And who knows? Maybe he really is the perfect man for the job. But from here it's hard to see.

        We don't know how the team will set up under Lazaroni, but let's try to run down the possibilities. Keeper will almost certainly be Donovan Ricketts, with his big wingspan and quick reactions. If it's a three-man back line, the likeliest trio are Ian Goodison (Tranmere), Claude Davis (Preston), and Damian Stewart. Goodison is the veteran of the 1998 squad; at his best he was a commanding and mobile sweeper. A little less agile now at 31, he can still lead the line effectively. Davis is a big, steady central defender, a stay-at-home type; Stewart is more athletic, tends to challenge attackers more, and is very good in the air. The great new find is Garfield Reid, who's just been loaned to Ham Kam in Norway. He anticipates well, is very good on the ball, and has a powerful shot; he figures as wingback or fullback on the left side. He got a red card in the second game against Haiti, though, and will be unavailable for the USA game. Craig Ziadie (Metrostars), solid and unfussy, can play right back.

        Veteran Tyrone Marshall (LA Galaxy) can also play on the back line, but is best at holding midfield: he reads the game well and is an excellent tackler. He had one of the best games of his career in the friendly against Uruguay. Other defensive-oriented midfielders are Ricardo Gardner (Bolton), Micah Hyde (Burnley), and Fabian Davis. Gardner has the most attacking potential of the three, and might fill in for Reid at left wingback against the USA. For creativity in the midfield there's Theodore Whitmore and Andy Williams (Chicago Fire). Both are excellent dribblers, and Whitmore can be quite dazzling at times; Williams, though, is the better passer and playmaker.

        Longtime target man Onandi Lowe is off the squad due to UK drug charges, but there's plenty of attacking talent available. Right now the main man is UK-born Marlon King, just recruited from Nottingham Forest, who scored a hat trick against Haiti. He's a natural predator, and can deliver the telling pass as well. Ricardo Fuller (Preston) is an outstanding dribbler who plays best cutting in from wide, but he's had chronic knee injuries (he recently failed a medical from Portsmouth) and may not be ready for the opener. Youngster Damani Ralph (Chicago Fire) played well in the Haiti series; he's excellent in possession, but still has to learn to pass. Others include Fabian Taylor (Metrostars), who has muscle and is a natural finisher, and Jermaine Johnson (Oldham), the most spectacular of all when he goes at his man.

        On paper this looks like the deepest Jamaican side ever, and maybe the best. They combine strength and technique, experience and freshness. There are two main weaknesses: 1) they have yet to perform consistently on the road; 2) some of the veterans are a little past their prime. If Lazaroni fits in, they should have no trouble at all advancing from this group. If he doesn't, they may still scrape through, but hopefully will study their history a bit more closely next time.


        They were actually smiling for a while in El Salvador. After a string of poor results, culminating in a desperate struggle with Bermuda, they went to Argentina for some friendlies against South American club teams. Tachira: 0:0 draw. Independiente: 0:3 and 0:1 losses. Racing: 1:0 win. Hallelujah! The word was that their pressing game had come together, and the team had adapted to a faster style of play. Goal-scoring was still a worry, but at long last the boys could hold their heads up, if not exactly high, at least at horizon level.

        Then they got back home and were creamed 0:4 by Honduras. Not even a full-strength Honduras--no Suazo, DeLeón, Alvarez, or Guevara. By the second half the Salvadoran crowd was shouting "Olé!" for Honduras (which is like Real Madrid fans shouting "Olé!" for Barcelona). Juan Ramón Paredes needed police protection as he left the stadium. Elias Antonio Saca, the new president of El Salvador, said that things will have to change soon.

        Good luck to him. Face facts: El Salvador just isn't that good anymore. The game against Honduras doesn't mean much by itself (except psychologically), but right now they're not up to top regional competition. They lost a couple of days later 0:2 to Guatemala in the USA. Of course, you never know until they play, and we don't have to bury them just yet. But the last two results have been major disappointments, particularly since Paredes had called back a number of veterans to help stabilize the squad.

        One of the old hands is Mario Elias Guevara, a regular in the 2002 WCQ, who is the most likely candidate for the left side of the 3-man defensive line. He's 33 now, and not terribly fast, but positions himself well and is a good man-marker. He figures to join Marvin González and Víctor Velásquez in the side's most consistent unit. Velásquez, who usually plays on the right, is probably the team's best player: solid in the air, he's quick, covers a lot of ground, bodies up to his man well, and is very good at anticipating passes. González is a similar player, a bit smaller, and perhaps not quite as good at reading the game, but still a reliable regular. If Guevara tires, one possibility is Erick Dawson Prado, a combative type who can play in the back line or at defensive midfield.

        In the past Paredes preferred a 3-4-3, but now he seems to have decided on a 3-5-2, with two wingbacks, a double pivot, and one attacking midfielder. The recalled veteran here is Jorge "El Zarco" Rodríguez, a defensive midfielder who dates back to the 1998 qualifiers. He can lay back and accompany the more active Gilberto Murgas in the pivot. Murgas is a solid holding player, with good technical skills and the ability to move up and distribute if necessary. For the lone attacker the battle is between Ernesto Góchez and Victor Merino "El Pega" Dubón. Góchez is the incumbent, a smooth playmaker, good at both the short and long pass. Dubón is an interesting story: he started his career in Finland, of all places (3 years with FC Jazz), but has been home the last few years without getting a call-up. He finally came to Paredes' attention during the Argentine tour. He's good in creating space and opening the game up with passes to the wings; maybe a bit better than Góchez on the dribble, but rougher around the edges overall.

        The wings are one of Paredes' chief concerns--his system requires significant contribution from the wingbacks in both attack and defense, and they've been inconsistent. On the right is William Torres, an interesting player: when in form, he's very neat in positioning and good in defense, with quick feet, and can get forward and cross effectively. On the left is Alfredo Pacheco, who began his career as a defender. He's a little less precise than Torres: he has a hard shot, can make the remarkable play, but at times leaves gaps going forward. On their day, both can contribute, but neither is the kind of game-breaker the team needs.

