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
Update: CONCACAF semifinal stage, Games 1-3
by Peter Goldstein
CONCACAF has finally gone mad. It was inevitable, really. Jack Warner, the Gold Cup, Montserrat--no
confederation can stand that sort of thing for long. And so we've gone finally, totally, irretrievably mad.
But boy, has it been fun (unless you're a Canada supporter). Games decided on late goals, games
decided on horrific referee errors, games not even played, hurricanes, power failures, impossible pitches,
astonishing results. And we're only halfway home in the semifinal round. How boring to be a fan in
Europe--gee, another error by David James? another squeaker for Italy? Holland against the Czechs
again? Pardon me while I yawn. I'll take CONCACAF, thank you, where games are decided by who
decides to wear jewelry, where you don't know if the pitch will be solid or liquid, where naturalized
Brazilians cause national furors and/or break down doors.
(Oh, right up front I should mention a tiny error in the preview for this round. In the section on Panama, I described Ricardo Phillips as "a big, straight-ahead striker." I went on the basis of a GolTV highlight
film in which a player of that description was repeatedly referred to as "Ricardo Phillips." Well, I got to
see him live against the USA, and guess what? He isn't a big striker. He's a small striker. A VERY small
striker. If he was any smaller he'd be in Lord of the Rings. Apologies, and lesson learned, I hope.)
Jamaica-USA was the game everyone was waiting for--but that's because they hadn't checked the stats.
The teams had played three times in Kingston in the WCQ, with a grand total of exactly zero goals
And that's exactly what Bruce Arena had in mind for the opener. It wasn't his fault he had a bunch of
potential forwards (Conor Casey, Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff) injured or not match fit, but when three of
your midfield are Claudio Reyna, Chris Armas, and the not-exactly-ageless Earnie Stewart, goals aren't
high on your list of priorities. Landon Donovan got put up front with Brian McBride, and the team
settled in for 90 minutes of defense.
And it worked. With Eddie Pope and Carlos Bocanegra outstanding in the middle, Jamaica never got
near the USA goal. Strikers Marlon King and Damani Ralph were all over the pitch, but never without a
shadow. Theodore Whitmore and crew got some decent passing combinations going in the midfield, but
everything died out in the attacking third. And with DaMarcus Beasley in outstanding form, the
counterattack looked consistently dangerous. But, alas, totally ineffective: clearly sticking to the 0-0
gameplan, Donovan and McBride looked like U-10's when they got near the goal.
The teams could have played until 2006 without scoring. Except in the 49th minute a giveaway by Greg
Vanney led to a Jamaica corner, and when McBride fell asleep on defense, Ian Goodison headed it in.
So did the USA have a Plan B? Sort of. The first idea was to take McBride out, and bring in The Big
Kahuna, Brian Ching of Hawaii--who promptly missed a sitter. The second idea was to bring in Cobi
Jones, getting his 3,456th cap (hadn't they put him out to stud already?). It didn't work either--until the
88th minute, that is, when he broke free on the right and sent one of his trademark less-than-perfect
crosses in. And the comedy began. First the ball bounced off a couple of Jamaican defenders, falling
right to an unmarked Landon Donovan. "Not me," said the golden boy, passing the hot potato to Ching.
"What do I do with this?" said Ching, taking about an hour to transfer the ball from his left foot to his
right. "Now!" said the football gods, and Ching fired high over a bemused Donovan Ricketts into the net.
A very lucky goal, but in truth the USA had played well enough to draw.
Meanwhile, in El Salvador, the lights had gone out. Lightning, thunder, power failure. This was fine with
Juan Ramón Paredes, because if his team didn't play, they couldn't lose. But eventually the power came
back on, revealing his game plan: fear. He scrapped his beloved 3-man back line and went to 4, and just
to make sure everyone got the point, he put a centerback (Mario Elias Guevara) at right back, dropped a
couple of defensive midfielders (Erick Dawson Prado and Alfredo Pacheco) into the back line, and
started two more defensive midfielders (Gilberto Murgas and Jorge Rodríguez) in the midfield. And this
for a home game against Panama!
Meanwhile, "Cheché" Hernández was bewildering everyone with his lineup choices. Gabriel Gómez, a
regular at defensive midfield, was left on the bench. Brazilian-leaguer Felipe Baloy, the main man at
centerback, wasn't even called up. (Before the game, reporters asked Hernández why he had dropped
Baloy. His reply: "For technical reasons." Thanks, Chech.)
The game got under way, and defender Víctor Velásquez put El Salvador up 1-0 on a 7th minute header
off a set piece. In the olden days, that would have settled things. But this is a different El Salvador and a
different Panama, and the canaleros took control. In the 36th minute came the equalizer from Julio
César Dély Valdés, and only a few minutes later, Salvadoran striker Jose "Chepe" Martínez got his
second yellow. Curtains for the cuzcatlecos, right?
Not so. At the very end of the first half they received a dubious penalty; Rodríguez converted it, and
they hung on for dear life. Panama dominated, and dominated, and dominated some more. Dély Valdés
just missed. William Aguilar just missed. Santos Rivera pushed a few over the bar. A Salvadoran
assistant coach was spotted wrecking the stadium fuse box. But in the end the lights stayed on and the
ball stayed out. 2:1 El Salvador, and for a couple of weeks, the home fans could see themselves in first
place. In Panama, the headline read: "Jugamos como nunca y perdimos como siempre": literally, we
played like never and lost like always. But ah, what was to come...
Against the USA, Jamaica had used only one substitute. In such a vital, intense game, you had to
wonder why--but Sebastian Lazaroni had a simple explanation. He was new, and he didn't know much
about the players, so he didn't know who to put in. (Umm, but couldn't he...oh, never mind.) But after
a few weeks in camp, the coach could think about changing the lineup for Panama. And that he
did--making a grand total of two changes, one of which (Garfield Reid back after suspension) was a
no-brainer, even for a guy just off the boat.
As for Cheché, he left Brazil Baloy off again, and reporters figured it wasn't worth asking why this time.
(Baloy, reached in darkest Porto Alegre, had no clue.) But there were persistent rumors that the head of
the FA was upset with Hernández' lineup choices, and for a moment it looked as if the coach might
resign or even be fired. Meanwhile, Ricardo James, the Honduran-league keeper, had a little problem,
known to the rest of the world as Hurricane Frances. Just about every connecting flight in the Caribbean
goes through Miami, and James couldn't get from Tegucigalpa to Kingston. So Panama would have to
make do with Jaime Penedo, the starter from the U-23's. And to make things tougher, regular striker
Ricardo "I'm Really Very Short, Just Look" Phillips was out with two yellow cards. His replacement was
Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown, who had recently taken his artillery to FC Salzburg in Austria.
Fortunately for Panama, he carried a couple of bombs along to Kingston. The first one dropped early: in
the 2nd minute, he headed in a free kick, and the visitors were up 1:0. In the 32nd minute, the ref
dropped a bomb of his own, sending off Ian Goodison for a last-man foul. (Get a hold of the tape if you
can, because it's a classic. Ever hold someone from behind while trying to make it look like you're not?)
