World Cup 2006


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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, Hexagonal Final Round

    by Peter Goldstein

        Well, we made it. Almost a full year after Haiti opened the qualifiers by beating Turks & Caicos 5:0 (goals by Descollines (3), Peguero, and Wadson) we've reached the final round. We've survived hurricanes, labor disputes, and Sebastian Lazaroni. And on February 9th begins that beacon to the football world, the CONCACAF Hexagonal. You know the roll call: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago, USA.

        But we almost had an asterisk on that last one. As you undoubtedly heard, the USA got entangled in acrimonious contract negotiations between federation and players. Training camps and friendlies were cancelled, nasty names were called, and the FA recruited a bunch of "replacement players" to play the opener at T&T. The dispute's over, and it's not worth going into the details (hint: it involved money). But it's worth knowing that the players offered to play the T&T game while negotiations were proceeding, but the federation said no and locked them out of camp.

        I mention the point because it reflects an important change in this year's Hexagonal. This time around CONCACAF gets 3½ places instead of 3. Four years ago the fourth-place team was eliminated; now they go to a playoff against the fifth-place team from Asia.

        A small change? No--a gigantic one. Consider first that Asia is a notably weaker region than CONCACAF. We'll take a detailed look at the stats when the playoffs come in November, but trust me: by every available measure, CONCACAF is stronger. So unless one of the Asian giants somehow slips to fifth place, the CONCACAF representative should be a clear favorite.

        Now look at the top of the table. If the USA or Mexico falter, I guess either one could finish as low as fourth. After all, last time both teams came very close to finishing fourth. But last time fourth place for USA or Mexico meant elimination--this time it'll mean a playoff against an inferior opponent. In other words, for either team to miss out on Germany, they'd probably have to finish fifth -- and no matter how hard I try, I can't imagine that.

        The potential of the opposition plays a part here. Yes, I know I'm on thin ice, so I'll choose my words very carefully. There is absolutely no question that Guatemala and Panama deserve to be in the Hexagonal. They outplayed their more celebrated rivals in the semis, at times brilliantly. It was wonderful for the region, and no one not actually Guatemalan or Panamanian could be more thrilled than Planet World Cup. But on paper at least, the teams they beat out, Honduras and Jamaica, had greater potential in a Hexagonal setup. What do I mean? Think of it this way: if Honduras hit top form in the Hexagonal, with guys named Suazo, Alvarez, and Guerrero running wild, you could imagine them topping the group, like Costa Rica did last time. Can you imagine Guatemala doing the same? Now picture a Jamaica on song, with their UK players and traditional home-field advantage, and you can see them maybe finishing second. Can Panama rise that high?

        We certainly hope Guatemala and Panama make their fans proud. And both should take some points off the big boys. But over ten games, even at their best, they're unlikely to threaten the Yanks or the Tri as much as other teams might. (And we haven't even mentioned T&T yet.) The reality: given the extra half-spot and the nature of the field, the top teams seem to have a big cushion. The games will of course be very strongly contested--nothing is ever easy in the Hexagonal. But I'll be surprised if either the USA or Mexico are ever in danger of missing out.

        And that's the point. The USA federation played hardball because they knew they were in a commanding position. The USA could afford to drop the opener to T&T and still qualify without too much agony. At the top of the table, there's not as much suspense this time around, and the competition is poorer for it.

        But what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts. If at the top things should be matter-of-fact, at the bottom they'll be glorious. Because with that extra half-spot, everyone's in with a shout. No one will be eliminated early. The stretch drive should be riveting. And consider this: with 3½ spots available, and Guatemala, Panama, and T&T among the field, at least one team that has never made the World Cup will qualify directly or reach a playoff. Now that's worth staying up late for.

        Predictions? Not me--I had Kerry over Bush in the election, and "soccer" over "football" in the Great Australian What-Do-We-Name-The-Federation Derby. So I'm not talking. But here's what I hope for: I hope for 30 of the greatest games in the history of the sport, resulting in an absolute 6-way tie, so that Sepp Blatter, overcome with emotion (and a few under-the-table payments--let's be realistic here), unilaterally decrees that CONCACAF will get six full spots in Germany. Hey, can you prove it won't happen?

    Now the teams, in alphabetical order:

    Costa Rica

        Four years ago Costa Rica opened the Hexagonal home to Honduras, and needed a 90th minute goal to salvage a draw. Then, after a win home to Trinidad & Tobago, they lost on the road to the USA. With 4 points, they were tied with Mexico for second place, and with Honduras and Jamaica on their heels, it looked like a long slog home. Whereupon they ripped off five straight wins, beating everyone else in the tournament, including an historic 2:1 victory over Mexico in the Azteca. They romped, breezed, rolled, waltzed, and finished the competition in first place, an incredible 6 points clear of both Mexico and the USA. With apologies to the Italia '90 team, it was Costa Rica's greatest achievement ever. And as an encore, they came with inches of knocking eventual third-place Turkey out of the World Cup.

