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 4-5
by Peter Goldstein
It's the halfway point of the competition; your team has 3 points, the group
leader has 5. Not bad, right? But Salvadorans knew better. In fact, the entire
country had given up. Before the game against the USA, you couldn't find a
single person who gave the team a chance to qualify; not fans, not coaches,
not administrators, not the Presidente himself. New coach Armando
Contreras Palma was so upset by the negative atmosphere that he closed all
practices to the fans. One supporter, with absolutely the right perspective,
commented that closing the Cuscatleco stadium was like closing the cathedral
of San Salvador.
But having found sanctuary, Contreras set about revamping the team and
finding a respectable lineup. He chose a 3-5-2, with the back line lifted bodily
from club team FAS (Victor Velásquez, Rafael Tobar, Marvin González). In
midfield he emphasized quickness, with players like left back Denis Umanzor,
right wingback Marvin Benítez, and midfielder Santos Cabrera replacing
slower, more powerful types. He put his best playmaker, Victor Merino
Dubón, in an attacking role. He brought in Fredy González Víchez to play
point man, and in a surprise move, kept Ronald Cerritos as his partner.
Twenty thousand fans showed up at the cathedral, but it was something less
than a religious experience. The USA scored a routine 2:0 victory, and to put
that in perspective, the USA had never scored a routine WCQ victory in
Central America in the whole history of the world. Bruce Arena made a few
interesting tactical moves--a switch to a 3-5-2, Josh Wolff up front for the first
time--but basically it was a case of the better team winning. El Salvador
played with a lot of heart: they fought for every ball in midfield, and looked
good on the counter every once in a while. Cerritos, playing on the left, took
over the space left by Frankie Hejduk, and Dubón used his ball skills to good
effect. But Kasey Keller was seriously threatened only once, smothering
Dubón's low cross early in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Yanks took their time, controlled play, and waited for the
back line to show gaps. In the 29th minute, slack marking left Brian McBride
free at the top of the box, and he drove home the first goal. In the 75th,
DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan sliced and diced the defense, and
served it up for debutante Eddie Johnson to tally the clincher. It could have
been even worse; McBride had a legitimate goal called back for offside as
early as the 5th minute, and shortly afterwards Clint Mathis missed a sitter.
But give the fans credit: they cheered before, during, and after the game.
Despite the loss--despite the fact the team never looked like winning or
drawing--it was the best experience the Salvadoran football community had
had in ages. But everyone agreed divine intervention would still be necessary
In Panama City, folks of all religions were getting ready for the game of the
tournament so far. Panama-Jamaica: with a win, either team would be on the
verge of qualifying. In a motivational speech to his players, Sebastian
Lazaroni stressed the mental side: "What separates us from the lower
animals?" he asked. I dunno--diving, faking injuries, and whining to the refs?
Cheché Hernández might know: a lower animal of the two-legged variety had
broken into practice and attacked him with a knife. We never found out why,
but perhaps he just wanted the Felipe Baloy affair over and done with. After
controversially leaving Baloy out for the first three games, Hernández finally
called in his star Gremio defender. He also commented publicly that Baloy
had better improve his performance if he wanted to be in the lineup. Baloy
said yes, sir--and promptly got injured. He didn't even make the trip from
But neither coach was thinking defense anyway. Although a draw would favor
Panama, Hernández went with his most attacking lineup: Julio César Dély
Valdés and Roberto Brown up front, plus Ricardo Phillips on the right of
midfield and Julio Medina on the left. Lazaroni countered with the 4-3-3 that
had blitzed El Salvador, with Ricardo Fuller, Marlon King, and Damani Ralph
in the front line.
The game wasn't pretty--you knew it wouldn't be--but it was sensational. After
some early fencing, Panama took control, and Jamaica's chronic weakness in
central defense started to show. Early on, a seeming handball from Tyrone
Marshall had been ignored by the referee. In the 20th minute, a Julio Medina
cross found Roberto Brown unmarked in the area, but he hit the post. Finally,
in the 24th minute, Medina sent in another cross, Brown was again free, and
this time made no mistake.
And that was the signal for Panama to take over completely. It was a
marvelous show, the canaleros hurling themselves around the pitch, winning
almost every 50-50 ball. The fullbacks, Luís Henríquez and Luís Moreno,
were particularly active, and Medina was playmaking effectively. But the
team lacked the skill up front to take advantage. Phillips was held in check by
Ricardo Gardner, and Brown and Dély Valdés seemed off their game. At the
interval it was still 1:0.
So with a one-goal lead and 45 minutes left, did Hernández play it safe? Not
on your life. If anything, the team became even more aggressive, and even
more effective closing down opponents. They never got near the goal, but
Jamaica was being very nearly run off the field. With a half hour to go, you
could only imagine one result.