So Lazaroni consulted his cheat sheet, and sent on Damani Ralph, an extra striker, for Reid. And
Jamaica, 10 on 11, took over the game. It was a reggae whirlwind, with chance after chance falling to
Ralph, Ricardo Fuller, Marlon King, and the Red Stripe vendor in the stands. But Penedo, the U-23
keeper, had a brilliant night, and the chances he didn't save were squandered. In the 64th minute
Lazaroni put in Jermaine Johnson ("really good dribbler," said the scouting report in Portuguese), and,
finally, 13 minutes later, JJ made a chance for Ralph, who netted the equalizer with a backheel of
positively Brazilian artistry.
Sighs of relief--except there were 13 more minutes to go. And in the very last of those minutes, Jamaica
froze. A cross from the right deflected off a defender, and came to El Bombardero in the area. And he
unleashed the second of his bombs--a perfect pass to an unmarked Dély Valdés. He finished clinically,
and Panama, outplayed all night, had done the impossible.
Speaking of impossible, El Salvador decided they didn't really need to score at the USA. Paredes went
even further into the bunker, adding Edwin González, normally a centerback, at left midfield, and
moving midfielder Josué Galdámez up to striker so he could start yet another midfielder, Denis Alas, on
the right. Bruce Arena, in an unnecessarily flashy show of depth, started no less than 8 different players
from the game against Jamaica. Eat your heart out, Sebastian Lazaroni.
In was only the 5th minute when Brian Ching beat one of El Salvador's defensive legions (Víctor
Velásquez, for the record) and headed home a cross from Bobby Convey. The rest of the game was
eminently forgettable--except, of course, for The Great Necklace Incident.
It was the 27th minute, and the game was in a lull. Jorge Rodríguez had belted DaMarcus Beasley, and
Beasley was on the ground receiving treatment. Routine stuff: oh my god, is he dead? oh, there's the
sponge, hey, a miraculous revival, let's start play again. Except out of the blue, on the touchline about 30
yards away, referee Neal Brizan showed Denis Alas a yellow card. And, since it was his second yellow
of the game, a red card. Paredes, realizing he could now only play 10 defenders instead of 11, went
berserk. And he got a red too. What could possibly have happened?
Well, it seems Alas had been wearing a necklace. So what? So the teams had been informed before the
game that anyone wearing jewelry would get a yellow card. And Alas had apparently forgotten. And
Bruce Arena, perhaps upset that the necklace clashed with his amethyst pendant-and-earrings set
purchased especially for the game, had just happened to mention it to the fourth official. And the fourth
official had told the referee, and the referee had pulled out the card. So El Salvador would be
shorthanded the rest of the game. Oh, Bruce, you bitch!
At least the incident was worth a laugh, which was more than you could say about the game. The
Salvadorans hacked and chopped, the Americans staggered around ineffectively (except for one nice
strike from Landon Donovan), there was a near-brawl or two, and the final was 2:0 for the home team.
At the moment, it looks as if the return match in October won't even be on live TV in the USA. No
Whether or not the Lazaroni knew his players by now, Jamaica was in big trouble. Two home games,
two late goals conceded, only one point. Nothing less than a win in El Salvador would do--and Jamaica
had never won a game in Central America. So Lazaroni, famous for his defensive approach, went for
broke: a 4-3-3, with Marlon King, Damani Ralph, and Ricardo Fuller all up front. Meanwhile, either
Paredes had taken some severe medication, or the red card had sent him off the deep end, or his
assistant had chosen the lineup so he could go shopping for a stylish-but-not-too-showy
bracelet--because he played three strikers as well: "Chepe" Martínez, Ronald Cerritos, and naturalized
Brazilian Nenei (this despite the fact that Nenei had beaten in a door to the training compound a few
days before--don't ask).
E for effort, anyway. Jamaica wiped them out. Fuller made one for King in the 3rd minute, King tallied
off a corner in the 37th, Micah Hyde tapped in the rebound off a Ralph blast in the 39th. The rest was
silence--not. The Jamaica Observer: "As the game wore on the home crowd started booing their team,
while cheering on the visitors, a clear indication of which was the better team." The El Salvador papers
were a bit more explicit, reporting a few of the lovely expletives delivered by the fans. Summing up the
night, La Prensa, with characteristic Central American moderation, listed the good (the fans who stayed
to boo), the bad (all 11 starters, all 3 substitutes, all the officers of the federation, and of course Juan
Ramón Paredes), and the ugly (having to pay to see a bunch of guys in blue and white humiliate
themselves and embarrass their country).
In Panama they were glad to pay. After the win in Jamaica they were hosting the USA, and a victory
would, incredibly, put them at the top of the group. By now everyone had forgotten about Felipe Baloy,
and even about Ricardo James, who was able to make it to Panama City but was left off anyway. No
one was suggesting that Hernández resign. And he made yet another surprising decision: Jaime Penedo,
who had looked so good in the nets against Jamaica, gave way to a third goalkeeper, Donaldo González.
As for Arena, he must have been talking to Lazaroni and Paredes, because he went with his most
attacking lineup yet, putting Clint Mathis in a midfield role behind Brian Ching and Conor Casey.
The match was played in a rainstorm, and the pitch was CONCACAF-dreadful, which took away a
good part of the American midfield game. Donovan and Beasley, in particular, never got the magic
going. Still, in the first half, Mathis worked some effective passing combinations, and only the
ineffectiveness of the strikers and the fine play of González in goal kept the US at bay. It seemed only a
matter of time before the Yanks took firm command.
But about a half-hour in, the USA flagged. And in the 38th minute, Hernández took out right midfielder
Alberto Zapata and replaced him with Ricardo "The Size Of An Electron" Phillips. With both Dély
Valdés and Roberto Brown already up front, the team now had three strikers on the field. And when the
second half started, it was, miraculously, all Panama. Phillips was the catalyst, dribbling and passing
marvelously, rifling powerful shots. But there were other stars: tiny and quick Julio Medina, a left-footed
playmaker; left back Luis Henríquez, passive in the first half, now controlling his wing; centerback
Anthony "Chalate" Torres, holding off the American strikers. The play was physical, as expected, but
not dirty: just good, hard, fast football (or as fast as was possible on that field). The just reward came in
the 69th minute, as a quick pass from Brown found Phillips behind the defense. Kasey Keller made the
good save, but the ball squirted back to Phillips, and his second shot went off the post and right to
Brown, who tapped it into the open net.
Panama ahead of the USA? It couldn't last. Time for a comeback, same as against Jamaica. But it never
came. Casey, ineffective all night, was replaced by Brian McBride, who did nothing. Old Man Cobi hit
the pitch again, but nothing. Eddie Lewis, nothing. The USA looked beaten and played beaten, as the
home team danced. It was the greatest half of football in the history of Panama, and it was about to be
crowned with a famous victory. When, in the second of three minutes of injury time, Greg Vanney sent
a random long ball into the box, no one watching the game could even have imagined a tying goal.
But how can you figure football? Carlos Rivera rose over McBride to head out, but they collided, and
the clearance fell to the feet of Donovan. He swiped at it, scuffed it badly--but somehow right to Cobi
Jones. Jones, who would have been offside, should have been offside, except Rivera had fallen in the
mud and couldn't get forward. About 7 yards from goal, Jones turned and fired, and Gonzalez had no
chance. Panama wept.