        And now they're back. But this isn't the same Costa Rica. For one thing, several key contributors are fading or gone: defensive midfielder Mauricio Solís, sweeper Mauricio Wright, and playmaker Wilmer López are at the end of their careers, and striker Ronald Gómez is injured. But more profoundly, it's a team with a different approach. Under Alexandre Guiamares, they were all-out attackers, apostles of the jogo bonito, who, with a second-round WC berth on the line, opened it up against Brazil. Under Jorge Luís Pinto they're a cautious, safety-first team, who with the Hexagonal at stake went into a ninety-minute bunker to hold off Honduras.

        But guess what? Against Brazil they lost big, and against Honduras they prevailed. And while this team knows how to play defense--in the last five games of the semis, they allowed a grand total of 1 goal when they had all 11 men on the field--they can also light up the board. Their 12 goals were 3 more than anyone else in their group, and region-wide second only to the USA's 13. (Of course I'm not counting Mexico's 27. Would you?) This is a quality team, a dangerous team, and although it took them a long time to get into top form, by the end they had unquestionably made it.

        Pinto plays a 4-4-2, and the key to his defensive approach is in central midfield. Where in the past you'd have seen playmakers like Wilmer López and Walter Centeno, now you get destroyers like Jose Luis López and Cristian Badilla. López is the great find: only 23, he plays like he's been there all his life. He's smooth, poised, and precise, always where he's supposed to be. He rarely has to leave his feet, but his tackles invariably find the mark. Badilla is a more hustle-and-bustle type; sometimes he gets out of position, but covers a lot of ground and always seems to be around the ball. Both provide the occasional pass in attack, but are basically there to stop the opponents' midfield. One problem: Badilla is suspended for the opener, and right now there's no clear replacement. Mauricio Solís, in particular, doesn't seem up to form, and Douglas Sequeira is just coming back after a serious knee injury.

        The outside midfielders pack more punch. On the right is Stephen Bryce, whose pace and attacking mentality give you effective wing play. But the key man is Alonso Solís, a fine dribbler and passer who has become the main midfield attacking threat. Right now he's fighting off an injury, but there's a good chance he'll be ready for the opener. In Pinto's most conservative lineup, he plays out on the left, but sometimes gets a free attacking role, where he's responsible for feeding the strikers and can score himself. He doesn't play much defense, but his vision and stylish left foot will always be a danger. Occasionally he plays at the point of a diamond, and Badilla or Carlos Hernández, an all-rounder with a powerful long-distance shot, will play left midfield. Walter Centeno has been on the bench for a while, but he played well in a recent friendly against Haiti, and might get a few starts if Pinto wants extra creativity.

        The most famous name in the back four is Gilberto Martínez of Brescia, but the key figure is centerback and captain Luis Marín. At the age of 30, he has over 100 caps. Slowish but very intelligent, he can both man-mark and cover, and is good in the air. As he goes, so goes the defense--he seemed rusty early in the semis, but by the end was leading the line superbly. Martínez at times joined him in the middle, but is more comfortable at right back, where his technique, quickness, and aggressive style make him a two-way star. Where he'll play depends on the other centerback option, Pablo Chinchilla. He's tall and agile, a bit erratic reading the game. On the bench during Korea/Japan, he played well in the last two games of the semis, and right now appears to have the spot. If Martínez is needed in the middle, there are a variety of options on the right, none exceptional: Try Bennett, Alexander Castro, Harold Wallace. The left back is Leonardo González, who fits Pinto's scheme well. He's solid technically and can move forward to cover when Solís goes on the attack, but is basically a stay-at home defender.

        Up front the bellwether is Paulo Wanchope. He's on the bench right now at Malaga, which might make him a bit rusty, but even a rusty Paulo is worth several ordinary strikers. He was superb during the semis, showcasing his marvelous technique and scoring instincts. The only question--the usual question--is whether his knees will hold up. There are several good partners. Andy Herron is the usual man; he's a straight-ahead sort with pace and excellent finishing skills. But he's out for the first game, and maybe more, with a knee injury. Erick Scott is solid; he can play back to goal and turn quickly, and while he can't finish like Herron he provides more vision and creativity. Then there's Rolando Fonseca, all-time leading scorer, still only 29, who is best at withdrawn forward but can do a little of everything. And don't count out William Sunsing, who's just signed to play in the Czech Republic, erratic but with plenty of flash when he's on.

        The ticos haven't had a first-class man in goal since Luís Gabelo Conejo, who wowed 'em at Italia '90 and now serves as keeper coach. José Francisco Porras started the semis, but was eventually replaced by Álvaro Mesén, second-choice in 2002. Mesén is decent all around, and has the experience, but you can't really call him a game-winner. The great young hope is Adrian deLemos, but his development has been slowed by injuries, and he may not be ready to contribute this time around.