But now it was time for Lazaroni to earn his cruzeiros. Trailing 0:1 in the 62nd
minute, with a result absolutely essential, how often do you take off a striker
and put in a midfielder? Seeing that his 3-man midfield was being
overwhelmed, Lazaroni took out Marlon King and put in Andy Williams. And
it turned the game. Jamaica began to have a bit more control of the ball, and
with Panama still pressing hard, they became dangerous on the counter. In the
75th minute, Theodore Whitmore sent Ricardo Fuller free on the right; he
made it to the byline, drew the defense, and crossed back to Whitmore, now
unmarked in front of goal. Donaldo González made a spectacular save on the
header, but the ball rebounded right back to Whitmore, and he poked in it for
The final minutes were intense, with neither side ready to settle for the draw.
In injury time Whitmore was again alone in front for Fuller's cross, but shot
right at González. And on the final play of the night, Ricardo Phillips faked
once, twice, three times, got into the area, and went down under a challenge
from Ian Goodison. The world held its breath--and Benigno Pineda of
Honduras pulled out the yellow card for diving. The replay wasn't definitive,
but it looked a lot more like a trip than a dive. Full time 1:1.
More force than football, but it had been the best game of the tournament. It
also showed that the football deities have a rudimentary sense of justice.
Jamaica had been the better team when the sides met in Kingston, but lost.
Here Panama had been on top, but got only a draw. Both teams came out with
honor: Panama, for their superb effort; Jamaica, for getting a very difficult
point on the road.
Proud but frustrated, Panama came north to play the USA. No one really
expected them to win, but the game against Jamaica had been so inspiring that
a draw looked plausible. After all, the Yanks had yet to show real teeth, and
everyone remembered the historic near-upset in September. On the other
hand, the USA knew that a win would qualify them for the next round, and no
one wanted to go down to the final game against Jamaica.
The first half looked a lot like English football, and I don't mean Arsenal-Man
United. You'd expect Panama to come out physical and use the long ball, but
for some reason the USA thought that was the way to go too. Launch after
launch went toward the head of Brian McBride, and although he won most of
them, he took a fearful pounding. This was all to Panama's benefit, of course.
But you have to admire Cheché Hernández. Sure, he was happy with
Torquay-Scunthorpe on the Potomac, but the word "bunker" isn't in his
vocabulary. Panama charge forward whenever they can, and it was
emblematic that the American goal came on a counterattack. In the 21st
minute, Eddie Lewis sent a nice long ball into space on the left wing for Josh
Wolff to run down. Wolff got there, waited for his teammates to catch up,
then sent a sweet pass for a charging Landon Donovan to apply the killer
finish. It was a great piece of play all around, one of the very few of the first
half. It was also the USA's finest goal of the tournament so far, showcasing the
kind of skills that Panama just couldn't match.
So when the second half started, and the Yanks switched from the long ball to
the passing game, Panama's days were numbered. In the 56th minute Kerry
Zavagnin put Donovan through; he made a nifty move to his left and scored
while sliding. With the result virtually assured, lesser men than Hernández
might have slowed things up and settled for a respectable 0:2. But he went the
other way entirely, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2, and sending his men
forward some more.
Can you say "carnage"? The USA scored four more, the last three in the
final seven minutes. The final goal was an own goal, but the other three were
scored by Eddie Johnson--right, the same Eddie Johnson who scored on his
debut against El Salvador. He now has 4 goals in about 45 minutes of play. Of
course, the four goals strung together would reach to about half a Roberto
Carlos free kick, but who cares? He's big, he's fast, he makes smart runs off
the ball, and he knows how to finish. And at this rate he'll pass Eric Wynalda
sometime next summer.
Down south, it was Jamaica's turn to go for a rout. A month ago they had
stomped El Salvador 3:0 on the road, and there was no reason to believe it
would be different this time. Until the game started, that is. This was a totally
different El Salvador, different even from the side who'd fought hard against
the USA. With Erick Dawson Prado replacing Marvin González in the back
line, the defense was much more solid. They were bodying up to their men,
winning the ball more often than not. And in the most pleasant surprise, the
midfield was showing excellent ball circulation, with Victor Merino Dubón at
the heart of most of the moves. Over the first half hour they were definitely
the better team. But even at their best, El Salvador has severe striking
problems. No one knew how to construct a scoring move, and all they had
were long range shots, none of which looked like they would go in.
That was fine with Jamaica, who hadn't realized they had to do more than just
show up. Only Ricardo Fuller was showing any kind of life: in the 19th minute
a neat move from the wing set up Theodore Whitmore, but Misael Alfaro
made a fantastic save. Near the end of the half, Fuller did it all himself,
dribbling, feinting, cracking a 30 meter shot off the post. But the Salvadoran
pressure had the Reggae Boyz off balance, and although by the end of the
half Jamaica had most of the play, you could see it wouldn't be an easy 3:0.
As it turned out, it wasn't 2:0, or even 1:0. Jamaica controlled possession in
the second half, but El Salvador stood their ground. And they proudly rolled
out the side's one genuine strength: goalkeeping. Alfaro had been injured late
in the first half, so in came Santos Rivera, who was merely brilliant, denying
Marlon King twice. Lazaroni played all his cards: Andy Williams for Tyrone
Marshall, veteran Deon Burton for King, Jermaine Johnson for a fading Fuller.