But not for long. After they had recovered from the shock, the fans celebrated in the streets.
"Extraordinario, exquisito," hailed the papers. Yes, it was the cruelest of finishes, but the lads had done
something very special. "Da para soñar," it makes for dreaming. Next time, who knows?
WHERE WE STAND NOW
The USA leads the group with 5 points, obtained in textbook fashion: a win at home and two draws on
the road. But the signs aren't good. The draws both came on desperate, last-minute, frankly lucky goals.
And while against Jamaica the draw was deserved, against Panama it most certainly was not. As for the
win against El Salvador, the weakest side in the group, it was pedestrian, no more.
What's wrong? For one thing, the strikers aren't doing the job. Brian McBride looks past his prime, and
though Brian Ching has had a few moments, he's yet to show he's international class. Conor Casey was
poor against El Salvador and worse against Panama. Arena has been going with a twin-towers system,
playing two target men where possible, but it's not working. Look for Josh Wolff soon, or maybe Clint
Mathis in a withdrawn role.
In midfield, Landon Donovan has drifted. Yes, the pitch in Panama was a problem (it even shut down
Beasley, who had been in great form), but Donovan has been unconnected to the attack, and he's the
man who has to make it go. Fullback remains a weakness, too, with Greg Vanney, Frankie Hejduk, and
Steve Cherundolo unconvincing.
More than anything, the team just looks flat. Arena is usually pretty good at getting them up for
tournaments, but for all we know, they're bored. The USA has gone an incredible 26 games without
losing to a CONCACAF opponent--perhaps they've forgotten that you have to earn your points.
The schedule will help out, but not that much. The team has two home games remaining, but the easiest
opponent, El Salvador, has already been disposed of. Panama and Jamaica will give no quarter, even on
the road. Sure, you have to figure the USA will qualify--but not if they keep playing the way they have.
Jamaica, with 4 points, is feeling good. The massacre over El Salvador suggests that Lazaroni is settling
in. Ricardo Fuller has emerged as one of the best strikers in the region, and looks like the right partner
for Marlon King. In midfield, Theodore Whitmore is up to his old tricks, dribbling and creating, and
Jermaine Johnson is likely to be an effective joker the rest of the way home.
Still, the back line looks weak. Centerbacks Ian Goodison and Claude Davis have been erratic, covering
brilliantly one minute and straying well out of position the next. Right back is a shuttle service, with
Fabian Davis struggling, and Craig Ziadie not yet fit; if Tyrone Marshall plays there, as he did against El
Salvador, it leaves the defensive midfield weak. On the left, Garfield Reid had a poor game against
Panama, and Ricardo Gardner, looking solid for Bolton, may be ready to take the spot--but then who
plays left midfield?
And let's not forget the points they lost at home. In rounds 5 and 6, Jamaica and Panama have what
amounts to identical schedules: Jamaica gets El Salvador at home and the USA on the road, Panama the
same in reverse order. But game 4, the return meeting between the teams, will be played in Panama
City. Remember too, that this year, for the first time, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head results, not goal
difference. If the USA recovers to take first place, Panama, having already beaten Jamaica on the road,
will need only a draw at home to win the tiebreaker. So the pressure is still very much on the Reggae
Boyz. A lot may depend on whether the USA needs a win at home in the final round.
And what can we say about Panama? Out of nowhere they've become competitive. In goal they're a
mini-USA, with James, Penedo, and González all keepers of class. Dély Valdés, Brown, and Phillips
have been driving the attack impressively. The midfield still isn't fully settled--will Hernandez keep
Phillips, normally a striker, on the right? He usually plays two defensive midfielders; when Moldovan
legionnaire Alberto Blanco comes back, will there be a place for scooter Medina? The defense has its
weaknesses: Rivera, in particular, looks clumsy in the middle. Is it time, finally, for Baloy? [Yes. He's
just been called up for the Jamaica game.]
After such a marvelous performance against the USA, one hates to be even the slightest bit negative. But
to be honest, Panama is a technically limited side. For the most part they do it on athleticism, power,
and commitment. They don't really have the talent of Jamaica. But like Jamaica, they have 4 points, and
a draw on October 9 puts them in the driver's seat. And Hernández obviously has them thinking like
winners. Particularly impressive was the way they responded to the loss in El Salvador with a
last-minute victory at Jamaica. If they see the USA game not as a disappointment, but as a springboard
to better things, they might yet find themselves in the Hexagonal.
Unfortunately, El Salvador seems likely to find themselves in the cellar. They've been outplayed by
Panama, brushed aside by the USA, and massacred by Jamaica. They do have 3 points, and to their
credit held on with 10 men to win their opener, but the only home game left is against the USA, and any
more points will be hard to come by. Paredes got the sack after the Jamaica game, but new coach
Armando Contreras Palma will have the same player pool, and right now they don't look good enough to
qualify from this group. Maybe a new approach will revitalize the squad, or at least give them a more
attacking mindset. Certainly they can put up a better fight than they did against the USA and Jamaica.
But Salvadoran football needs a major overhaul: new directors, new sponsorship, a new commitment to
develop talent in the domestic league. Let's hope, for the sake of a very proud football nation, that they
start soon--the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 are only four years away.
When Canada took the field in Vancouver for the opener, the fans must have thought they'd fallen
asleep after the Belize games and awakened in a parallel, and much more unsatisfactory, universe. No
Tomasz Radzinski. No Iain Hume. No Jason DeVos. No Kevin McKenna. No Jim Brennan. What had
A bunch of things. Hume was serving a suspension. McKenna had tendinitis. Radzinski, notorious in the
past for shirking national team duty, had a calf injury. (OK, maybe he did.) DeVos had a hairline
fracture of the fibula--except he didn't: the CSA doctors had misdiagnosed his injury, and he was
actually able to play for Ipswich that weekend. Brennan, for his part, had simply been jettisoned.
Yallop's roster was a huge surprise, with several promising but untried names from the B team, and no
less than 5 players from the Montreal Impact in the A-league. And although "A-league" sounds great,
it's really the B-league to MLS, and if you're not a fan of MLS, you'll use a letter further down the
(By the way, you're probably wondering why the Montreal team has a name like "Impact" instead of a
French word. Good question, and I'd be glad to give you 20 pages of sociological analysis on the topic,
except the answer is that the French word for "impact" is... "impact." Is that weird or what?)
It would be nice to report that the plucky underdog Canadians did themselves proud, but they didn't. In
fact, they played badly, going down 0:2 at home. Nevio Pizzolitto, the sub for DeVos, got beat for both
goals, and they were simply outplayed by a Guatemalan side that were themselves not in top form.
But Ramon Maradiaga had it easy. No injuries, no controversies, no problems. He only had to make a
couple of decisions: Ricardo Trigueño Foster over Miguel Klee at keeper, and Mario "El Loco"
Rodríguez over Jose Zacarias Antonio at right midfield. He followed the usual Guatemalan strategy: send
11 guys out on the field and wait for Carlos Ruiz to put it in the net. In the 7th minute Ruiz slipped into
the area inside Pizzolitto, took a neat pass from Guillermo "El Pando" Ramírez, and slotted it home with
ease. In the 59th he got past Pizzolitto again, took a long pass from Gustavo Cabrera, and sweetly
lobbed Pat Onstad. The first goal had been offside, but what the heck. Class finishing is class finishing,
and the way things were going, Guatemala was going to win the game anyway.