        The striker situation is, to put it kindly, a disaster. The team just can't score goals, and Paredes has tried half the population of El Salvador without any success. How desperate is he? He recently recalled naturalized Brazilian Nildeson de Mello "Nenei," a mere 35 years old. In his day Nenei was known for his great moves and finishing skills; whether he can do it now is anyone's guess. At least Ronald Cerritos is back in the fold: often accused of putting club over country, and left out for most of the runup, he's returned from the USA to join local club Alianza. He's best in a withdrawn role, where he can use his technical skills to run at defenders and create possibilities for his teammates.

        With his experience and talent, Cerritos is a good bet to start. But who will fill the second spot, or both spots if Cerritos falters, is impossible to predict. A logical partner is Honduras-based Diego Mejia (Motagua), a centerforward type, good in the air, who could be on the end of crosses from the wing. But El Salvador's group opponents are fairly big teams, and someone quicker, like Rudis Corrales, might be in order. Then there's José "Chepe" Martínez, not too fast but with decent skills, who on his day is the team's best finisher. But to be honest, anything is possible.

        At least the keeper spot looks OK. The number one, Juan José "El Halcón" Gómez, is very good, especially impressive coming off his line. He's been battling injuries on and off, though, and right now is a question mark. But number two is Santos Rivera, who had a fine Argentina trip, with some excellent saves and good command of the area, and looks ready to step in if necessary.

        El Salvador will obviously have to be at their best to survive in this group. Overall they tend to be too passive, laying back hoping for things to happen. With nothing really to lose, maybe they'll be willing to be more aggressive, take a few risks. If nothing else, it'll help the team mentally. But unless Lazaroni fouls up badly at Jamaica, qualification is unlikely. Salvadoran pride demands they finish ahead of Panama, and the battle in the group should be for third place.


        Panama is the unknown in this group. Although it's their third straight semifinal spot, they've never made much impact this late in the competition. But last September a Colombian by the name of José "Cheché" Hernández blew into town, and since then, Panama has looked improved at all levels. The Olympic squad beat Canada and threw an unholy scare into the USA, coming from 3 goals down before losing 4:3. The senior squad has yet to lose in five friendlies against Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador--OK, they're just friendlies, but Panama is supposed to be a cut below the rest of the region. And then there was the 7:0 aggregate hammering of St. Lucia. The islanders may not have been in good form, but Panama did better than Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and even the USA over opponents of comparable ability.

        So Panama's worth a look at. Hernández himself is quite a character: despite the relatively low-pressure environment, he's alienated the press by asking them to submit their questions in advance. He's thoroughly revamped the squad, keeping a couple of greybeards, but borrowing freely from the U-23's. Five of the starters against St. Lucia were on the roster in the Olympic qualifiers. It's a side that isn't long on skill, and compensates with physical play--too physical, say some opponents. (Can't wait for the games against Jamaica.) But the team has a hungry air, and the results have been consistently solid. So who are these guys?

        Let's start from the back and go forward. Keeper is a traditional strength in Panama, probably for the same reason as in the USA: lots of baseball and basketball, lots of training in hand-eye coordination. The main man is Ricardo James, a veteran with 11 years at Platense in the Honduran league. Just last week he made a couple of acrobatic saves in a friendly against the catrachos, and the press smiled knowingly. Donaldo González (Marathon), another Honduran league regular, is also available.

        Hernandez goes with a 4-4-2, and three of the back-line regulars were members of the Olympic team. The top prospect is centerback Felipe Baloy (Gremio), who to my knowledge is the first Panamanian to land a regular role in a first division team in Brazil. He's strong, aggressive, and good in the air, if a little slow, and as befits a Gremio player, a bit of a hard man. His regular partner in the middle is Carlos Rivera, the one overage player in the unit, hardworking but with average skills. The regular fullbacks are a complementary pair. On the right is Victor Miranda: he too is known for physical, even clumsy play, and although he gets forward at times he's more a defender than attacker. Luis Henríquez, on the left, is more stylish, more of a threat moving up, and has a very hard shot.

        Midfield is probably the weakest unit on the squad. Lacking a genuine playmaker, Hernández tends to play it conservatively against tougher opponents. His best defensive midfielder is Gábriel Gómez, who has played in Colombia--yet another player who's known to pick up a yellow card now and then. At times they go with a second defensive-oriented midfielder, either Manuel Torres or U-23 Engin Mitre. If they want a central distributor, the best hope is probably William Aguilar from the U-23 side. Alberto Blanco (Sheriff Tiraspol), one of several Panamanians who've played in Moldova, will probably start somewhere. He's an attacking midfielder with a good long-range left-footed shot. Other attacking options are Julio Medina, small and lively, and Luís "El Matador" Tejada, striker for the Olympic side but midfielder here, who scored twice against St. Lucia.

        Up front is the ageless Julio César Dely Valdés. Having played in the first division in Italy, France, and Spain, he's back home, the king of Panama. They love him so much they couldn't wait to stage his celebratory farewell game--a full year before he planned to retire. At 37, he still has excellent technique, still fights for every ball, still knows how to finish. His most likely partner is the experienced Ricardo "El Patón" Phillips, who may be on his way to Platense in Honduras. He's a big, straight-ahead striker with a surprisingly good passing touch, useful in the air. Other possibilities include Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown, an ex-Moldovan legionnaire, similar in style. The younger option is José Luís "El Pistolero" Garcés, a tall, angular player with a touch of guile.

        How good is Panama? Probably not good enough to qualify from this group. The USA is beyond their reach, and Jamaica can match them physically and beat them technically. Plus, without a rabid following, their home advantage may be somewhat diluted. But under Hernández no one will take them lightly--and you can be sure they've got El Salvador worried.

    Group B--The Group of You've Got To Be Joking

        Since December CONCACAFers have been staring at this group, partly in fascination, partly in horror. Maybe it wasn't real, maybe it would go away if we didn't think about it. Maybe Belize or Surinam would break up the illusion. Maybe at the very last moment Jack Warner would pop his head out of his office to say "Just kidding, guys!" Maybe a meteor would hit something somewhere.

        But it's August, and there's no avoiding it now. Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Canada: half the quality teams in the confederation in one pool, with only two surviving. To top it off, two of the teams, the natural favorites, had to scramble to find new coaches only weeks before the competition. Bizarre, absurd, outrageous--and riveting. Want to separate the CONCACAF expert from the impostor? Just ask them to predict the group B results and standings. If they come out with a detailed analysis and a confident prediction, they're a fraud. The expert will tell you the truth: no one has a clue.