Damani Ralph, who had gone missing all night, finally picked up his play. But
it just missed being enough. In the 90th minute, Johnson sent Ralph through
on the right, and he had a good angle, but hit the post. Nil-nil, a triumph for El
Salvador, and something far less than a triumph for Jamaica.
WHERE WE STAND NOW
The USA is in with room to spare. Figuring that two miracles were the limit,
they played solid football against El Salvador and Panama, and won both
games going away. Brian McBride emerged from his stupor, Josh Wolff added
variety up front, Kerry Zavagnin looked good in relief of Claudio Reyna, and
Landon Donovan showed his class. There are a lot of Arena-bashers out there,
but he gets results, and for the moment the side looks ready for the
Hexagonal. For the rest, there are three teams (including El Salvador!) fighting
for one spot, and with USA-Jamaica and Panama-El Salvador coming up, it
looks like this:
If Jamaica wins, they're in.
If Jamaica loses, they're out, and Panama needs only a draw against El
Salvador to qualify. But if El Salvador wins, they're in.
If Jamaica draws, El Salvador is out, but Panama needs a win to qualify. A
draw or a loss, and Jamaica is in.
The numbers don't lie: Jamaica, originally a clear favorite to qualify, has to
win in the USA to assure a spot. Of all the zillions of surprises in the
competition to date, the biggest is this: the Reggae Boyz, home team
extraordinaire, picked up only 2 points from 3 games in The Office. And
although Panama has put up a great show, this Jamaica team has too much
skill to be on the verge of elimination. What the heck happened?
It's hard to point the finger. There have been failings in all areas of play. The
centerbacks, as we've noted, are a chronic weakness. In midfield, Theodore
Whitmore has been off and on as playmaker, and in the 4-3-3 he doesn't get
much help. With a 3-man midfield you need some playmaking from the
strikers, but only Ricardo Fuller has been useful there. He's been outstanding
up front, too, but Damani Ralph and Marlon King have been unreliable. All in
all, it just hasn't come together.
The easiest target, of course, would be Sebastian Lazaroni, the man in charge.
But although I certainly thought he was the wrong choice, I'm not going to
blame him here--at least not yet. That's because the job isn't over. His current
mission is to qualify the team for the Hexagonal. He was brought in at short
notice, and it can take time to get things right at international level. And
there's still one game left.
Can Jamaica win at the USA? Not likely, but by no means impossible. Jamaica
has played well there in the past. In the 1998 WCQ they got a 1:1 draw in
which the American goal was a bogus penalty kick; in the 2002 WCQ they
were nine minutes away from another draw when another PK, less suspect,
gave the USA the win. And although the team has struggled at home, they've
completely reversed their traditional poor form on the road. Plus, although I'm
sure the USA would prefer to eliminate Jamaica right now, they're not likely
to play their best 11. Then there's the Jason Euell factor: the Charlton striker
has just been named eligible to play for Jamaica, and he could add some
punch to an inconsistent strike force.
Still, a win would be a surprise. But a draw would not, which is where Panama
comes in. Should Jamaica draw, Panama will need to beat El Salvador. The
0:6 to the USA shouldn't affect them much; this is a team that goes hard at
every opponent. And unlike Jamaica, they don't figure to be overconfident
against El Salvador, having lost the opener in the Cuscatleco. They should also
match up pretty well, particularly in midfield. Contreras' team is mostly small
and quick, and Panama should be able to lay a little muscle on them. But the
Salvadoran back line, particularly with Prado in the lineup, can themselves be
quite physical, so Phillips, Brown, and Dély Valdés will have to be on their
game technically. If they believe in themselves, Panama's more likely to win
And how about that El Salvador, huh? Hard to believe, but they're still in the
race, and if Jamaica loses a win puts them through. Under Paredes, the team
just bunkered, but with Contreras the attitude is different. They're more
aggressive, a little more willing to risk. The draw at Jamaica has to give them
confidence. But they need a win, and last time I looked, to win you have to
score at least one goal. And that may be one goal too many. El Salvador has
scored only two goals in five games, and both came in the first half of the first
game, one on a PK, one a set piece. That means no goals in 4 1/2 games, and
no goals from open play at all. Even worse, Victor Merino Dubón, the man
that makes the midfield go, has two yellow cards and is suspended. It's hard to
imagine where the goal will come from. And remember that even (wonders!)
two goals won't be enough if Jamaica draws or wins. So to go back to the
beginning, maybe prayer is the best hope. As La Prensa Gráfica put it, keep a
rosary in one hand and a calculator in the other.