No one tried to predict who would win Costa Rica-Honduras, the perfect opener for the group of death.
Plus, with two new coaches, lineups and tactics were wide open. Jorge Luís Pinto, sensing that his
4-2-3-1 had bombed in Peru, went to a 4-4-2: more sensible, but still not the 3-5-2 the team was used
to. And his player selection suggested something akin to panic. With regular defensive midfielder
Douglas Sequeira injured, he decided he had to have another one. So he called in Luís Diego Arnáez,
familiar from Pinto's days at Alajuelense, and put him on the left of midfield. Sounds fine, except
Arnáez is 36 years old. Another late surprise was Alexander Castro, another Alajuelense man, to replace
Try Bennett at right back. Striker Winston Parks got called all the way in from Russia, which made
sense--but he wound up on the bench the whole game, and afterwards quit the team in disgust. Where's
the firm hand of Steve Sampson when you need it?
Meanwhile, Raul Martínez Sambulá of Honduras was doing some tinkering of his own, changing Bora's
4-4-2 to a 4-5-1. David Suazo, two strikers by himself, was alone at the point, with Rambo DeLeón in a
kind of withdrawn forward role. The rest was two lines of four, with Ivan Guerrero moved up from left
back to left midfield, and Wilson Palacios at right midfield, which meant Maynor Figueroa at left back
and Édgard Alvarez at right. Changes, yes, but no late recalls, no senior citizens, no one really out of
The first half was a thrilling back and forth. Costa Rica: Andy Herron finished neatly after an Alonso
Solís-Walter Centeno combination. Honduras: Guevara put Suazo through, and his shot deflected off
Luís Marín and in. Honduras: a Rambo specialty, a blasting 25-meter free kick. Costa Rica: Herron
again, although this time Noel Valladares should have stopped it. Exhilaration, exhaustion, halftime.
The second 45 was inevitably a bit slower, with the home side doing its best to push the attack. But
Maynor Suazo was in top form in the holding role for Honduras, and Centeno, the main playmaker, was
launching way too many long balls for Wanchope. Arnáez and defensive midfielder Mauricio Solís
seemed physically out of shape. And inevitably it was David Suazo who made the difference. In the
77th minute he raced past the defense to take a long ball from Maynor Suazo, and keeper Ricardo
González had no choice but to bring him down. Guevara converted the penalty. And Costa Rica
collapsed. In the 87th minute Guerrero drove a sensational 35-yard volley off the post and in. In the
89th Saul Martínez, who had replaced David Suazo, added another. Costa Rica 2:5 Honduras!
You can imagine the reaction. The late goals made the final score a bit misleading, but that was no
consolation for the ticos, who had been humiliated in their home park. So it was time for recriminations.
Hernan Medford, former mundialista and coach of champions Saprissa, was angry because Pinto had
called in six of his players and only used one. Winston Parks, as mentioned, up and quit. The press
reminded Pinto, not so subtly, of the "fragile 4-man defensive line." At least no one wanted Sampson
So Costa Rica went to Guatemala badly in need of points--but Pinto stayed conservative. He kept the
4-4-2, dropped playmaker Centeno, and put two defensive midfielders in the middle, Cristian Badilla and
U-23 captain Jose Luís López. That meant in attack he'd have to rely on the wide men: on the left,
Alonso Solís, a good dribbler who had played well against Honduras, and on the right, pacy Stephen
Bryce. At least the choice up front was clear: Paulo Wanchope and Andy Herron at striker.
For about 18 minutes, actually. It was then that Herron and Gustavo Cabrera went up to contest a ball,
and Herron's elbow found Cabrera's face. It didn't look intentional, but the contact was pretty hard
nevertheless. Out came the yellow, the second already for Herron, and he was gone. Could Costa Rica
win on the road with 10 men?
For a while it looked like they would. Guatemala had started the game uptempo, with Mario "El Loco"
Rodríguez racing around on the right wing and Carlos Ruiz a handful in the middle. But they seemed
utterly flummoxed by the man advantage. The rhythm dropped, the technique faltered, and only six
minutes later Wanchope headed Badilla's pass down to Solís, who knifed into the area and finished in
the far corner. The rest of the half Guatemala had plenty of space but never seemed to know what to do
with it, and with Wanchope ever-dangerous on the counter, it certainly looked like Costa Rica's day.
The second half began with more of the same. A typically elegant move from Wanchope beat Trigueño
Foster, and Pablo Melgar had to clear off the line. Bryce and Solís kept the pressure up in midfield.
Guatemala was visibly losing confidence, and if anything looked less likely to score than in the first half.
But there had been one small lineup change: left back Angel Sanábria had been replaced by Juan Carlos
Plata, the inimitable Juan Carlos Plata. A small, slippery striker, he's Guatemala's all-time leading scorer.
He's also virtually unknown outside CONCACAF. But give me my choice of highlight videos from any
striker on the planet, and I'll take Plata. He's stylish, opportunistic, cheeky, outrageous--he scores
one-of-a-kind goals that can take your breath away. He was a surprise call-up: 33 years old, past his
prime, off the side for more than 2 years. But in the 58th minute he left his calling card. Right back
Néstor Martínez sent a long cross toward the box. Ruiz, back to goal at the top of the arc, followed with
a neat overhead lob into the left side of the area. Plata zipped inside Gilberto Martínez, and they both
went for the ball. It bounced, and Martinez appeared to have it on his chest--but somehow it slipped
away for a moment, and in a tangle of legs, there was Plata sliding, sticking out his left foot, and poking
it from a tight angle past José Francisco Porras. Absolutely classic Plata: no other striker in CONCACAF
would have made that play.
Guatemala now took heart: Pezzarossi came close on a header, and Porras had to come out to smother a
shot from Ruiz. But Costa Rica, down a man, refused to go into a shell--brave indeed, but it would cost
them. Right back Alexander Castro, pushing up, found himself off balance retreating to clear a pass from
Guillermo Ramírez. The ball fell to Maynor Dávila, another second half sub, just to the left of the
6-yard box. Porras came out, but he was still limping from the Ruiz play, and didn't get there soon
enough. Dávila poked it into the area, and a stretching Luís Marín couldn't get much on the clearance.
So it caromed to the left foot of Mr. Opportunity, Juan Carlos Plata, who almost unconsciously banged
it off the post, then very consciously followed it up into the open net. Costa Rica gave their all in the
final minutes, producing a few chances and half-chances, but Foster always seemed to be in perfect
position. Full time 2:1. After two games, Guatemala with six points, Costa Rica with zero--could you
But for disbelief, it was hard to top Canada-Honduras. Canada just a few minutes away from a
pulse-pounding victory; Honduras, for all their talent, desperate, going under. And then...