        Might as well start with Costa Rica, top seed and nominal favorite. The good news is that Steve Sampson is gone. The bad news is they'll have to adjust to a new coach and a new system in a very short time. Jorge Luis Pinto caught a major break with the Copa America, where he could get acquainted with his charges against high-level competition. Despite missing top players Paulo Wanchope and Gilberto Martínez, the team played well at times, and got a thrilling last-second win over Chile to advance to the second round. But it was the only game they won. They were unlucky to lose to the Paraguay U-23's, but were hammered by Brazil and outclassed by Colombia. It's a team with a lot of work to do.

        The first job will be to find a keeper. Ricardo González made some excellent reaction saves at the Copa America, but on crosses he was--let's put this gently--horrendous. And Olympic keeper Adrian de Lemos, a strong candidate to take over the position, has a knee injury and won't even make it to Athens. So it's either González or Jose Francisco Porras. Someone has to step up soon.

        The larger question, though, is tactics. Last time we noted that the ticos weren't comfortable with four at the back, Pinto's favorite system. At the Copa he mostly played a European-style 4-2-3-1, with two defensive midfielders and a playmaker in the middle of the line of three. It's a very unfamiliar setup for Costa Rica, who in the past have preferred three at the back with only one defensive midfielder and two playmakers. In Peru the team managed some good midfield combinations, but never seemed to have enough players up in attack.

        Now just because Costa Rica isn't used to this setup doesn't mean they can't get it to work. The problem is that their personnel doesn't seem to fit the system. The likely starting centerbacks are Luís Marín and Mauricio Wright, but both are natural sweepers, rather than centerbacks. (Wright, 33, may also be too old.) They're slowish, read the game well, but aren't exceptional markers, although Marín has his moments. In Peru they seemed off-balance, and were several times beaten by simple runs. Nor does the squad have two natural fullbacks. Gilberto Martínez (Brescia), the best of the back line, definitely can play right back: he's a vigorous marker, and can pass and get forward effectively when necessary. But there's no natural left back: Leo González, a natural centerback in a 3-man line, was repeatedly exposed at the Copa when he tried to go forward. Carlos Castro is more a wingback than a defender. And if Pinto needs Martínez to stabilize the middle, he doesn't have a good right back: Try Bennett is only average, and Harold Wallace, again, is more of a wingback.

        The next line forward, the double pivot, is more promising. Douglas Sequeira is a coming man at D-mid; he doesn't read the game perfectly as yet, but covers a lot of ground, is a hard tackler, and can occasionally move up in attack. His partner in Peru was Cristian Badilla, fairly ordinary, but Pinto appears to have convinced veteran Mauricio Solís, 31, to come out of international retirement. Solis is a combative, resourceful player, with power and technique, one of the best defensive midfielders in CONCACAF over the last decade. He's still doing the job at club level, and will be a most valuable addition.

        The line of 3 is another problem. The system requires a top distributor in the middle, and/or good natural wingers on the outside. Walter Centeno is the best playmaker they have: he's good on the ball, and can score to boot, but tends to slow things down too much, and has never shown the leadership to run an attack by himself. Youngster Alonso Solís is a good dribbler but no playmaker. Here too Pinto has tried to persuade veterans to give it a go. Wilmer López, 33, one of the standouts at Korea/Japan, declined the call. But Jafet Soto, who--stop me if you've heard this before--quit the team a year ago in a dispute with Steve Sampson, said he'd return. He's only 28, and has some pedigree: time in the Mexican league, over 40 caps for the national team. But he wasn't good enough to get a spot on the 2002 WC roster, when Centeno and Lopez played together.

        The wings may also be a worry. There's a natural winger on the right, Steven Bryce, fast and aggressive, although technically only fair. But that's all. The other attackers are really strikers, not wingmen: maybe Winston Parks (Lokomotiv Moscow) could give it a go, but not Andy Herron or Ronald Gómez. And there's something definitely wrong with a system that has no place for Gómez. He's a strong, skilful striker with a powerful shot, who can play up front or in a withdrawn role. He's a natural left-footer, but simply doesn't have the pace to play the wing. Paulo Wanchope (Manchester City), tender knees and all, will be ready for the opener; with his dazzling ball skills and creativity, he can be an outstanding point man. But to my knowledge he's never worked in this system either, and unless he has effective support, his talent will be wasted.

        In fact, if Pinto prefers 4 at the back, the most logical system is a 4-4-2, with which Wanchope and Gómez would be more comfortable. With Bryce at right midfield, maybe Castro at left, plus a defensive midfielder and a central playmaker, it's a plausible setup. Pinto in fact used a 4-4-2 in the game against the Paraguay U-23's, and it was one of the team's better efforts.

        Now my analysis may be dead wrong. I'm just a fan, and if I knew what I was talking about I'd be coaching myself. (Actually, I wouldn't. You have to be crazy to be a coach.) But there's no doubt the 4-2-3-1 is an alien system, and if Pinto sticks to it, the team will be learning on the job. This is the Group of Protracted Dental Surgery, and there is absolutely no margin for error. The opener is home to Honduras, and unless Costa Rica is ready, they could find themselves in immediate trouble. They have as much individual talent as any team in the group, but what matters is putting it together cohesively. If Pinto pulls it off, it'll be a first-class coaching achievement. If he doesn't, it'll be a first-class something else.


        Honduras is another team that will have to adjust--although fortunately not quite as much. When Bora scarpered they quickly signed two of his assistants, Raúl Martínez Sambulá and Juan Carlos Espinoza, to serve as co-coaches. Both men are former Honduras internationals, and both have coached at league level. Sambulá is first among equals; he's certainly the one named most frequently as the man at the helm. So far he's been sticking with a basic 4-4-2, pretty much what Bora used.

        He inherits a squad that is one of Honduras' strongest ever. There are questions on defense, but overall plenty of talent and experience, with legionnaires on four continents. Except for the second leg against the Antilles, the team was quiet under Bora, but when in form, they score in bunches. If Sambulá can get them ready, willing, and able, they're a natural pick to advance.