Costa Rica, starting the day in third place, absolutely needed three points
home to Guatemala. Of course, this was the signal for Jorge Luis Pinto to
change the lineup again. Yet another new midfielder: Carlos Hernández from
the U-23s, an all-rounder known primarily for his long-distance shot. On the
other side, Ramon Maradiaga made the expected moves, replacing the
suspended Carlos Ruiz and Gonzalo Romero with Juan Carlos Plata and
The game started slowly, but it was clear Guatemala was off form. They
tried defense and counterattack, but lacked fluidity in midfield. More
importantly, the team was sagging back too much, concentrating on Paulo
Wanchope, but giving the Costa Ricans too much room in the middle of the
pitch. So in the 19th minute Hernández made his coach look like a genius,
blasting a 30-meter shot that beat Ricardo Trigueño Foster, who was maybe a
bit too far off his line.
There was still plenty of time left, and Guatemala had come back from a goal
down the first time the teams met. But it was a disastrous day for Foster. In
the 36th minute he botched a corner badly, and the ball fell to Paulo
Wanchope. So far he'd been held in check, but give him an inch and he takes
the whole stadium. One, two, three marvelous touches with the right foot,
and it was two-nil.
And Costa Rica took off. How hot were they? Well, consider the case of
Harold Wallace, a veteran right back/wingback who doesn't get to play much
these days. But with Try Bennet injured and Alexander Castro off form,
Wallace got the call. Wallace's strength is pace, not technique, and most of
the time you find him streaming up the right wing, a few yards from the
touchline. But in the 62nd minute a rampant Wanchope laid off a pass to
Wallace in the arc (what the heck was he doing there?), who delivered a
world-class backheel (for the first time in his career?) and Wanchope was
through for the third goal. At that point you might as well give up, and
although Guatemala did their best, the final was 5:0. Foster was again at fault
on the fifth, which went to none other than Rolando Fonseca, Costa Rica's
all-time leading scorer, off the squad for ages due to injury.
A 5:0 win is always nice, but there was much more for Costa Rica to be happy
about. Hernández looked like the answer in midfield, so for the first time Pinto
had a setup that wasn't too defensive. Wanchope was simply superb, and
when he's on form, there's no one like him. Best of all, the back line finally
looked comfortable, with Luís Marín and Gilberto Martínez clicking
perfectly in the middle. And just in time, too, with road games at Canada and
Honduras left on the schedule.
Speaking of Canada, I've been spending the last few weeks reading up on
Canadian history. It's pretty interesting. Did you know that during and after
the American Revolution, many Loyalists migrated from the USA to British
Canada in order to stay under colonial rule? That the first Canadian income
tax was instituted in 1917, to help pay for the war effort? That Canada had no
way to amend its constitution until 1982?
So I've found a lot of interesting stuff. But I haven't found the one thing I
was looking for: what HORRIBLE ACT Canada must have performed to
deserve what's happened to them against Honduras. In the first game, two
blown calls at the end, allowing the tying goal and taking the winning one
away. In the second game, another blown call to deny them an insurance goal,
and then a very-last-gasp equalizer. OK, maybe they care about ice hockey
too much, and the rouge point seems a bit odd, but there has to be something
much worse--was there a Canadian Inquisition, or something?
Both sides needed a win in the rematch, Canada to stave off elimination,
Honduras to keep pace with the leaders. Canada were missing Paul Staltieri,
still under suspension for bottle-throwing, but Atiba Hutchinson had looked
good in relief, so there was no reason to panic. Honduras had a much worse
problem. David Suazo, the absolutely irreplaceable David Suazo, had injured
his groin while playing for Cagliari. (One newspaper coined the neat term
"Suazodependencia.") Attempting to adjust, Raul Martinez Sambulá went with
a 4-5-1 with Carlos Pavón the lone striker--to say the least, a very curious
decision. First of all, in a game you need to win, why not start two strikers?
Second, although Pavón had played well against Guatemala, the setup there
had been perfect for him: a wet pitch and a small opposing back line, so he
could use his centerforward skills to best advantage. This time the pitch was
dry, and Canada's slow defense simply cried out for a pairing of Saúl Martínez
and Milton "Tyson" Nuñez.
Pavon didn't play terribly well--but in the first half he was far from the only
problem. To say Honduras were "lifeless" would be an insult to inorganic
matter. Little skill, less tactical awareness, no evidence anything was at stake.
In fact, they seemed to have only one player on the pitch: Édgard Alvarez,
playing right midfield, who repeatedly undressed left back Ante Jazic. But
nothing came of it. Canada played patiently, held off what passed for the
Honduran attack, and managed a few effective counters. They even had the
best chance of the half, when Iain Hume made a couple of great moves in the
area but was denied by Noel Valladares.
At the interval Honduras consulted a geologist, who patiently explained that
football players were different from rocks. Sambulá put Martínez in and
shifted from a 4-5-1 to a 3-5-2. The team finally looked motivated, with
Amado Guevara providing the impetus in midfield--but Canada, realizing they
could actually win this game, held firm. Hutchinson was particularly good at
right back, and Sandro Grande, getting his second straight start in midfield,
was getting the ball out effectively for counters. Honduras managed a few
half-chances, nothing special.