Well, let's start at the beginning. The home side needed a win, and although Bundesleaguer RB Paul
Staltieri was fighting a knee injury, Hume, Radzinski, and DeVos were all back. Honduras, on the road
for the second straight game, but against a less feared opponent, morphed their 4-4-1-1 into a 4-2-3-1,
with Maynor Suazo and Wilson Palacios as double pivot, and Guerrero, Guevara, and DeLeón across
The first half was mostly Honduras. Although Radzinski tested Valladares early, the pivot controlled the
midfield, and up front it was the David Suazo show. Despite a wet pitch, his pace was simply too much
for the Canadian defense; no less than three times he made chances for Amado Guevara. First time El
Lobo had an open net from 15 yards, but somehow hit the crossbar. Second time a low cross was just
beyond his reach--not his fault, really. But third time he was in the area with time, space, and only the
keeper to beat, and he placed his shot wrong. Pat Onstad made the nifty save, and at halftime it was still
After so many missed opportunities, it was inevitable that Canada would come back in the second half.
Jaime Peters, only 17 years old, came in to replace striker Paul Peschisolido; he went to the right wing,
which meant Hume could go into the middle, where he was invaluable winning balls and starting attacks.
Playmaker Julian DeGuzman, who had been forced way too deep in the first half, came to life. On the
left wing, Dwayne DeRosario looked good with the ball at his feet, and up front Radzinski was showing
Premiership quality. But, like Honduras in the first half, they missed their best chance--a weak Milton
Palacios clearance found Daniel Imhof alone in the box from 15 yards, but defensive midfielders don't
get those kind of chances often, and he skied it well over the bar.
The Canadian pressure abated after 25 minutes; it was still scoreless, still exciting, still anyone's game.
Honduras had the better chances, but Suazo wasn't breaking free like in the first half. So, in the 82nd
minute, it was time for Canada's finest to do what they do best. Iain Hume lifted a dangerous free kick
to the far post; Jason DeVos rose up and headed down, and the home side were ahead. Honduras, winners by three clear goals at Costa Rica, had come up short in the far north.
But then...well, what's Canadian for "horrible incredible cosmic nightmare"? This. In the 88th minute,
left back Ante Jazic, pinned against the touchline about 40 yards from his own goal, saw Onstad
seemingly within reach, and sent him a backpass. But it was weak, way weak, and suddenly there was
Suazo with the ball zeroing in on the keeper. Mark Watson, closing from the left, made a desperate
flying tackle, and Suazo went down in the area. Mexican referee Benito Archundia (and don't ever
mention that name north of the 49th parallel) signaled the inevitable penalty. But the replay showed
Suazo hadn't been fouled. He hadn't been touched. He hadn't been grazed. He hadn't even dived: he had
merely slipped on the wet grass. Guevara's spot kick tied the game.
Enough, certainly, for years of Canadian anguish--but not enough to satisfy the dark forces controlling
the universe. A few moments later, Hume had a free kick from almost the same spot that had produced
the goal. Again he sent it to the far post, again DeVos headed down, this time into the middle of the
area. It bounced at waist level, and two men went after it: Honduras defender Milton Palacios, and
Canada striker Olivier Occean. Occean got there first. He controlled it skillfully. He turned and shot
home. The crowd went totally maple leaf. But...Palacios was on the ground, and the whistle had blown.
It wasn't clear whether Archundia had called a foul on Occean, or just dangerous play for a high leg. But
the replay (maybe we're better off without them?) again told the horrible tale. No foul: Occean had got
the ball, not Palacios. No dangerous play: the leg wasn't high enough. Two minutes, two blown calls,
and Canada's world had collapsed. With 3 points, they would have been right in the race; with 1, they
were barely hanging on. Frank Yallop had a classic coach's quote: "I won't use the word cheated, but
that's what comes to mind." The fans--well, best not to quote them.
After the great escape, Honduras went home to face Guatemala. "Home," in this case, being a 40,000
seat swimming pool known as the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula. It rains a lot in Central America
and the Caribbean, so we're pretty tough here in CONCACAF. We don't mind a wet pitch or two. But
normally you don't need a boat to get on the field. Sambulá, realizing that David Suazo's speed might be
neutralized, teamed him with a centerforward, Carlos Pavón, although Ian Thorpe would have been
even better. Ramon Maradiaga had to make a few changes (Pablo Melgar injured, Fredy Thompson
suspended), but stood pat tactically, although he had a team of dolphin communicators ready just in
Although Honduras went on the attack from the beginning, the standing water took most of the pace
from their game. Suazo could get nothing done; Pavón, with his strength in the air, was the greater
threat. But with centerback Gustavo Cabrera having one of his best games, Guatemala was comfortable
on defense, and ready to look for counters.
The first goal figured to come from a set piece or a fluke (from a real whale, most likely), and so it
proved. In the 20th minute, Gonzalo "The Carp" Romero swung out a corner, Dwight "The Marlin"
Pezzarossi headed superbly back into the box, Guillermo "The Halibut" Ramírez followed with another
header, and there was Carlos "The Little Fish, That's My Real Nickname!" Ruiz, literally in his element,
to slam it in.
The play had exposed Honduras' Achilles heel: the centerbacks, technically weak and slow to react.
Both Víctor Bernárdez and Milton Palacios had been beaten on the play. A bit later they were beaten
again: another Pezzarossi header found Ruiz, and only a fine save from Valladares kept Honduras one
down. Meanwhile, with Pavón the only danger up front, Guatemala was able to hold off the Honduras
attack. Trigueño Foster patrolled his area flawlessly, topping it off with a save from a long-range Rambo
De León blast on the last kick of the half.
Only 4 minutes into the second half the central weakness cost Honduras again. Bernárdez went up for a
long ball, but missed, and it fell to Ruiz, who delivered a marvelous backheel for Pezzarossi to finish.
Who knows what would have happened if Honduras hadn't answered immediately? A hopeful cross by
Wilson Palacios rattled around the box and came to Guevara; his shot slipped through Foster's hands,
and it was 1:2.
A lucky goal, true, but it was the signal for Honduras to play their best football of the night. Gradually
they became accustomed to the pitch: Suazo was setting records for the 50m freestyle, Guevara's passes
were gliding over the calm ocean. In the 65th minute he sent Ivan Guerrero through on the left; his low
cross was a little behind Suazo, but King Neptune reached back to drive in the equalizer. Caught at 2:2,
Guatemala could have floundered (I got a million of 'em!), but held their nerve, and although Honduras'
passing game looked better every minute, they never broke through. Guatemala came into the game in
first place, and left it in first place. By kayak.
But at the Saprissa stadium in Costa Rica, the miracle of modern science was on display. FieldTurf, they
call it, a FIFA-approved ARTIFICIAL surface for your spectating pleasure. Water worries? Try
FieldTurf! See the artificial rolls and bounces! No more World Cup qualifying messes! Real artificial
football every time! Only six easy payments of ten thousand dollars each! (Void where prohibited by
local federations or Jack Warner.)