        Right now, Costa Rica is probably the hardest of the six teams to figure. Pinto put them into a whole new system, and they didn't get up to speed until late in the semis. So we don't have an extended series of games to judge by. We know they're good--but top-of-the-table good? The coach thinks so: he said he's shooting for 21 points and a first-place finish. But he also said his primary goal was to avoid a loss on the road. (His second goal will be to get back on the sidelines; he's suspended for two games for a little tantrum he threw against Honduras.) Costa Rica has a huge clash home to Mexico in the opener, and their defensive style will match up well against a team that likes to get forward. A win to start with, and they'll be early favorites to push the Big Two to the wire. A draw or loss, though, and the fans will have Steve-Sampson-related nightmares for a while.


        When Guatemala passed the post first in the group of death, the locals were already booking their flights to Munich. After all, the lads had notched a plus score against Honduras and split two games with Costa Rica. OK, they might not win the Hexagonal, but at least they wouldn't finish worse than fourth. Some fifth-place team from some desert or something over in Asia? Pack the bags.

        But a few weeks later, in a friendly in the USA, Guatemala sent out their first string against Mexico's second--and were whipped 0:2. And in the final game of the round, at home no less, the first eleven lost 0:1 to another second-string side, this time (horrors!) Canada. Suddenly the phones went just a little bit silent at the travel agencies.

        Was Guatemala a fluke? Not at all. But the losses highlight an important fact: Guatemala isn't Mexico or the USA. They can't just go out on the field and expect to get a result. It's a team largely without stars (Carlos Ruiz the exception), and gets its results from cohesive, disciplined play. They're accurate rather than spectacular, steady rather than explosive. If the engine isn't working to perfection, it can easily break down--witness the 5:0 demolition by Costa Rica. Yes, Guatemala is no worse than even odds to qualify, but they'll have to pay attention if they want to make the trip.

        The chapines are the only team in the field that's essentially the same now as when the semifinals began. No major injuries, no new sensations. The only significant change has been in goal, where Miguel Klee took over in the last two games for Ricardo Trigueño Foster. (And the only surprise there was that Foster got the nod in the first place.) Klee is a solid keeper, generally better on his line than coming off. He played well in a recent friendly against Colombia, and looks like he'll keep the job for now.

        The 4-man back line is the smallest and the quickest in the field, but not the best at marking, and has been subject to occasional breakdowns. Pablo Melgar is the leader in the middle: he doesn't have much muscle, but compensates with fast movement to the ball, good reading of the game, and effective tackling. His partner is the wild and woolly Gustavo Cabrera; he's good in the air and has astonishing pace for a centerback, but finds himself out of position now and then. Plus, he's suspended for the opener against Panama, which could be a problem. Nelson Morales is a capable backup, but can't match Cabrera's air game, and Roberto Brown is just the man to take advantage.

        The fullbacks are a quiet strength. On the left, Ángel Sanabria replaced the injured Denis Chen just before the semis began, and performed well. He's small and very quick, at home both on attack and defense. Chen is finally back on the roster, but the job now looks like Sanabria's to lose. On the right is Nestor Martínez, the most consistent of the back four: he's a reliable marker, good on the overlap, and the best crosser on the team.

        The best Guatemalan midfielder in the semis was Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez. He's an aggressive player, and has been known to lose control. But during the semis he showed his strengths: good technique and vision, powerful attacking strides, and a dangerous shot. He recently came up empty in tryouts in England, but that'll just keep him closer to home for the qualifiers. (Right now LA Galaxy is showing some interest.) He usually plays on the left side, but when either Gonzalo Romero or Fredy Thompson are unavailable, he goes into the middle either as playmaker or defender. Romero is the central playmaker; he was a bit off form in the semis, but at his best he's a cool, intelligent passer both short and long. Thompson is the holding midfielder, quick, a good reader of the game, small but with excellent balance. He can also deliver the well-timed pass. On the right is Mario "El Loco" Rodríguez, very assertive, plenty of pace, but only average technique--he's the kind of guy who'll break free only to send in a poor cross. Another candidate is Carlos Figueroa, nearly as fast and with better skills, but not quite as good on defense and without Rodríguez' all-around loconess.

        The top three strikers are Carlos Ruiz, Carlos Ruiz, and Carlos Ruiz. In the semis the team scored 7 goals; Ruiz got 4 himself and provided the pass for 2 more. Everyone knows El Pescadito is a great finisher, but he's so much more: intelligent, hard-working, creative too. His backheel for Dwight Pezzarossi's goal against Honduras was a classic, and don't forget his cheeky overhead lob that led to a Juan Carlos Plata goal against Costa Rica. And I bet you didn't know this: he's the strongest man on the roster. In a recent camp competition he threw the 8-pound medicine ball farther than anyone else, including the keepers.

        Right now the second forward spot is bouncing around between Pezzarossi and Plata, and they may both get regular time. Pezzarossi is known as "El Tanque," and is good at the dirty work, but he's also mobile and imaginative, and can go touchline to touchline. We talked about Plata in an earlier column; he's near the end of his career, but still has plenty of stamina, and can slip in to score the goals that no one else would ever dream of attempting.