So here came Fate. In the 73rd minute Hutchinson stabbed home a corner, and
Canada was ahead on a set piece, just as in the first game. But this time,
surely, they would hold on. David Suazo was an ocean away, and a confused
Honduras was slipping down the biological ladder again. So on a free kick,
Jason DeVos headed across to Dwayne DeRosario, who chested in the
clinching goal. Game over. But the dark act hidden in the bowels of Canadian
history (Trappers overtrapping? Mounties not mounted?) had to be atoned for.
The goal was disallowed for a foul on DeVos, and I don't need to tell you
what the replay showed.
So now the result was inevitable. Honduras had regressed through sedimentary
and metamorphic, all the way back to igneous, but it didn't matter. In the
second minute of injury time, Sergio Mendoza lifted one into the area, Mark
Watson's clearance was poor, and Danilo Turcios stuck out his leg to drive it
past Pat Onstad. Another unbelievable draw. There's a lesson there
somewhere, but I'm glad I don't know what it is.
You'd think Guatemala would be down after the 0:5 in Costa Rica, but that's
not their style. Maradiaga is a quiet, even-tempered sort of guy, and he seems
to have transmitted those qualities to the team. Plus, Carlos Ruiz and Gonzalo
Romero would be back after suspension, and a win against Honduras
would put them through. And it didn't hurt that the team was greeted at the
airport with cheers.
But even Maradiaga knew he had to change his keeper. Foster had had an
absolute nightmare in Costa Rica, and the press, basically supportive overall,
didn't hesitate to mention it, like every other minute. Foster was so upset he
even talked about quitting the team. So in came Miguel Klee, the man who
most had tapped to start in the first place.
For Honduras, the question once again was how to get by without the big man
up front. Again the most sensible solution was two strikers, and again Sambulá
decided sense didn't matter. Yet another 4-5-1, with Martínez up top instead
of Pavón. (The next day La Prensa called him "amateurista," which seemed a
bit strong, but rather mild compared to "cobarde," which showed up later in
the article.) In compensation, Sambulá added Walter López, a good
playmaker, next to Maynor Suazo in the double pivot--but a playmaker has to
have someone to playmake to.
The first half was precariously balanced. On a muddy pitch, Honduras had a
good part of the play, but with Martínez isolated up front, they never seemed
to have enough players in attack. So their best chances came from deep and
far away. Martínez just missed on a long cross from Iván Guerrero; Rambo
DeLeón similarly on a long cross from Sergio Mendoza; Mendoza himself
smashed a 30-meter drive that Klee tipped over the bar. Meanwhile
Guatemala were getting more men forward in attack, with Guillermo Ramírez
and Maynor Dávila using the space left by DeLeón when he went forward.
But Ruiz was being effectively dogged by centerback Ninrod Medina, and no
one got the ball in scoring position.
The half was winding down, and it looked like 0:0. Then, in the 45th minute,
Dwight Pezzarossi blasted a hard shot, and Valladares could only tip it high
towards the far post. Mario "El Loco" Rodríguez rose up and headed to Ruiz,
standing on the byline. With a nifty move he cut back outside and drove it
past Valladares. Guatemala 1:0, but of course, if you've read carefully, you
know the goal couldn't have been legal. If Ruiz was standing on the byline, he
must have been offside. And in fact he was: 100%, ironclad,
don't-quit-your-day-job offside. Everyone in the stadium had to see it. Except
(gee, isn't it always the way?) the people who mattered.
So once again Sambulá discovered he needed a second striker, this time
Nuñez. But there's no cure yet for Suazodependencia. Martinez got the ball in
the net, but it was called back for offside. Then Nuñez had a shot blocked, and
Martínez, from 15 yards, shot right at Klee. Nuñez had a chance at a
spectacular far post finish, but sent it wide. Eventually Sambulá sent on striker
number three, Carlos Pavón. But when Danilo Turcios sent Pavón a beautiful
long cross, leaving him alone in the area, he botched it, the ball caroming off
his chest to Klee. And there were no more strikers left. In the final minutes
Honduras played beaten, and the 1:0 final sent the Mateo Flores into delirium.
Honduras made a good show of complaining about the ref--the winning goal
had been offside, after all. But it was hard to be sympathetic. In the first
half they escaped a PK when Guillermo Ramírez was brought down in the
area, and in the second half Pezzarossi had a goal disallowed on a borderline
foul. And against Canada, not once, but twice, well...I'm sure you remember.
When we last left Costa Rica, they were rejoicing in their win over
Guatemala, and particularly proud of Paulo Wanchope and Carlos Hernández.
It thus came as rather a surprise when neither man was in the starting lineup in
Vancouver. Canada, still mathematically alive, said thank you very much, and
proceeded to play their best half of the tournament. They had the majority of
possession, held off Costa Rica without much trouble, and got a 12th minute
goal on a tremendous long-range strike by Dwayne DeRosario. Pinto, realizing
that he might have made a tiny error, sent Wanchope in for Andy Herron in
the 29th minute. But Canada still had the momentum, and could have had
more--near the end of the half, Iain Hume missed from a passable angle with
only the keeper to beat.