        The front line has skill, power, and more than anything, pace. We talked about David Suazo in the second-round wrapup: top scorer for Cagliari, he's ready for his first season in Serie A. Now coming into maturity, he might very well be the best striker in CONCACAF: strong, aggressive, very fast, technically solid, and with a first-rate eye for goal. Saul Martínez, who plays in China, was his partner in the Antilles series; he's not in Suazo's class, but he too can outrun most defenders, and is particularly effective on the wing. At the moment he has a knee injury, and may not be fit for the opener. Veteran Milton "Tyson" Nuñez is another speedster, darting and twisty; if he doesn't start, he should get lots of action a second-half substitute. Then there's Carlos Pavón (Morelia), another familiar face; certainly not slow, but not as fast as the others, he's a centerforward who does it with technique and classic finishing skills.

        Midfield is another strong unit. Édgard (sometimes spelled just Edgar) Alvarez, who has just joined Suazo in Cagliari, can play right back, but under Bora started at right midfield. He's certainly a natural for the spot: fast, explosive, good with the ball at his feet, and with an attacker's mentality. Another Italian pro is Julio César "Rambo" De León (Reggina), an old hand at 24: you don't get much defense from him, but he's equally good dribbling and passing, and has a powerful shot. Under Bora he played left midfeld, not his usual position, but he's that very rare bird, a genuine two-footer, and with Alvarez on the right and Amado Guevara in the middle, that's the logical spot. Guevara, who was recently named Most Valuable Player in the MLS All-Star Game, is a playmaker with good vision and technique, who can also put the ball in the net. He can disappear at times, though, and needs to assume command a bit more.

        The fourth midfield spot depends on how Sambulá wants to play it. Bora went with Maynor Suazo (Salzburg), a pure defensive midfielder, who joined Guevara in the middle. Sambulá could stick with Suazo, or replace him with Walter López, a star in recent friendlies, who might offer a bit more punch. Or he could include two of Suazo, López, and striker-turned-midfielder Jerry Palacios, and return Alvarez to right back. He could even put DeLeón in the middle with Guevara, and move Iván Guerrero (Peñarol) up from left back to play left midfield. Guerrero is another fine talent: quiet, precise, very good technically, not as exciting as Alvarez, but a real pro.

        If Guerrero stays in the back line, the team is set at fullback, with either Alvarez or young Mauricio Sabillón, who looks like a winner. He's big, anticipates well, and has a nice turn of pace; he still has to learn how to cross, though. Wilson Palacios and veteran Danilo Turcios (Tecos) are also possibilities there. The problem is in central defense. Bora went with youth, Victor Bernárdez and Maynor Figueroa, but neither was terribly convincing against the Antilles: slow, erratic clearances, only average positioning. (Figueroa, a bit more mobile, could be passable at left back if Guerrero moves to midfield.) Other candidates are Junior Izaguirre and Mario Beata; Izaguirre has been in and out of the lineup for a while without impressing, and Beata is a veteran brought back for experience's sake. They're also on the slow side, and neither is a long-term answer. Sambulá has even recalled Samuel Caballero (Nacional of Uruguay), who's been out of football for over a year with knee injuries. Last WCQ cycle he was one of the best in the region, but it's hard to know how much he can contribute now.

        The keeper should be Noel Valladares, the regular from the 2002 qualifiers. He was injured for the Antilles series, and sub Hector Medina was ordinary: good positioning, but passive and a little loose-handed. Valladares is a fine shot-stopper with good command of his area, and is the logical choice.

        As we've mentioned elsewhere, Honduras plays best when they're set free, and Sambulá has to be careful not to over-systematize. Some flexibility in the midfield, letting DeLeón and Guevara roam, will be particularly important. The back line is a worry. But man for man Honduras can play with anyone in the group, and they have a matchwinner in David Suazo. It may be the Group of Being Forced To Sit Through A Keanu Reeves Film Festival, but anything less than second place will be a disappointment.


        When Ramon Maradiaga took the Guatemala job in March, he knew that preparation time would be an issue. He just didn't know it would work to his advantage. With both Costa Rica and Honduras blooding new coaches, and Canada getting few friendlies, Guatemala has become the most stable team in the group. They have a set staff, set tactics, and a lineup with very few open spots.

        That's good, because Guatemala is the plebeian team of the group. They're the only side without a player in Europe. Nor do they offer much in the way of thrills: there's no Wanchope, Suazo, or even Iain Hume. What they do have is a classic Central American team: short on power, short on pace (except, oddly enough, in defense), long on skill, vision, and one-touch passing. They won't jolt you out of your chair, but they'll please you and interest you, and get results as well.

        Maradiaga plays a 4-4-2, with a back line that's the quickest in the group. They tend to rely on that quickness a bit too often, though, and sometimes don't mark as tightly as they should. The best of the bunch is centerback Pablo Melgar, who often plays fullback for his club: he's small but very quick to the ball, with great anticipation and reading, and a precise tackler. His partner will probably be Gustavo Cabrera, good in the air, as fast as any centerback you'll see, and quite spectacular when launching tackles. (In a recent league game he scored a true señor golazo on a flying volley off a set piece.) But he can't read the game like Melgar, and has been known to get caught out. At right back is Nestor Martínez, an unobtrusive player who is nevertheless very effective in attack, getting forward consistently, dribbling well, and reliable on crosses. The left back is veteran Denis Chen, very small, very quick: good on the ball, he too gets forward a lot, perhaps too much--like Cabrera, he's been known to get caught out of position. He's been fighting off injuries lately, but youngster Ángel Sanabria, yet another quick fullback, has looked good in relief.

        Midfield has some talented players, but is a little uncertain structurally. The problem is that the three best men are all at their best in the middle rather than on the wing. Freddy Thompson is the defensive midfielder, not terribly big or strong, but agile with quick feet. He's also a good passer with excellent vision, and can link defense and attack. Gonzalo Romero is the playmaker, slow but very smooth and intelligent. His work in the first Surinam game was excellent: realizing the wet pitch made the usual passes unreliable, he frequently lifted balls in the air to the forwards, one of which led to Guatemala's goal. Then there's Guillermo "Pando" Ramírez, good in both defense and attack, tall, with long strides and a powerful shot. He spent some time in Mexico, usually at attacking midfielder--here he often plays on the left. The one unclear spot is on the right. Mario "El Loco" Rodríguez is one of the few players on the team with genuine pace, but he's technically erratic; another option is José Zacarías Antonio, not as fast, but with better skills and tactical sophistication. Fredy García is the most creative of the three, and would probably start if healthy, but he's been injured, and it's not clear when he'll be available.