        During the semis Guatemala were helped by a significant preparation advantage, since their opponents had new coaches and/or had played few friendlies. For the Hexagonal it looks like another strong buildup: they've played matches against Colombia (1:1) and Paraguay (1:2), and when the tournament starts, they'll have had more time training together than any other side in the field. It helps, too, that almost all of their players are home-based. Right now Ruiz is the only exception, and since MLS isn't in session, he can join camp like all the rest. That stability is the hallmark of the team, and coach Ramón Maradiaga, a quiet and dignified sort, fits the profile. If he can keep a steady ship, they can ride it all the way across the Atlantic.


    Q: When was the last time Mexico scored a goal in a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica?
    A: 1957.

    Here's the complete record, by WC cycle:

    1958: Costa Rica 1 Mexico 1
    1962: Costa Rica 1 Mexico 0
    1966: Costa Rica 0 Mexico 0
    1994: Costa Rica 2 Mexico 0
    1998: Costa Rica 0 Mexico 0
    2002: Costa Rica 0 Mexico 0

        The other time the teams played a tournament game in Costa Rica was in the old CONCACAF Championship, in 1969. Result: Costa Rica 2 Mexico 0.

        In other words: the vacation is over. For the last six months Mexico has been lying on the beach, munching plantains, grooving to the steel bands, watching a cricket match or two, and generally enjoying the manifold delights of the Caribbean. But now they're going to have to play some football. The opener is at the Saprissa, projectile-throwing fans, artificial turf and all, and all the soca and reggae lessons in the world won't do them any good.

        Of course, Mexico expects to make it to Germany anyway. They qualified in all six of those cycles where they struggled at Costa Rica. But without any serious competition for months, we have no real idea if they're ready. After Costa Rica comes the USA, and you know the fans won't settle for anything less than a win in the Azteca. Or anything less than first place come October.

        With the possible exception of T&T, Mexico's starting lineup is the hardest to figure. They've got the deepest squad in the region, and with no pressure in the semis, Ricardo LaVolpe tried out a lot of personnel. Also, he tends to prefer versatile players who can contribute in a couple of different spots on the field. And the side will vary depending on whether he goes with a 3-4-3, as in the Copa America, or a 3-5-2, as in most of the qualifiers. So we can't exactly say who'll start where, but we'll try to give you a sense of the options.

        One place where there's no question is at keeper, where Oswaldo Sánchez is the undisputed number one. In his prime at 31, he might be the best pure shot-stopper in the region, and although he can be erratic on crosses, there's no doubt he's the star. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury will keep him out of the opener against Costa Rica. Right now it looks as if Oscar "Conejo" Pérez, who played well at the 2002 WC, will get the call. Pérez isn't quite the player he was four years ago, but can still make the key save, and has the experience for a big game like this.

        The defensive star is, of course, Rafael Márquez of Barcelona. Strong, quick, intelligent, good in the air--you name it, he can do it. The only question is whether he'll play in the middle of the back line or at defensive midfield. Much will depend on the form of defensive midfielder Gerrardo Torrado, who was on the bench at Sevilla but is now getting time at Racing Santander. He's a streaky player, but is a hard tackler and has a powerful shot, and if in form should be in the starting eleven. If Márquez goes to the midfield, the middle man in the back will probably be Hugo Sánchez Guerrero, a quick and intelligent sweeper type. (We use the "Guerrero" just to be clear: Hugo Sánchez Guerrero is the Hugo Sánchez that plays defense for Tigres and should be on the roster for the qualifiers; Hugo Sánchez Márquez is the Hugo Sánchez that was a striker for Real Madrid and now coaches Pumas, and wants to slit LaVolpe's throat, bury him, and dance on his grave.)

        There are several choices for the other defenders. On the left side, it's between Carlos Salcido and Gonzalo Pineda. Salcido is big and mobile, a good marker, technically only fair, but useful on long passes. Pineda is the more attacking option, quicker and better on the ball, not as reliable on defense. Candidates on the right include Francisco "El Maza" Rodriguez, tall and powerful, Ricardo Osorio, quick and technical, and veteran Salvador Carmona, an all-rounder who excelled at the 2002 WC. (If you want to get an idea of what he can do on defense, get a hold of a tape of the game against Italy.) Both Osorio and Carmona can play at wingback if necessary, and maybe Pineda can too.

        The midfield also has lots of options. As noted, Márquez or Torrado will anchor. Pavel Pardo has been around as long as Quetzalcoatl, but he's still only 28, and a good linkman. He's slow, but a smart passer, particularly good at rotating the ball from wing to wing, and famous for his free kicks. Brazilian-born Antonio Naelson, known as "Sinha," appears to be over the naturalization controversy; he's quick and supple, and the best pure playmaker on the team. Luís Pérez is a box-to-box midfielder, very aggressive, but his technique isn't quite star quality. Rafael Garcia, another 2002 veteran, is a left-footed defensive type.