Last time the teams had met, Canada had also played a strong first half, only
to find Wanchope getting on the board 10 seconds after the interval. It wasn't
exactly the same this time (just as the second Honduras Horror hadn't been
exactly the same as the first), but close enough. Four minutes in, Erick Scott
headed a cross low to Pat Onstad's left, really a routine save. But Onstad, who
had played so well in the first Costa Rica game, fumbled it, and the ball
caromed off his chest to Wanchope. He tapped in the equalizer, and Canada
were never really the same. They weren't helped by an odd substitution, when
in the 58th minute Yallop took out Hume and put in Carlo Corrazin: slower,
less versatile, and more easily neutralized.
But Pinto's substitutions were right on the money. William Sunsing, who
replaced Scott at striker, is an interesting story: on the bench during the 2002
WC, neglected under Sampson, he's earned his way back with some great
performances in the domestic league. In the 81st minute, with the defense
pushed up, Alonso Solís made a nifty move and sent him through; Onstad
came out to the top of the box, but Sunsing tapped it by him, chased it down,
and scored into the open goal. A third goal came in the 87th minute, by yet
another substitute—some guy named Carlos Hernández, who lasered in one of
his free-kick specials.
A third straight win, and Pinto was feeling great--but the press spoiled the fun
by asking him why the hell he hadn't started Wanchope and Hernández. He
could have said: "Look, Wanchope had a mild knee bruise, and I thought
Cristian Badilla was the better option because of his defense, OK?" Instead,
flushed with victory, he snapped: "You do your job, and let me do mine."
(Don't think it'll work that way, coach.)
WHERE WE STAND NOW
Two words: Bravo Guatemala. A year ago, suffering under an unjust FIFA
suspension, they weren't even allowed on the pitch. When they finally got
legal, they caught the Group of Death third time running, and this was the
deathiest group of them all. Did anyone, anywhere, predict they'd clinch a
spot with a game to spare? Sure, they had the luck: an offside goal against
Canada, an offside goal against Honduras, a borderline red card against Costa
Rica. But in a group like this you need some luck, and Guatemala took
advantage in style. There was a touch of pathos in the qualification, too.
Ramon Maradiaga, member of Honduras' 1982 World Cup team, the beloved
"Primi," catracho to the core, clinched the spot by beating his homeland.
Canada is finally out, and although Canadian fans would much rather still be
in, I suppose it's a relief to get the agony over with. Last time we said that
while they'd been dreadfully unlucky, they hadn't played well enough to
make it in a group like this. Let's stick with that judgment. Canada gave it
their all, and had some excellent stretches of play, but with the possible
exception of the second Honduras game, they never quite put together a
first-rate 90-minute effort. The Costa Rica games were the most telling: strong
in the first half, not so strong in the second. The good news is the youth
movement, and we can certainly expect Canada to make some noise in next
year's Gold Cup. But for now we can only wonder what they might have done
in Groups A or C.
That leaves Honduras and Costa Rica for the final spot, and it's a heavy
indictment of the CONCACAF draw that one of these teams has to go home.
In the Hexagonal we'll see David Suazo or Paulo Wanchope, but not both.
Amado Guevara or Alonso Solís, but not both. Iván Guerrero or Gilberto
Martínez, but not both. Let's say it as strongly as possible: fooey.
Honduras has to win to get second place. After the loss to Guatemala, the FA
sacked Sambulá, and whether that was stupid or brilliant we'll have to wait to
find out. Certainly you could fault his tactics, but you couldn't blame him for
Suazo's injury. He's been replaced by José de la Paz Herrera, also known as
"Chelato" Uclés. Talk about going back to your roots: Herrera was the coach
of the very same 1982 World Cup team that featured Ramón Maradiaga. He
was also the coach back in 2002-2003, when drab performances in the
UNCAF tourney and the Gold Cup led to his replacement by…Bora
Milutinovic. Round and round it goes. (And as for the so-called cobarde, he
had the huevos to stay on as an assistant to help Herrera. That took guts.)
Herrera is famously decisive and outspoken, and is already making his
presence felt: he's dropped both Tyson Nuñez and Carlos Pavón, and stated
publicly that Amado Guevara and particularly Rambo DeLeón haven't been
up to the task. So how he'll line up isn't clear. Rambo, the wide midfielder, is
much more likely to be dropped than Guevara, the playmaker. The central
defense, long a weakness, has looked a bit better with the incorporation of
Ninrod Medina, who plays in the Mexican second division. Herrera wants to
get Samuel Caballero into the lineup, but after such a long layoff it might be
too much to ask. And a big absence will be defensive midfielder Maynor
Suazo, who picked up his second yellow card against Guatemala. There's no
As of this writing, David Suazo has been declared fit, and of course is a
guaranteed starter. Herrera has already announced he'll go on the attack, so
we should see another striker (probably Saul Martínez), and maybe both
Guerrero and Alvarez in midfield, rather than at fullback. Danilo Turcios, who
has looked good as a substitute, could also start in midfield. Mauricio Sabillón,
who was a regular pick under Bora but disappeared under Sambulá, has been
recalled, and is a good option at right back.