Canada, needing at least a point to stay alive, was missing two of its key men. Staltieri had very
reasonably thrown a water bottle onto the field during the Honduras brouhaha, but alas, his only reward
was a red card. DeVos was out with two yellows, and was replaced by another of those A-leaguers,
Gabriel Gervais. For Costa Rica, Wanchope was fighting a mild injury, and with Herron suspended,
Pinto started the second-string strikers, Erick Scott and Alvaro Saborio. Just to keep his hand in, the
coach made another odd tactical move, using Alonso Solís, who had played on the left last time, in a
free attacking role in the middle. So the team had no true left midfielder, requiring LB Leonardo
González to move up and cover the space. With Iain Hume at right midfield, Canada might have taken
advantage, but they never seemed to catch on.
The first 20 minutes were a relatively featureless artificial midfield duel; Costa Rica had a little more
artificial possession, but Canada kept their artificial shape and caused occasional danger on the artificial
counter. The most unartificial moment came when Dwayne DeRosario, having his best game yet at left
midfield, beat his man to the byline and crossed low for an unmarked Radzinski at the far post.
Radzinski inexplicably reacted late, and never got there. He really should have scored. But it was
probably just as well. See, the referee had already ruled the ball was over the line before the cross.
Guess what the replay showed? I don't think the bench would have stopped at water bottles this time.
As the half went on, Costa Rica got more of the play. Gervais and Mark Watson weren't marking Scott
and Saborio closely enough, and Solís was making trouble on the dribble. Also, without DeVos, Canada
was surprisingly weak in the air on defense. But Pat Onstad was in outstanding form, positioning himself
perfectly, taking crosses with ease, delivering a goalkeeping master class. (Did I call him "suspect" in the
preview? Props to those who came to his defense.) At the artificial interval, the teams were still even.
Okay. So you're the coach of Costa Rica. You're 0:0 at half, and you absolutely need to win the game.
The best striker the team has ever had is on your bench. He's a little hobbled, but ready to play. Do you
stick him in?
Of course. Even Steve Sampson couldn't have missed that one. But I suspect Jorge was a bit surprised
when Paulo Wanchope scored only 10 seconds later. As Atiba Hutchinson got ready to clear a long ball,
Wanchope charged in, went high to win it, and, still driving forward, volleyed hard and low into the far
corner. A truly magnificent goal, and Canada never really recovered. They managed a few half-chances,
and DeGuzman should have done better with an open shot from the top of the area, but Porras was
stretched only once, when in the 82nd minute he dove to his right to save a free kick from Imhof. Costa
Rica counterattacked at will; only more fine play from Onstad kept the scoreline unchanged. One-nil at
home doesn't sound that great, but Costa Rica finally had a decidedly unartificial win.
WHERE WE STAND NOW
Yes, that's Guatemala on top with 7 points. They've followed the script perfectly: cohesive play, timely
goals. The side has shown surprising depth and flexibility. When Denis Chen went down against Canada,
Angel Sanábria stepped in at left back. When Pablo Melgar, their best defender, got hurt against Costa
Rica, it was Nelson Morales plugging up the middle. When defensive midfielder Fredy Thompson was
suspended for the Honduras game, Guillermo Ramírez shifted into his spot, and Maynor Dávila looked
the part on the left. Maradiaga hasn't once had to change his basic scheme.
Ramírez has been a real standout in midfield, and Trigueño Foster, despite the mistake against
Honduras, has been very good in the nets. But the glory of the side is up front. Ruiz has been absolutely
top-class: creating, finishing (of course), and going all out for 90 minutes. Pezzarossi was subpar in the
first two games, but came up big against Honduras. And of course it was Plata playing the hero against
But even with two home games left, it isn't over yet. They're 4 points ahead of Costa Rica, and CR can
get three of them back on October 9, when Guatemala travels to San José. A draw would come very
near to clinching a spot--but in order to get it, they'll have to prove their depth and cohesion once more.
That's because both Ruiz and playmaker Gonzalo Romero will miss the game with yellow card
suspensions. In midfield, expect Thompson back in the holding role, Ramírez as playmaker, and Dávila
on the left. In attack, will it be Plata from the start? Or will Maradiaga hold back his ace, and go with
Walter Estrada? Or maybe Mario Acevedo or José Mendoza? On such decisions the fate of a nation
Honduras is sitting well with 5 points and two home games left. David Suazo has been all you could ask
for, and Ivan Guerrero has moved from left back to left midfield without missing a beat. Wilson
Palacios, big, agile, technically strong, has played three different positions--right midfield, part of a
double pivot, and right back--and looked good at all three. Maynor Suazo is rock-solid at defensive
midfield, and Maynor Figueroa has taken over competently at left back.
It isn't all good news, though. DeLeón and Guevara, for all their skills, have been inconsistent. Serie A
man Édgard Alvarez is off form, and against Guatemala was actually benched in favor of Palacios. And
of course there's the central defense. Víctor Bernárdez, Junior Izaguirre, and Milton Palacios have done
their best, but it's no good pretending they're impenetrable. Veteran Mario Beata, coming off injury, is
likely to get a chance next time out. U-23 Sergio Mendoza, who's been out of the pool for disciplinary
reasons, is another candidate. Sambulá was hoping to get long-injured Samuel Caballero into action
eventually, but he's been dropped by his club and has little chance of reaching match fitness. True,
Honduras looks good enough to make the Hexagonal, and probably even Germany, with an ordinary
central defense--but they have to be at least ordinary. Anything less, and all the Suazos in the world
might not be enough.
Costa Rica, with 3 points, is alive, but it doesn't look good. The math is no problem; a win home to
Guatemala and they're right back in it. But the team doesn't inspire confidence. In central defense, Luís
Marín has been improving with each game, but Gilberto Martínez, who plays out at right wingback for
his club, doesn't look comfortable. And (one more time, folks) 4 at the back still doesn't feel right.
Moreover, Pinto hasn't settled on a midfield combination, and although Solís has played well, neither he
nor Centeno looks like a dependable number 10. The team has yet to deliver a single convincing
90-minute performance; even at home to Canada they didn't take control until they went on top in the
On the other hand, there are important positives. Up front, Wanchope has been in excellent form, Andy
Herron looks solid, and Erick Scott was useful against Canada. Jose Luís López of the U-23's has
moved convincingly into the holding role. Stephen Bryce has played well on the right wing, and Solís is
slowly maturing as an attacking midifelder.
But I don't think it'll be enough. Pinto's hand seems far from sure, and the spark that drove the great
2002 team is absent. They have to get 3 points against Guatemala, and after a trip to Canada they close
at Honduras. If in the final game there's one spot on the line, ticos vs. catrachos, right now you'd have
to go with the blue and white.
And then there's Canada, all but eliminated. They've certainly had their share of bad luck, and no one
will forget the Honduras Horror. But pretend they have 3 points instead of 1, and they still haven't
played well enough. They went meekly against Guatemala at home, and couldn't sustain it for 90
minutes against a vulnerable Costa Rica. The lack of depth at centerback was clearly exposed when
DeVos was absent. DeRosario has slowly come on at an unfamiliar position, but perhaps he might have
been more useful at striker, where only Radzinski has shown any class. Some of the young players have
looked good: Atiba Hutchinson at right back, Jaime Peters in an attacking role on the right, Iain Hume in
a couple of different spots. But Yallop probably stayed too long with Paul Peschisolido up front, when
Olivier Occean was available from the start.