        The left wingback spot appears to belong to Jaime Lozano. He's a typical Pumas player: nothing fancy, but he does everything right, and in the qualifiers he showed an unexpected scoring touch. On the right, besides Osorio and Carmona, there's Hector "Pity" Altamirano, big, long-striding, physical, a bit wild at times, a spectacular free-kick man. A more all-out attacking option is young and pacy winger Alberto Medina.

        The shape of the attack is still unclear. Jesus Arellano, formerly a pure right winger, has recently played as attacking midfielder or even withdrawn forward. He's late in his career, a bit inconsistent, but can still dazzle with his dribbling and passing, and occasionally put the ball in the net. Then of course there's Cuauhtémoc Blanco; he too is on his last hurrah, but when not confined in a mental home is the most creative player in the region. He figures to get a free role partnering a central striker. At the moment both Arellano and Blanco are a little short of full fitness, and again that's where Medina might come in.

        Up front is a question mark. If LaVolpe's teams have a weakness, it's that they lack contundencia, the ability to strike when you get the chance. There are few natural finishers on the squad. At the moment, Jared Borgetti still holds the centerforward spot. For years he's been a classic number 9, elegant, slow, excellent in the air, but he's aging now, and although he devours minnows he might not be good enough against stronger competition. The heir apparent is fan favorite Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca, a 90-minute two-way take-no-prisoners tough guy who has the true predator's instincts. But can he find space against top-level marking? Another candidate is Adolfo "El Bofo" Bautista, who's had injury problems, but at his best is quick, can run at his man, and finish.

        As we say, LaVolpe has so many options we'll just have to wait and see how they line up. It's a good team, and should have no problem qualifying. But in Mexico, qualifying isn't enough: you have to play well, score goals, beat the USA, finish top of the table, find a cure for cancer, and establish world peace. Hugo Sánchez has publicly claimed he'll be the coach by the time they get to the World Cup, and a lot of fans would like to see it happen. A slow start, and LaVolpe will probably find himself back on the beach--and just as probably grateful for the rest.


        The story of stories this year is Panama. Panama, the red tide, the team of the dream. If ever a team came out of nowhere, it's Panama. No history, no pedigree, no devotion to the game. Check the local newspapers, and you'll find more stories about Major League Baseball and the NBA than about Panamanian futbol. In the last two WCQ cycles, Panama's combined semifinal round record was 1 win, 3 draws, and 8 losses. Who'd they beat? Cuba.

        The achievement is all the more startling when you remember where they were two years ago. In the most recent UNCAF Nations Cup, held in February of 2003, Panama were proud hosts. Proud, that is, until the tournament started. They won only 1 of 5 games, and somehow actually managed to lose to Nicaragua. They finished tied for fourth, and proceeded to lose the coin flip for the repechage for Gold Cup qualifying. Anyone who claims to have predicted then that they'd make the Hexagonal is lying.

        What changed? Well, the youth program grew--Panama has now qualified for the FIFA U-20s two times running. But the real difference is the man at the helm. In the fall of 2003, José "Cheché" Hernández of Colombia took over both the U-23's and the senior side. (No one noticed, because Panama was in the process of winning the World Baseball Championship.) He took the U-23's to a respectable performance in the Olympic qualifiers, then drew heavily on the squad for the senior side. They ran off a record 7-game unbeaten streak against CONCACAF teams--an easy win over Bermuda, a win and draw against Guatemala, two draws against Honduras, and a 7:0 aggregate mopup over St. Lucia in the qualifying prelims. And of course you know what they did in the semis, rallying from an opening loss to displace heavily favored Jamaica.

        What's Cheché's secret? I'm not sure, but from here it looks like simple motivational skills. Although they have some good players, Panama is overall unexceptional talent-wise. But they always seem ready to play, always go at the opponent, and never lose heart. Their most impressive performance was in the final game of the semis. They were coming off an 0:6 embarrassment to the USA, and could easily have been down. They were favored to beat El Salvador, but if anything that was a burden: how many times have you seen a minnow freeze up with the prize within reach? But they took care of business like Brazil, zipping to a 3:0 lead in only 21 minutes and controlling the game the rest of the way. That's character.

        (By the way, Panama is the hardest of the six Hexagonal countries to cover, because the major online papers don't give you the depth you get elsewhere in Central America, and there's no top fan site like for T&T. Many thanks to Gilberto Bernard of Panama City, charter member of the marea roja, for all his help on the fine points of the squad.)

        Panama plays a distinctive 4-4-2, with the two attacking midfield threats coming from the wings. On the left is Julio Medina, very much the number 10 style-wise. He's very small and quick, with an excellent left foot and a good eye for his teammates. Although he has some freedom to roam, he often stays on the left to provide the key cross. On the right is the equally small Ricardo Phillips, a very different kind of player. A converted striker, he's an instinctive dribbler, who loves to go straight at his man and knows how to get into the area. He'll miss the opener against Guatemala due to yellow cards, though. José Justavino, another pocket-size attacker, very slippery on the dribble, might get the call in relief.