You'd think Honduras would have the advantage playing at home, but
recently they've been notorious for poor results in home WCQ's. This round
they have two draws in two games, and last Hexagonal they actually managed
to lose 3 of 5, including 2 of 3 in the Olímpico in San Pedro Sula. They've
changed the site of the game from the Olímpico to the smaller and perhaps
more intimidating Francisco Morazán. Ostensibly it's because of the
drainage--remember the swimfest vs. Guatemala--but more likely it's
As for the ticos, Jorge Luis Pinto has almost pulled it off. The central pairing
is finally functioning--when Gilberto Martínez played his more natural right
back spot against Canada, Pablo Chinchilla filled in nicely. Alonso Solís has
been one of the big stories: last summer, during the Copa America, he was just
a mad dribbler with little or no tactical sense. Now he's a real-live attacking
midfielder, if not yet an accomplished number 10, a threat both with and
without the ball. Wanchope has been magnificent, and both Erick Scott and
Andy Herron have been useful partners. And the youngsters, Carlos
Hernández and Jose Luis López, have made the transition to the senior side
How will they line up? With a draw enough to qualify, expect a conservative
lineup, with Badilla instead of Hernández in midfield. Keeper looks like
veteran Alvaro Mesén, who played well against Canada. If Gilberto Martínez
plays on the right, Pablo Chinchilla will partner Marín in the middle; if he
plays in the middle, Try Bennett or Harold Wallace should be on the right.
The rest looks set: Leo González at left back, Lopez in the holding role, Bryce
on the right, Solís as attacking midfielder, Wanchope and Herron up front.
(Erick Scott, otherwise a likely choice, has two yellow cards.)
Costa Rica certainly has the momentum, but with Suazo available, Honduras
can match them man for man. It'll be a great event, a true clasico
centroamericano, but on balance more bitter than sweet. If only, if only it
could be in the Hexagonal. But may the better team prevail--and we'll really
miss the side that goes home.
DAY THREE-AND-A-HALF and DAY FOUR
Having spent the last few months following the scores and trying to look
interested, Mexico decided they might as well play, beginning with the
makeup game at home against St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Expectations for
the Tri were, shall we say, high. One paper rather pointedly ran a column
showing Mexico's greatest all-time margins of victory, including an 11:0
pasting of SVG back in the 1994 WCQ. Another recalled that against SVG in
the 1998 WCQ Mexico had looked so bad that the Azteca fans had booed the
home team and cheered the islanders. Everyone demanded the three G's:
ganar (win), golear (win big), and gustar (entertain).
Anticipation was even higher because Cuauhtémoc Blanco, tearing up the
league with new club Veracruz, was finally back on the squad. Having been
suspended for the Copa America, and not really in the mood to play against
T&T, Blanco decided it was time to come back and give those Caribbean
upstarts a right whipping. Rafael Márquez had been called in too, although no
one knew why, since presumably the team didn't need him against St Vincent.
But with LaVolpe's job in jeopardy (the sun rises in the east, too), he probably
figured it was prudent to have his best player in the lineup. Or maybe it was
just to have someone to talk to: right now he and Blanco aren't on speaking
As for St. Vincent, the schedule change meant they couldn't get all their
legionnaires in for the contest. Although striker Rodney Jack once more made
the flight over (is there an Order Of The Grenadines they can give him?)
Wesley Charles, Cornelius Huggins, and Marlon James stuck with their clubs.
When asked whether St. Vincent could win, new Serbian coach Zoran Vranes
replied: "No, I don't think so."
He was right, of course, but for the first half it looked as if Mexico couldn't
win either. They had all the possession, but treated the game like an afternoon
kickabout, figuring that if they made enough neat passes the ball would go in
eventually. And for some reason they kept putting the ball in the air against
the taller Grenadiners. SVG played defense, clumsily but effectively, and the
only goal came on a corner kick which the replay showed shouldn't have been
awarded in the first place. The Pachuca fans, witnessing their first ever Tri
game in the beautiful Hidalgo stadium, booed their boys off the pitch.
At the interval Ricardo LaVolpe reminded the lads of the other three G's:
guacamole, green tomatoes, and guano, all of which they were going to get hit
with if they didn't put it in the net. Meanwhile the press, with little else to do,
was wondering about Vranes' shirt, white with a huge blue "32" on the back.
His monthly salary in dollars? His sleeve length? A coded message to
countryman Slobodan Milosevic? "It was the only shirt I had," Vranes told a
Not a lucky shirt. In the second half Mexico got 6, and by the end the boos
had turned to olés. Jared Borgetti got 4 goals, to put himself at the top of the
CONCACAF scoring table. If truth be told, Mexico had looked sharper
against T&T, and for that matter against Dominica as well. Only 3 of the 7
goals came from open play, and the last 3 after SVG were down to ten men.