        The striker spots are set in stone with Dwight "El Tanque" Pezzarossi and Carlos "El Pescadito" Ruiz. Pezzarossi's nickname is a bit misleading: yes, he's big and powerful, but he's not just a battering ram. He covers a lot of ground, is a neat and creative passer, and has a surprisingly quick first step and turn. Ruiz is a natural partner. He's small, clever, technically sound--and can score like nobody's business. What he does best is hang around the penalty area, find space, get the ball, and put it in the net. He scores at crucial moments, too: in the semis four years ago he got an 88th minute goal for a draw with the USA, and an 87th minute goal to beat Costa Rica and force a playoff. These two have the spots so locked up that it's hardly worth mentioning alternatives, but in case of injury there's 1) skilled point man Mario "Coyote" Acevedo; 2) slow but steady Walter Estrada; 3) the fastest man on the team, and my favorite new name in CONCACAF: Tránsito Montepeque.

        That leaves keeper, which is a two-man battle between Miguel Klee and Ricardo Trigueño, sometimes known as Ricardo Trigueño Foster. Klee, coming off suspension for skipping training camp, has the edge: he's a bit better in command of his area and in dealing with crosses.

        Guatemala has drawn the short straw once again; in group C, they'd be the pick to advance, and in group A, an even bet. But in the Group of Surrounded By Flesh-Eating Zombies With Kitchen Implements, they don't quite have the individual talent of Costa Rica or Honduras, and will have to do it on teamwork. If truth be told, the squad hasn't yet come fully together under Maradiaga. The performances against Surinam were mediocre. But the potential is there, and the overall stability of the squad may help. They catch a bit of luck in the opener: although they're on the road, opponents Canada will have had less time together than any team in the group. If Guatemala come back from Vancouver with a point, you'll know they're ready to contend.


        At first glance Canada doesn't have much of a chance in this group. Although they're usually good for an upset or two in the Gold Cup (and actually won it in 2000), the team hasn't seriously contended for a WC berth since the 1994 cycle. They have to travel to three of the toughest places in the region. And the FA is, as usual, less than prepared: coming up to the opener against Guatemala, they won't have had a single full international since the Breeze Over Belize. So the smart money would tab them a longshot at best, a patsy at worst.

        But there's reason to think otherwise. This lineup is the best Canada has fielded in some time: several experienced European internationals, plus a set of genuinely exciting youngsters. Just as importantly, new coach Frank Yallop, appointed last December, seems to have them all on the same page, all happy to play for Canada. Under past coaches that hasn't always been so. Both Costa Rica and Honduras may need some time to adjust, and Guatemala, although solid, is by no means unbeatable. It's the Group of Three More Months Of Bush And Kerry, to be sure, but if Canada is ever going to challenge the best of Central America, the time is now.

        Most of the best talent is in the front half of the field. One of the strikers will be Tomasz Radzinski, who just left Everton for Fulham. He's got tremendous pace and, when in form, excellent finishing skills, but Everton fans will tell you he misses too many chances. There are several possibilities for the second striker. In the Belize games, Yallop chose 33-year-old Paul Peschisolido (Derby), who's been around almost as long as his name. He's quick, can cover a lot of ground, and can create as well as finish, although it's doubtful he can go 90 minutes every game. Another candidate is big Kevin McKenna (Hearts), one of the few internationals who can regularly play both striker and central defender. He's pretty slow, but tall, strong, and good in the air; he's a logical choice against the small Guatemala defense in the opener, if he gets over his tendonitis in time.

        The third possibility is Dwayne DeRosario (San Jose Earthquakes), quick, exciting with the ball at his feet, but with a tendency to dribble into trouble. He's a natural forward, but so far Yallop's been playing him as left midfielder. He hasn't fully adjusted to the position yet, but you need him in the lineup somewhere. If he plays striker, left midfield would probably be Jim Brennan (Norwich City), who has some pace and can also score.

        The rest of the midfield seems set. In the attacking role is young Julian de Guzman (Hannover), one of the great new finds. He's small, quick, technically strong, and with a playmaker's vision. He has the kind of aggressive approach that can drive a team. On the right is even younger, maybe even better, Iain Hume (Tranmere), another small, quick, inventive attacker. Like DeRosario, he's away from his natural position--his left foot is stronger, and he might be good in the middle, too--but again he has to be in the lineup, and doesn't have the high-level experience of DeGuzman in the center. Unfortunately he'll miss the opener due to a red card. Daniel Imhof (St. Gallen) is the holding midfielder; he won't add much to the attack, but is strong and closes well to the ball. Atiba Hutchinson (Helsingborgs), 21, is the man of the future there, and may very well see some time.

        The back line is strong on the outside. Top man is obviously Paul Staltieri, a regular with German double-winners Werder Bremen. He's played just about every position you can name, but Yallop appears to want him at right back, which is where he usually plays for his club. He's the classic all-rounder, with good ball skills, control, excellent vision, and the ability to cross. On the left side is Ante Jazic (Kuban), who has some pace and is potentially good on the overlap.

        The main weakness of the team is in central defense, which is too slow. Jason DeVos (Ipswich) isn't bad: he makes up for his lack of pace with intelligent positioning and reading. But there's a hole at the other spot. Yallop tried Mark Watson (Charleston) in the opener against Belize, and he had a poor game; Kevin McKenna, the sometime striker, is another possibility, as is veteran Tony Menezes, who's been out of the picture for a while. Whoever plays, the unit will be strong in the air--but that's not how the Central Americans come at you. Honduras' pace should be particularly troublesome.

        Keeper is another potential liability. Pat Onstad (San Jose Earthquakes) was named Keeper of the Year in MLS, but the best American keepers play abroad, and the award says more about the league than about Onstad. He's good in positioning, but even at his best is no more than an average shot-stopper, and at 36 his reflexes may be declining. Lars Hirschfield is younger, quicker, probably overall better, but he doesn't have a club right now, and as a result is short of match practice.