        The central midfielders, Engin Mitre and Alberto Blanco, are more defensive-oriented. It's easy to tell them apart--Mitre is noticeably taller--but they're quite similar in style: good technically, good at staying in position, good at closing to the ball. Blanco has the additional distinction of having the hardest long-distance shot in the region. Watch the wall closely when he takes free kicks: opponents will be on their cell phones, ordering supplemental medical insurance.

        With the wide midfielders constantly pushing the attack, there's pressure on the fullbacks, who often come up to cover. Luís Moreno, on the right, is a solid performer; he doesn't attack much, but positions well, reacts quickly, and is good at stealing the ball with his feet. Luís Henríquez, on the left, is much more flashy: with pace, aggressiveness, and a powerful shot, he frequently joins the attack. But he's not quite as reliable as Moreno defensively, and will sometimes give way to other options when needed.

        The centerback pairing looks like Anthony "Chalate" Torres and Felipe Baloy. Torres, a longtime regular in the Honduran league, is the leader, an intelligent player with both technique and power, and good in the air. (He recently had a disastrous Clausura opener for Marathon--at fault on all three opposing goals!--but maybe he got the bad stuff out of his system.) Baloy is the young Brazilian-league phenom, who recently moved from relegated Gremio to Libertadores-bound Atletico Paranaense. He's agile, strong, very good in the air (he scored off a corner in the El Salvador match), maybe a little undisciplined. He was passed over for most of the semifinals but now looks set to stay. Also worth mention is Carlos Rivera, who spent most of the round starting at centerback but replaced Henríquez on the left for the final game. He's very physical, more than a bit wild, but was surprisingly composed when the chips were down against El Salvador.

        The strike force has talent, but right now is thin. The Dély Valdés brothers, talismans of the team, retired after the semifinals, and Nicolas Muñoz, the leading scorer in the Salvadoran league, broke his leg and is out for several months. The likely starters are a classic fire-and-ice pairing. The ice is Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown, formerly of Salzburg but expected to sign for Estoril in Portugal. He's a quiet player, without exceptional pace or skill, but he always knows where to be, and is excellent in the air. The fire is José Luís "El Pistolero" Garcés. He's tall, quick, creative--and crazy. What can you say about a guy who got the nickname "El Pistolero" BEFORE actually seriously wounding someone with a gun? At the moment he can't even get out of the country because of legal problems. But he's got oodles of talent--Independiente Medellin just snapped him up, along with Rivera--and his performance will be absolutely crucial to Panama's success. For depth, there's Blas Pérez, a hardworking penalty area striker, good in the air, who recently led the Colombian second division in scoring and has signed with Deportivo Cali. Luís "El Matador" Tejada, who partnered Garcés in the youth teams, is another possibility, strong and a good passer.

        Panama has an excellent goalkeeper in Ricardo James--only he doesn't seem to be on the team anymore. After failing to get to Kingston for the Jamaica game, he was dropped from the squad and replaced by Donaldo González. Both are Honduran-league veterans, and González is almost as good as James, although perhaps not as quick coming off his line. But it looks as if he has the job for now, with youth keeper Jaime Penedo as backup.

        Scanning the papers and fan sites in the other Hexagonal countries, you get the feeling that everyone, even T&T, thinks they'll finish ahead of Panama. But I'm not so sure. This is as determined a team as you'll find, and remember, with the 4th-place team going to a playoff, no one's going to be eliminated early. I certainly wouldn't want to have to play them down the stretch. On the other hand, perhaps the biggest game of all comes first: home to Guatemala. The pressure will be tremendous, but if they get 3 points, all bets are off--or better yet, when the roulette wheel next rolls around, put the chips on red.

    Trinidad & Tobago

        Yes, T&T is here because of the draw. No, they're not one of the six best in the region right now. But they're CONCACAF, which means they're family, and we support them with every last key on the keyboard, even that extra plus sign on the right that we've never been able to figure out. Our war cry is "Big Up Trinidad & Tobago!" and we'll do everything we can to make them competitive to the finish.

        Admittedly, this looks like a difficult task. The Soca Warriors came into the qualifiers on a downswing, and have made little progress under Bertille St. Clair. The semis were mostly an embarrassment, to the point where coaches and players were apologizing even after wins. In recent weeks a non-Euro-based squad has been working together, and among other things qualified for the finals of the Caribbean Cup. But the competition wasn't high-level, and results were still fairly ordinary: a couple of home wins over Azerbaijan, but a road loss to Antigua & Barbuda and a squeaked-out 3:2 aggregate over St. Vincent & the Grenadines. I've probably said this about 46 times in the past year, but it's still true: we have yet to see anything to suggest they're ready to step up in class.