One hates to say it, but the side wasn't quite ready for a group this hard. The lack of friendlies
undoubtedly made a difference; you can't get acquainted on the job in the WCQ. Canada is developing
more young talent now than ever, but they'll need stronger leadership from the federation to take the
next step. I don't know how far they can go in four years. But at least they'll have a more reasonable
draw. Won't they?
The game of the day in Group C figured to be St. Vincent & the Grenadines-Trinidad & Tobago. And it
was, too--the only game of the day. That's because Mexico got their game with SKN postponed because
it conflicted with the Olympics. (Excuse me? Like you were afraid to face St. Kitts & Nevis without
your U-23's? Like are you guys sort of WUSSES? Geez, no wonder the USA beats you like a drum.)
SVG had everything all lined up for the big T&T match. They had spent a couple of weeks in Brazil
training. They had given the team a brand new nickname, Vincy Heat. Although they couldn't lure Julian
Joachim away from Leeds, they had convinced Euro men Rodney Jack and Wesley Charles to make the
trip. All was ready for an historic first semifinal round victory, or at least an historic first semifinal round
What they got, of course, was an historic 19th straight semifinal round loss. But you could hardly blame
them. In fact, they outplayed a timid Soca Warriors team much of the way. The defense, led by
centerbacks Matthew Forde and Cornelius Huggins, was strong throughout. The pace of the forwards
repeatedly caused problems for Marlon Rojas and Dennis Lawrence on the left of defense. But good
chances were missed by Rodney Jack and strike partner Shandell Samuel, and in the 72nd minute
midfielder Howie Williams somehow shot wide with the keeper beaten.
That keeper was Daurance Williams, by the way--not the first choice (Clayton Ince), second choice
(Kelvin Jack), or even great veteran in the wings (Shaka Hislop), but the youth keeper, all of 21 years
old. SVG, with first-choice keeper Melvin Andrews suspended, went the other way entirely, calling back
the wonderfully named Fitzgerald Bramble, exactly twice Williams' age. Bramble was the starter all the
way back in 1992, during SVG's first run at the qualifiers. Now he's a diplomat in Washington D.C.,
which explains why he was so happy to return to active duty.
He played well enough, too, and even with the missed chances, Vincy looked good for at least a point.
But T&T had brought Mohammed to the mountain, in the person of Lebanon-based striker Errol
McFarlane. Compact, technically sound, with a quick first turn, he hadn't played for the team in over a
year and a half. But with Cornell Glen injured, and Jason Scotland mysteriously left off, he got the start
up front with Stern John. And in the 79th minute, when the SVG defense finally put a step wrong, he
connected with a Brent Rahim cross and tallied the game winner. Eight minutes later, with a discouraged
Vincy Heat officially down to Vincy Moderate Warmth, he scored again to seal it.
In this group, it was a crusher. Assuming those WUSSES from Mexico ever agreed to play, SVG would
have no chance there, and their best hope had been a home win against the Soca Warriors. You couldn't
say it was over already, but the forecast was Vincy Cool and dropping.
Again Mexico didn't play. According to the official story, the SVG squad got stuck in Miami by
Hurricane Frances. But we know better--besides, there were photos of a trembling Ricardo LaVolpe
sacrificing to the wind god Nezaheyuatl.
So that put St. Kitts & Nevis front and center, with their own shot at home to T&T. But there was bad
news from England: two of the Peterborough legionnaires, Calum Willock and Sagi Burton, were
injured, and the third, Adam Newton, was sticking with his club for the weekend. T&T brought their top
two keepers this time, but in a mild surprise, started Dundee's Kelvin Jack over Crewe's Clayton Ince.
Even without the Posh men, the Sugar Boyz figured to be competitive, and so they were, in a
close-fought game in which both teams played well. T&T, in much better form than against St. Vincent,
had most of the early play, with McFarlane and midfielder Arnold Dwarika particularly effective. But
don't ever take your eyes off the littlest man on the field, George Isaac. In the 40th minute, "Kayamba"
Gumbs set up for a free kick, tapped it to Isaac, and the Yellowman drove it in. Pandemonium in
Basseterre. But T&T answered bravely: first Stern John hit the crossbar, then McFarlane came close
with a header, and finally, with the last kick of the half, McFarlane equalized off a John cross with
keeper Akil Byron out of position.
SKN could have been discouraged, but came out stronger than ever in the second half. The midfield,
with Isaac, Floyd Hodge, and Darryl Gomez in excellent form, started to take control. T&T managed
one great chance, when John missed a sitter, but otherwise was kept away from goal. In the 71st minute
Bertille St.Clair went for broke, adding a third striker, Cornel Glen, and putting McFarlane in midfield.
Only four minutes later Hodge appeared to have scored the go-ahead goal for SKN, but it was ruled
offside, and there were no complaints. T&T put the pressure back on; still, in the 89th minute, it looked
like a well-deserved draw. But when a T&T corner was cleared, the Sugar Boyz tried an offside
trap--and it failed. John got behind the defense to score, and T&T had another crushing last minute
The Olympics were over. The hurricanes had passed. LaVolpe brought a note from his mother saying he
had a tummy ache, but the federation didn't buy it. Mexico absolutely had to play.
But the best action, as always with the Tri, was off the field. LaVolpe, looking to bolster his midfield,
had called in a naturalized Brazilian, Antonio Naelson, known as "Sinha." Now these days that may
seem no big deal, but in Mexico this sort of thing still matters. A lot. There are some good naturalized
players in the Mexican league, but national pride demands that you keep them off the Tri. Back in the
runup to the 2002 World Cup, a furor broke out when Javier Aguirre called in Argentina-born Gabriel
Caballero--but Aguirre was a master with fans, players, and media, and got away with it.
LaVolpe, to put it kindly, is not a master with fans, players, and media. And as a native Argentine, he's a
marked man anyway. And when he innocently suggested he might call in more naturalized players where
the native talent wasn't sufficient...Oh boy. Coming out of his fortified bunker a couple of weeks later,
he said he'd made the comment in order to motivate the Mexican players. Yeah, right. Stick to X's and
O's next time, Señor Freud.
For T&T, this was the real test. They had come out of the Caribbean with 6 points, but had been
unconvincing against weak opposition. Mexico had brought only half its first-teamers, and, playing at
home, the Soca Warriors absolutely had to prove themselves.
It was thus a mild disappointment when they went down 0:1 after thirty seconds. Marvin Andrews
misplayed a ball, and Jesús Arellano took it off his feet and put it in the net. In the 19th minute, Dennis
Lawrence let Jared Borgetti get behind him (Borgetti is many things, but "elusive" is not one of them),
and when Kelvin Jack got tangled coming out, it was 0:2. With Mexico controlling the game "a media
máquina," as they say, at half speed, a major-league embarrassment looked in order. St. Clair left the
bench to call Mexico City and inquire about a few Mexican-league Brazilians.
By the time he got back, though, T&T had scored. In the 39th minute, capitalizing on a chronic Mexican
weakness, set-piece defense, Stern John headed in a free kick. And for a while it looked as if T&T
might make a game of it. When the second half began, John, McFarlane, and Dwarika showed genuine
style and aggressiveness, and the steel band music was getting louder by the minute.