        Good strikers, quick midfield, slow central defense and suspect goalkeeping; the excellent side-by-side with the very ordinary. For a country like Canada, without a domestic first division, that's inevitable. Certainly it'll take an exceptional effort to qualify. The schedule would seem to give them an advantage, with consecutive home games (Guatemala and Honduras) to start. But the weather won't be quite the ally in August that it might be in November. Still, if they can get out of the chute quickly, they'll be in the thick of it--and don't be at all surprised if they hang around until the end.

    Group C--The Group of Why Bother

        Actually, I was going to call this the Group of Coordinate Conjunctions, because, you see, there's Trinidad AND Tobago, St. Kitts AND Nevis, St. Vincent AND the Grenadines, and "and" in grammarspeak is called a "coordinate conjunction," and I'm an English professor and it was sort of an English professor joke, and I'm really very lonely...

        But it doesn't matter what you call it, because any way it spells E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-M-E-N-T. I'm a big fan of the Caribbean teams, and it's great to see the Sugar Boyz and the Grenadiers with a shot at the Hexagonal, and I'm especially happy because I'm finally going to get to see them on TV, but there's no way to justify this one. So we won't try. But you can't help but wonder about the possibilities. If Mexico loses in the Caribbean, if T&T bombs out, if a ball actually rolls true for more than 15 yards on SKN's or SVG's home pitch, what will we do?

        An apology before we go on: it's hard to get full details on SKN and SVG (although a big thanks to Nick Warrick and the gang at for the inside info on SKN's Posh legionnaires). So the rundown won't be quite as comprehensive. But by this point even an English professor runs out of synonyms for "pacy," "aggressive," "not very good at all," etc. so it's probably just as well.


        There's all sorts of interesting stuff going on in Mexico--the Copa America rollercoaster, Ricardo LaVolpe's tactics, the young prospects at the Olympics, etc. But let's save it for the Hexagonal. After all, the only question in this group is whether the Tri will stay awake long enough to grab all 18 points. My guess is no: Mexico usually doesn't try all that hard at this stage of the competition. In both 1998 and 2002, they actually finished second, to Jamaica and T&T respectively. Of course, they'd have to lie down in front of a truck to finish second here, but they'll probably drop a couple of points somewhere.

        The draw won't necessarily work to their advantage. There's no way they can take this group seriously, and could easily lose their edge. In fact, you know they're not taking it seriously because:

    1) the home games won't be scheduled for the Azteca;
    2) Ricardo Lavolpe has said he's trying to quit smoking.

        Still, they can't just mail it in. The Mexican press is talking about St. Kitts & Nevis and St. Vincent & the Grenadines as if they were Dominica, which they most certainly are not. Both are a couple of levels above, and both will be able to hang with the Tri for a while, at least at home.

        But forget the team. Let's talk about the coach of Pumas, Hugo Sánchez, who's undergoing a delightful slow-motion psychological collapse. Hugo was a great player, and is a talented coach, but to put it mildly, he's a jerk, and has been sowing dissension since well before LaVolpe was hired. Hugo wanted the job himself, and he hates LaVolpe like Tottenham hates Arsenal. (It all goes back to the end of his career, when he played for LaVolpe and wasn't treated with sufficient deference.) When Pumas won the Clausura title, it inflated his already overlarge ego, and he's been fuming and proclaiming and stomping for anyone who'll pay attention. When Mexico was eliminated by Brazil at the Copa America, he publicly demanded LaVolpe's head, as well as the head of Eduardo de la Torre, president of the FA. He's simply aching for Mexico to fall on its face at the Olympics; anything less than a bronze, he says, means the leadership has to go. Right now he's even odds to spontaneously combust. If Mexico gets a medal, expect him to dissolve into a small pool of green liquid.

        Oh, and let's also mention Oswaldo Sánchez, the star keeper, who was a bit below par in Peru. When he was blamed by many for the loss to Brazil, he countered that the real problem was his teammates, who didn't have the "huevos" to do the job. (Check the word out on Babelfish, and you'll probably get the idea.)

        The squad? OK, a couple of paragraphs, if you insist. The side unveiled in Peru was a fascinating construct, with more than a hint of total football. Mostly they played a 3-4-3, but it was very fluid, with a lot of switching by the wing defenders and midfielders. In the middle there was an anchor man, either Rafael Márquez (Barcelona) or Gerardo Torrado (Sevilla), but often he went forward as well, and frequently found himself ahead of Pavel Pardo, the man nominally pushing the attack. Up front the setup was a bit more structured, with a point man and two wingers, but the wide men would cut inside frequently to allow the wing midfielders, and sometimes even the wing defenders, to overlap. It all looked very modern and very well-conceived.

        On the whole there were few surprises. Torrado and Márquez showed their class, the latter playing both defense and midfield. Pardo looked like the classic all-rounder, covering on defense, moving into attack, distributing to both sides. The revelation was Ricardo Osorio, a quick and intelligent right-sided defender who showed he could attack as well. On the negative side, back-line maestro Diulio Davino struggled, marking poorly and even getting beaten in the air, normally his specialty. The left-sided players, defenders David Oteo and Omar Briseño, and midfielder Octavio Valdez, seemed less effective than those on the right, including Osorio, defender/midfielder Salvador Carmona, and midfielder Héctor "Pity" Altamirano.

        Up front are some question marks. Jared Borgetti has done great service for the squad, but it may be time for him to give way. Adolfo "El Bofo" Bautista can't match him in the air, and doesn't have the instinctive passing skills, but he's a lot more mobile, can run at defenders, and can finish just as well. Both could play in a 2-man front line, but in a 3-man setup, Bautista may be better at the point. Then there are the wide men. Ramón Morales seems fine on the left, but Jesús Arellano on the right just isn't the player he used to be. At his best he was a thrilling pure winger, with pace, moves, and technique, but he doesn't have the magic anymore. The wildcard is the one and only Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who was suspended from the Copa America for inciting a riot after a loss in the Copa Libertadores. (Just another day's work for Cuauh.) He's not the player he used to be either, but can still be useful up front both scoring and creating.