        But that doesn't mean there's no good news. Best of all is that Shaka Hislop will be on the team, at least to start with. He'll be 36 next month, but if you saw his performance at Mexico you know he's still one of the best keepers in the region. Outstanding reflexes, good command of the box, the cool head of the veteran. Clayton Ince has played well at Crewe lately, and will be adequate backup, but Hislop is the kind of guy who can win games for you. The worry is that his roster spot is in jeopardy at Portsmouth, and he may have to put club over country to continue his career.

        And speaking of the Premier League, there's a kid by the name of Kenwyne Jones who made his debut with Southampton last week. No big deal, just a few minutes off the bench. But what got him there was an unbelievable run of play while on loan for a month to Sheffield Wednesday. He's normally a right wingback, but someone noticed that he's quick and about six foot two, and figured gee, why not try him up front? Whereupon he scored about a thousand goals, maybe two thousand, and was quickly repossessed by the big boys.

        The problem for Jones, though, is that striker is T&T's deepest position. Stern John has dropped from the Premier League to whatever the heck they're calling the second division these days, but he's still a sure starter, with poise, good technique, and reliable finishing. Right now the second spot is probably between two MLSers. Cornell Glen is a natural dribbler with outstanding pace, although he's been missing way too many chances lately. Scott Sealy is a different type, a hard worker who can play back to goal and create as well as score. And believe it or not, there's Dwight Yorke, who hasn't ruled out coming back to the squad. (T&T fans, not to mention nightclub owners, are of two minds about this.)

        So Jones, who hasn't fully learned the striker position anyway, will probably be penciled in at wingback again. The problem is the rest of the midfield, which offers few certainties. One is Anthony Rougier, who should hold down the defensive anchor spot. He's late in his career, but still has a remarkable workrate, and is the only one rugged enough to shut down opposing midfielders. We should also see something of Carlos Edwards on the right: his pace and attacking instincts are vital for a team that desperately needs someone to combine with the strikers. But he's coming off a long-term injury, and recently broke a bone in his hand, so it may take him a while to contribute. Old-timers Angus Eve and Arnold Dwarika should be around in some capacity; both can give you the occasional attacking inspiration, and Eve is still a weapon on free kicks.

        The left side is a headache. Marlon Rojas is a possibility at wingback--he's played well in the recent sequence--but during the semis, despite his pace, he seemed a defensive liability. But who else is there? Maybe Avery John, normally a defender, but with enough mobility to play out on the wing as well. A new face will be Jose Luis Seabra, a Brazilian who's exchanged samba for soca, and can be a good left-footed playmaking type. He's only had a couple of games with the squad, and may need some time to get integrated. Youngsters with some promise on the left or in the middle are Denzil Theobald and Leslie "Tiger" Fitzpatrick.

        The back three is a little more certain, although how well they'll perform is another matter. The best man is Brent Sancho, physical, quick to the man, and good in the air. Right now he's fighting a knee injury, and may not be ready for the opener. Marvin "Dog" Andrews of Rangers, with over 80 caps, is slow but a fearless tackler; he didn't play well in the semis, but the job is still his to lose. The third man might be the aforementioned Avery John, fairly quick, another hard tackler (but he's suspended for the first game), or slow but steady Ian Cox (but he wasn't called in for the opener), or Anton Pierre, a local player who's come to the fore in recent matches. Pierre is also slow, but positions himself well and has a solid air game.

        The team got one small break and one large break from the Hexagonal draw. The small break is opening home to the USA: with no real pressure, the side can take time to find their footing, and if they nick a point it'll be a huge psychological boost. The large break is closing home to Mexico, who will have clinched already, and might decide to mail in a game far away from home.

        How much all this will help is unclear. T&T start the tournament as the longshot, and no one will be surprised if they prop up the table. But they have one thing Guatemala and Panama don't: pedigree. This is their second consecutive stint in the Hexagonal, and don't forget that they came ever-so-close to qualifying back in 1990. That experience counts for something. T&T got laughed at during the semis, but in three games against less pedigreed opponents (SVG and SKN), games they easily could have lost or drawn, they pulled out wins in the final minutes. Guatemala and Panama are sterner stuff, but at some point it'll be Germany or bust, and T&T's been there before. If they can stay close, we might just find a use for that plus sign after all.


        I was in the stands on May 31, 1985, the last time the USA was eliminated from World Cup qualifying. If you'd told me that 21 years later the USA would play in their fifth straight World Cup--well, I would've given you the name of a good psychiatrist (and I knew a few back then). But those were the bad old days. Now there's a whole generation of USA fans who see the World Cup as their birthright. Not to make it to Germany would be unthinkable.

        Fair enough, but remember, kids, the USA's regional dominance is of very recent vintage. In the 1998 Hexagonal, they finished second, only a point behind Mexico--but look at the scores and you'll see the Tri grabbed a big lead and eased home. In the 2002 Hexagonal, the team finished third, easily outdistanced by Costa Rica and caught at the tape by Mexico. In fact, they almost didn't qualify at all. In the semis they needed late goals against Barbados to advance; in the Hexagonal they fell apart in the second half, and were saved only when Honduras fell apart even worse.