Alas, the surge faded quickly, and the rest of the game belonged to Mexico. Most of the time they were
just passing the ball around in midfield, really; T&T seemed unable to mark or pressure. It wasn't until
the 80th minute that Arellano got the clincher, but the outcome was never in doubt. Even the Mexican
press was pleased with the effort, and no one seemed at all disturbed that Sinha had played 84 minutes.
The controversy was left for T&T, where Stern John blasted his teammates for showing insufficient
Since Mexico, against all odds, had actually played as scheduled, Group C rules demanded that
SVG-SKN had to be postponed. Hurricane Ivan had hit Vincy hard, and it was to the nation's great
credit that they were able to stage the game only two days later. Of course, they had realized that this,
their 20th chance to get a semifinal point, could be their last for a while. Up ahead were two with
Mexico, plus trips to T&T and SKN; hurricanes, volcanoes, plagues of locusts weren't going to stop
them. Plus, the Sugar Boyz remained Poshless: Burton and Willock were still injured, and although
rumor had it that Newton was going to play on the original Wednesday, Friday conflicted with league
action in England.
But it shouldn't have mattered, because St. Kitts & Nevis dominated play from start to finish. They
forgot only one thing: to put the ball in the net. The best chances were missed by Ian "Rumpy" Lake and
Darryl Gomez, but it sounded as if the whole team was ready to score if only someone could figure out
how to get a round object from point A to point B. In the 75th minute, Keith Gumbs actually managed
it, but the ball had apparently gone over the endline before the preceding cross. St. Vincent, despite
being thoroughly outplayed, had passed their geometry lesson--midfielder Randy Pierre, their man of the
match, had made an early chance for Rodney Jack, and the Oldham man had beaten Akil Byron high
into the corner. The goal might very well have been offside; the SKN defenders certainly thought so,
and the Cuban officials took a minute to make the call.
But that was the difference, and it was fitting that SVG had finally picked up
their points on a doubtful goal. In a game they should have lost. And because
their opponents didn't have the full squad. And because the draw was
ridiculous. (Oh, by the way, the official match report still hasn't been posted
on the FIFA site. Could it be that...? Nah.) But they still had to do it, and they
did. So all honors to hotter-than-ever Vincy Heat, now tied for second place
with Mexico in the group.
Of course you'll want to know how SVG responded to this epoch-making
victory. Bonuses all around? A ticker-tape parade? A national half-holiday?
No. Actually, they fired the coach. And the Technical Director.
I'm not kidding. Really, I'm not. They fired the coach and the TD. After the
game, Adie Shaw and Ces Podd flew to England without informing the
federation, and FA president St. Clair Leacock gave 'em the axe.
I…but…didn't they just…19 straight losses…benefit of the
doubt...laughingstock…But wow. Just wow. I so love CONCACAF.
WHERE WE STAND NOW
Where we stood before. Mexico will finish first, T&T second. Who's kidding whom?
To be fair, it was a good performance from the Tri down in Port-of-Spain. They kept the ball with ease,
passed it effectively, finished when they needed to. The best sign was the return to form of Jesús "El
Cabrito" Arellano, who at 31 had been on the decline. He looked like the Little Goat of old: whirling,
twisting, painting Picassos with the ball at his feet. (He also scored twice with his left foot, but that won't
happen again this century.) No way to know whether he'll keep it up against tougher opposition, but
even a short burst here and there will be helpful. As for Sinha, he did some neat playmaking, and is a
good option if LaVolpe wants to risk assassination again.
But judging from the Copa America, and even the game against T&T, Mexico is still short of the
summit. They can be weak in the air at the back (although when Rafael Márquez and Duilio Davino
play, it's less of a problem), and they still seem to spend too much time enjoying possession, rather than
pressing to score. Group C is no test, of course.
It's been more of a test for Trinidad & Tobago, and their marks are only average so far. They deserve
real credit for bagging two late wins on the road, but could they have done it against Guatemala and
Panama? They went down 1:3 at home to a half-strength Mexico; what will happen on the road against
Honduras, or the USA?
But let's look at the good stuff first. Stern John is still a talented and committed striker, and Errol
McFarlane has come out of the desert to show he can score. The most consistent performer so far has
been defender Brent Sancho, who reads the game very well and is good in the air. Defensive midfielder
Anthony Rougier missed the last two games to make club arrangements in China, but should bring
energy and power to the squad. Defender Marvin Andrews had a howler against Mexico, but most of
the time is strong and reliable. Andre Boucaud, a young midfielder, has lots of skill, and might be worth
a look as a starter.
But the rest of the side has yet to prove themselves. St. Clair has been going with a 3-5-2, with Sancho,
Andrews, and Dennis Lawrence at the back, but the wingbacks in this scheme are dicey. On the left,
Marlon Rojas has attacking ability, but leaves way too many gaps when he goes forward. On the right,
Kenwyne Jones is OK on defense, but doesn't seem to have the skill to be an effective attacker.
Meanwhile, the midfield, with veterans like Angus Eve and Arnold Dwarika, drifts in and out of focus: at
times aggressive and creative, at other times a bit lost. Kelvin Jack has been only average in goal, and
regular starter Clayton Ince lacks match practice because he's been on the bench at Crewe.
It looks like Group C has been a mixed blessing for the Soca Warriors. A free ticket to the Hexagonal,
yes, but not enough competition at mid-level. SKN and SVG are too easy, Mexico too hard. Even after
the round is over, Bertille St. Clair won't be able to say for sure how his team lines up best. With the
exception of Mexico, every other team in the Hexagonal will have been more sharply honed.
St. Kitts & Nevis, with zero points, are, sadly, close to elimination. (Judging by
the way SVG handles things, they should give the coach a new three-year
contract.) Even if SKN beat SVG and T&T in their next two games, they'll
have only 6 points, and they'll have to hope T&T loses to SVG so they can slip
through on goal difference, or else get a point against Mexico and hope T&T
gets no better than a draw vs. SVG--when goal difference might still be
necessary. By any standard the campaign has been a disappointment. The loss
of the legionnaires was a blow, but before anyone had even heard of Willock,
Burton, and Newton, the Sugar Boyz were posting good results against quality
opposition. And they've come so close: they could easily have beaten SVG,
and drawn with T&T. With 4 points they'd be very much alive. But even with
0, they're mathematically alive, and the way they've played suggests they'll put
up a fight.
St. Vincent & the Grenadines…wait a minute. OK. Sorry, I was laughing
uncontrollably. St. Vincent & the Grenadines, led by new coach Zoran Vranes,
have at least a mathematical chance…wait again…just anoth…OK, I
th--AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! AHAHAHAHA!!! Whew. OK. To
have any chance, SVG will probably have to win at both St. Kitts & Nevis and
Trinidad & Tobago, and that's unlikely, but the way the schedule works, they
could be alive up until the final day. Rodney Jack has dutifully flown in for
every game, and there's no reason he won't continue to do so. The midfield is
a problem, though; even against T&T, where the team as a whole played well,
it was the weak point overall. Randy Pierre injected some life against SKN,
and is likely to keep his spot. And we can only hope Fitzgerald Bramble gets
out of Washington again and does some more honest work for a change.
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
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