        None of this will matter in the semifinals, of course. The sideshow will be the real show. Will LaVolpe decide to chuck it and go into social work? Will Hugo Sánchez raise a militia and march on the presidential palace? Will everyone's huevos be broken? Will Elena and Manuel escape the evil Paco and find happiness in Cuernavaca?


        For a small and not particularly affluent country, Trinidad & Tobago sure gets in a lot of foreign excursions. In March, a trip to play Egypt; in May, to the UK to play Iraq and Scotland; in July, accompanied by the Angostura Woodbrook Playboys Steel Orchestra, it was the Far East, to play Thailand and South Korea. Wonder if Jack Warner, CONCACAF president and native Trinidadian, is, shall we say, helping out with the arrangements?

        Of course, he couldn't have helped out with the draw (could he?), which handed T&T the easiest schedule since the infamous FC Trilobite scandal back in the Paleozoic. And that's good, too, because these days they need all the help they can get. The 1:1 draw at South Korea was a decent result, but the Soca Warriors haven't had many lately, and unlike Mexico, will need to pay close attention to get by the Caribbean contingent. Coach Bertille St. Clair has understandably been trying everyone he can find, which means that it's hard to get a read on how the team will set up.

        Start with keeper, though, since that seems to be a strong point. Veteran Clayton Ince (Crewe Alexandra) has excellent reactions and covers his area well; he was inconsistent at club level last year, but has been in good form for the national team. Even more veteran Shaka Hislop (Portsmouth) is available for backup.

        St. Clair has been playing a 4-4-2, with the back line a mixed bag. The key central defender is Marvin Andrews (Rangers), good in the air, very aggressive, not bad positionally; he's slow, though, and technically unsure. His partner for the Dominican Republic series was Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham), very tall, great work rate, but slow as well. Another possibility is Keyeno Thomas, big, with solid ball skills, again not too quick but with good anticipation. Thomas can also play on the right; other candidates there are teenager Kenwyne Jones (Southampton), a little faster than Thomas, but with a little less technique, and Brent Sancho (Dundee), strong, a hard tackler, technically sound. He sometimes plays defensive midfield at club level. The leading candidate for left back is young Marlon Rojas, who played college soccer in the USA; he's got pace (much needed in this unit) and a hard shot, is good on the overlap, but still has to learn positioning.

        The midfield has a lot of candidates but relatively few certainties. Unfortunately, Carlos Edwards (Wrexham), a possible starter, will miss the whole round with a knee injury. One difficulty is that there's no natural left-sided midfielder: St. Clair tried young Denzil Theobald during the Dominican series, and he scored a fine goal, but not until he had moved into the middle. Still, he looks like the most likely choice right now. On the right there's Brent Rahim (Falkirk), an attack-oriented player with a quick first step, good dribbling skills, and pace. In the center St. Clair has options with experience (Anthony Rougier, Angus Eve, Arnold Dwarika) and youth (Silvio Spann). Rougier is the most versatile of the choices, a natural linkman and tireless ball winner, and the best option at defensive midfield. Angus Eve and Arnold Dwarika (Beijing) are attacking types. Eve, at 31, is the dean of the midfield, a steady performer, still quick enough to run at defenders and disrupt the defense. Dwarika also likes to take on his man, and can pass and score as well, although he's a bit more erratic than Eve. Spann (Dinamo Zagreb) made the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers all-tournament team; he has good ball skills and a hard shot, and could be a candidate for Rougier's position. All four are likely to see action at some point, possibly on the right or left as well.

        Striker at least is more set. Stern John (Birmingham City) is the talisman: five years in England, he's an instinctive scorer, with both power and agility. He's the kind of striker who needs service, though, which puts considerable pressure on an inconsistent midfield. His partner will be either Cornel Glen (Metrostars) or Jason Scotland (Dundee). Glen, an impressive prospect at 22, is a natural finisher with pace and dribbling skills. Scotland has developed more slowly, but can go at the defense and is known for a powerful shot--hence his nickname, "Rocket."

        T&T hasn't had a really good result since the 2002 Gold Cup, when they drew with a full-strength Costa Rica. But even at their current level, they should be good enough to finish second. The first two games are critical: on the road to SVG and SKN. They haven't played the Grenadiners in tournament competition in a while, but against the Kittsians-Nevians they've won their last two: a November 2002 home Gold Cup qualifier (2:0), and an August 2003 match at the St. Kitts & Nevis Football Festival (2:1). A lot will depend on attitude. If they're focused, they should be fine (at least until the Hexagonal). If they think they can waltz through, they'll find themselves in a fight--and who knows what Jack Warner might do then.


        Even CONCACAF fans tend to lump St. Kitts & Nevis in with St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, etc. And in one sense they're right: all are roughly at the same level. But SKN is special, because of their size. They have a total population of about 40 thousand, making them by my count the fourth smallest country in CONCACAF, and the tenth smallest in all of FIFA. To compare, Bermuda has about 60K, Grenada 90K, St. Vincent & the Grenadines 120K, St.Lucia 160K, Barbados 275K. For further reference, there's Trinidad & Tobago, over a million; Jamaica, over two-and-a-half million; Mexico, over 100 million.

        That's truly remarkable. In fact, of all the countries in the region, St. Kitts & Nevis most consistently punches above its weight. Over the last 5 years, against the full spectrum of Caribbean competition, they have 19 wins, 12 losses, and 4 draws. That includes draws with Jamaica and Cuba, and wins over T&T and Haiti. Occasionally they get outclassed by one of the top teams, but they always thump the minnows, and play even or better with teams with a population base 3-4 times larger.

        How do they do it? I don't know. Their league is amateur, like the rest of the smaller countries. They don't even have a major youth program--in the few years they've competed in underage tournaments, their results are unremarkable. Maybe it's coaching, maybe athletic skill, maybe government support, maybe just caring more about the game. After all, there's no Grenada Football Festival or St. Vincent & the Grenadines Football Festival that I know of.

        And this year, as a reward, luck has favored them. Barbados in the knockout round, SVG and a struggling T&T in the group stage: if everything breaks right, they really could make the Hexagonal. What would happen then I don't want to think about--let's take it one round at a time. The big question for the squad is whether their new UK-born Peterborough United recruits, striker Callum Willock, midfielder Adam Newton, and defender Sagi Burton, will take part. All played key roles in the series against Barbados, but that was during the off-season in England. Willock and Newton have said that if a conflict arises, they'll choose club over country; Burton hasn't commented yet. Obviously their presence or absence will have a major impact on the team, which has few professional players.