        Nevertheless, the numbers right now are clear enough: 29 straight games unbeaten against CONCACAF opponents, including three wins and a draw against Mexico. The streak may come to an end in the Azteca or Saprissa, but there's no doubt the Yanks are at the top of the ladder. Given 3½ slots and a manageable field, they're as good a bet to qualify as any team in the world.

        On the down side, the labor dispute means the squad may have to fake it for a while. Some of the MLS players will be out of shape at first, and that'll help the chances of people like centerback Gregg Berhalter and left back Greg Vanney, both marginal players who see regular time in Europe. The T&T game might be a bit of a scramble, and schedules may have to be adjusted to get the team ready for the game at Mexico. Still, there's enough quality to keep things going until the team gets up to speed.

        At keeper, at least, no one is worried. Brad Friedel appears to have retired from international play, but Kasey Keller, finally starting in Europe again at Mönchengladbach, is still going strong. He was rarely tested in the semifinals, but showed his usual blend of leadership, command of the area, and shot-stopping skills. Tim Howard may not have made the grade at Manchester United, but plenty of teams would be happy to have him as a backup.

        An important reason for the USA's success is the best central defensive pairing in the region. Eddie Pope is the veteran: he's no longer at his peak, but still offers intelligence, mobility, and strength in the air. The new star is Carlos Bocanegra, a classic center-half, very strong and aggressive, excellent in positioning, and even better in the air than Pope. The problem is that Bocanegra may be needed to fill the black hole at left back. That's where he plays for Fulham, although he doesn't quite have the pace or attacking skills you want at LB. If he does go to the left, Cory Gibbs, who just signed for Feyenoord, is a more than adequate replacement. He's smart and mobile, an excellent man-marker.

        As for left back, you tell me and we'll both know. Greg Vanney is too slow, Bobby Convey can't make the team at Reading, and Roberto Carlos is Brazilian and unavailable. Maybe 18-year-old ManU property Jonathan Spector can step up; he's not a natural left-footer, but certainly has the talent. At right back at least there's a decent choice between Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hedjuk. Cherundolo, a regular at Hannover 96, is small but intelligent, technically sound, and good at going forward and getting in the cross. Hedjuk has size, pace, and energy--just don't ask him to do anything with the ball at his feet.

        Arena has tried a variety of shapes in the midfield, but all of them involve Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Hard to believe they're both still only 22. Donovan, back for a second go with Bayer Leverkusen, has all the tools. He's quick, great with the ball at his feet, creative. He's been known to disappear from the action for a while, but when he's on is probably the best midfielder in the region. Beasley has spectacular pace, loves to go at his man, plays great defense, never stops running, and at PSV Eindhoven has developed a much-needed scoring touch.

        The oft-injured Claudio Reyna is in one of his oft periods, but when healthy, he'll be the midfield anchor. He has the vision and creativity, and knows how to hold the ball and pace the team. While he's out, the options are Kerry Zavagnin, now on trial at Sunderland, and Pablo Mastroeni. Zavagnin is the smoother, Mastroeni the more rugged; Mastroeni has the big-game experience, having been on the field for the famous victory against Portugal.

        Right now there are two main options for the fourth midfielder. Clint Mathis can play at the point of a diamond, and offers special creativity and a hard shot, but his workrate is suspect and so is his defense. Eddie Lewis is a quiet, effective, attack-oriented player, who can both cross and score, but it's difficult to fit him in with Beasley, since both are left-footers. If Lewis and Beasley both start, Beasley is the likelier to move to the right, since crossing is one of his weak points anyway. Arena might have used the January friendlies to explore further possibilities, but the labor dispute got in the way, and it's hard to know what he has in mind.

        The strike force is in transition. Brian McBride still has his usual array of skills--back to goal play, the air game, finishing--but is getting less reliable with age. Given Arena's propensity to go with veterans, though, he should still start. If McBride falters, and Arena wants another centerforward, the most likely replacement is Brian Ching, who showed some promise in the semis but tailed off. Conor Casey, in season at Mainz, may also get a call. The other starting spot will be filled by Eddie Johnson or Josh Wolff. With a bucketful of goals in his first hour of play, Fast Eddie made the most spectacular debut in USA team history. He's got a real feel for the position, and adds size, pace, and good finishing skills. He's weak with the ball at his feet, though, and that's where Wolff comes in. He has noticeably superior technique and creativity, and good pace of his own. But he can't put it in the net like Eddie.

        I said I wouldn't make predictions, but to close our preview I'll make just one. Prediction: the USA will not finish first in the Hexagonal. (And I would have said this before the labor dispute.) Bruce Arena is above all a pragmatist, and unlike LaVolpe he's got nothing to prove. All that matters is getting to Germany, and third place is as good as first. He'll be happy to draw on the road and pick up the big points at home. And why not? The qualifiers are always a grind, and just being left standing is a triumph. Yeah, the fans are spoiled these days, but you can hardly blame them. The USA should do their duty and make it 5 straight.


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