        One of them is legend Keith "Kayamba" Gumbs (Sabah), who's been scoring for SKN since he was in his crib. He's played professionally in Greece, Trinidad, Hong Kong, and now Malaysia. He's a classic goal-poacher, who can score with both feet and his head; he has a tremendous workrate and a hard shot. If Callum Willock plays, he'll join Gumbs up front. He's tall, with pace and an eye for goal; on the down side, he needs to take on defenders more, and tends to hit the ground a bit too much. If Willock stays in England, it'll probably be young Ian "Rumpie" Lake (Tobago United), another speedster and artful finisher, with an amazing 7 goals to his credit in the series against USVI.

        The Sugar Boyz are also strong in midfield. Adam Newton is a swift right winger who can go at his man and is an excellent crosser. But even if he doesn't play, they've got several excellent attackers. George "Yellowman" Isaac, who played for W Connection in T&T last year, is small but very quick, with excellent technique, dazzling on the dribble. Veteran Austin "Dico" Huggins plays on the left side and offers vision and excellent passing ability. Darryl Gomez, now with Metro Lions in Canada, also has USA college and pro experience; he's listed as a forward for his club, where he takes set pieces and penalty kicks. Keithroy Saddler was a regular at defensive midfield for the USVI series; I'm not sure who played D-mid against Barbados, since SKN usually plays 4-4-2 and all four attacking midfielders were in the lineup.

        Sagi Burton, the third of the Peterborough players, is a tall, powerful central defender with a reputation as a bad boy. He has the worst disciplinary record at the Posh, and got off to an appropriate international start with a yellow card against Barbados. He's a possible threat on free-kicks, having scored for his club last season with a spectacular 30-yard job. Other regular defenders are Keithroy Eddy, Lance Lewis, and Thrizen Leader. Eddy and Leader were both members of the U-23's who played in the Olympic qualifiers. Olympic keeper Kaiyan Benjamin was in the nets for the USVI series, but Akil Byron took over against Barbados. Both Leader and Benjamin are reportedly headed to the USA with small-college scholarships.

        SKN have to be a sentimental choice here, even if their home stadium is named after Jack Warner. The Mexico postponement probably works against them: it would have been good experience going into the key second game, home to T&T. Also, Adam Newton got two yellow cards against Barbados, so even if he checks in, he'll miss the T&T game rather than the Mexico game. On the other hand, the change means SKN won't have to face Mexico until the last two games back-to-back. If they get hot early, there might be plenty of sugar for everyone.


        Here come St. Vincent & the Grenadines again, for the fourth straight cycle, ready to defend their honor (sort of) against the best in CONCACAF. But for once they won't have to face the best--and as a result they're another longshot pick to crash the Hexagonal. We've talked in prior articles about their incredible history: brilliant in the WCQ knockouts, mediocre or worse everywhere else. Eighteen semifinal round games, eighteen losses. With this crowd they'll break their duck, though, and maybe more. In recent years they have an even record with St. Kitts & Nevis, and the last time they played T&T they scored a 2:1 win, on the road no less. If second place isn't out of the question for SKN, it certainly isn't for SVG.

        Their trump card: they're the fastest side in the group, including Mexico. The stars of the team are up front, a collection of small, speedy forwards, all of whom can run into space and wreak havoc. The best is Julian Joachim (Leeds), a muscular 5 foot 6. He's a former England youth international with 11 years in English football, including 7 with Aston Villa in the Premier League. Rodney Jack (Oldham), 5 foot 7, is a bit older (31 to Joachim's 28) and lacks the pedigree, but he too has several years in the English leagues. A problem: both are settling with new teams, and may pick club over country. Jack has already said that for now, in case of conflict, he'll go with Oldham over SVG. Backup is provided by Jamal Ballantyne (USA pro and college experience) and Shandel Samuel, both of whom scored against Nicaragua, and both of whom impressed in recent trials at Bolton. Ballantyne can also play in midfield. Also in the frame at striker is Marlon James, a teammate of "Kayamba" Gumbs in Malaysia, tall, intelligent, good with the ball at his feet.

        The rest of the squad isn't quite as strong. Most of the midfielders who played against Nicaragua are old hands, veterans of the one and only SVG Gold Cup appearance, back in 1996 (so are Marlon James and Rodney Jack). Two of them, Kendal Velox and Wesley John, have played in the Trinidad & Tobago league. John has two yellows and will miss the opener; he's said to be playing in Portugal now, but I couldn't find confirmation. The others, Tyrone Prince and Kenlyn Gonsalves, appear to have had no pro experience.

        The 4-man back line has the one remaining European professional: centerback Wesley Charles, with four successful years at Bray Wanderers in Ireland. Born in Brighton, SVG, he's been called the "Brighton Bull": big, very strong, and good in the air. Another long-time pro is captain Ezra "Daddy Longlegs" Henderson (DC United), another Gold Cup alum, who's been in MLS for most of its existence. He can play right back or centerback; in his prime, he played midfield, could move forward and deliver a cross, and score on set pieces. Now, at 32, he's past his best days, and might struggle some on defense. Then there's Cornelius Huggins, another 1996 man with T&T and USA pro experience, and, depending who you ask, Matthew (FIFA official match reports) or Burton (SVG news website) Forde. My guess is that it's Burton, yet another 96er. The keeper is Melvin Andrews, but he has two yellows; Denroy Barker is the second string.

        It's amazing how many players on the squad were there 8 years ago. Not a good recipe for success, you'd think, but SVG was out of international football for nearly three years, from April 2001 to February 2004, and haven't had the chance to develop young talent. (I've been unable to find a definitive explanation for the absence, and an e-mail to the FA got no response.) With such a severe handicap, it's all the more impressive that they've picked up where they left off. St. Vincent & the Grenadines have a slogan: "it's not the size of the country, but the quality of the teamwork that counts." OK, so they need a new slogan writer. But the old players seem to be doing just fine. It's quite a story, really: the last hurrah for a group with a special place in WCQ history. After the opener, home to T&T, we'll have an idea how loud that hurrah can be.


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