But Blanco delivered a peach of a backheel for a classic strike by Jaime
Lozano, and the biggest cheer of the night went to young Sergio Santana, the
local boy who finished neatly after a fine pass from Israel López. Ganar? Of
course. Golear? Right on schedule. Gustar? Enough to keep the fans
happy--until the next game, of course.
That next game was only four days later, in Kingstown, SVG, where the
TV-watching football world got their very first glimpse of the Arnos Vale
Playing Field. The verdict: a pleasant surprise. It's a cricket stadium, of course,
but the pitch is well maintained, much better than the run-of-the-mill
Caribbean field. The weather was good, too. Best of all, Vranes had a new
shirt (electric blue, no number), and some new players: Huggins, Charles, and
James were back for their first game under the new man. Before a small but
enthusiastic crowd, they set out to humiliate their favored opponents.
Not likely, you say? You didn't see the first 25 minutes, then. One team was
clearly better, and it wasn't the guys in green. Vincy showed pace, technique,
and tactical sense. Howie Williams and Kendal Velox were the stars in
midfield, and early on Rodney Jack had a great chance in the area, but shot
high. Pedigree always tells, though: in the 25th minute, against the run of play,
Blanco lofted a perfect long ball to Borgetti, who one-timed it nicely for the
Still, SVG had the bit between their teeth, and it looked like we were in for an
entertaining game. Until the ref got involved. In the 41st minute, Marlon
James had a foul call go against him, and instinctively shouted out something
in frustration. We don't know what he said, but it looked like the usual "Oh,
come on, you've got to be kidding!" But Nery Alfaro of El Salvador took
offense, and produced a yellow, the second yellow for James. A legitimate
call? Who knows? But it took all the fun out of the game. SVG had no choice
but to defend.
Mexico played, played, and played some more, but never got it in the net
again. Actually, they didn't play all that hard. Back in the 18th minute a hard
tackle by Jack had put Israel López out of the game, and Mexico, with long
memories of Caribbean roughness (the notorious Ansil Elcock tackle on
Cuauhtémoc Blanco uppermost), seemed more interested in avoiding injuries
than scoring goals. So although 1:0 at SVG was theoretically an
embarrassment, the Mexican press stayed relatively calm. Sure, everyone was
disappointed in the result, but no one called for LaVolpe's head (any more
than usual, that is). SVG, of course, were thrilled. They had held off the giants
with only ten men, and even had a half-chance or two at the end for an
historic draw. For a result like that, Vranes deserved a closetful of shirts.
The other game of the round was Trinidad & Tobago vs. St. Kitts & Nevis. For
the Sugar Boyz, it was a last chance to salvage a very disappointing campaign.
A result at T&T was certainly not out of the question, and they even had
Adam Newton, the one healthy member of the Posh Trio, in the lineup. For
T&T it was yet another try at showing they belonged--in three games they had
yet to justify their nearly automatic place in the Hexagonal, and something
would have to change soon.
So new blood for the Soca Warriors, right? Nope--old blood. Keeper Shaka
Hislop, at 35, flew in from England for his first game of the qualifiers. They
called in defender Ian Cox, 33, of Gillingham, who despite a long career in
English football had been only intermittently in the side. Also recalled was
striker Jerren Nixon, 31, with nearly 100 caps, who after a career in Europe
and temporary retirement was back home playing for North East Stars.
All three did the job. Hislop wasn't challenged too much, but smothered a
dangerous chance from Dico Huggins near the end of the first half. Cox
positioned and marked well in the three-man back line. And Nixon, brought
on as a late substitute, ran wild, setting up one goal, scoring another, and
reminding the fans of his glory days with the side.
The final score was 5:1 T&T. Redemption for the Soca Warriors? Only a little.
An excellent result, but an inconsistent performance. They dominated the first
half hour, but wasted numerous chances, with striker Cornell Glen the main
culprit. And although they scored twice, the first was an own goal, and the
second on a corner. The Sugar Boyz actually controlled the latter part of the
first half, and a rash challenge by Marvin Andrews on Keith Gumbs gave SKN
a PK goal just before halftime. In the second half T&T got back in control,
and Glen redeemed himself with a smash in the 71st minute. Then Nixon and
Stern John combined on two late goals to make up the final tally. A very nice
final scoreline. But the report from the Trinidad Guardian contained the
following sentence: "Eve [captain Angus Eve] remarked that while T&T are
still to develop a chemistry on the field, coach St Clair still has not selected his
best XI and the team will improve with matches under their belt." Um--when,
Not yet, apparently. A few days later T&T lost 0:3 in Mexico. Now 0:3 at
Mexico isn't at all an embarrassing result (and one of the goals was offside),
but there are different kinds of 0:3. There's the 0:3 where the underdog puts
up a heroic resistance, trails 0:1 in the second half on an unlucky goal, and
comes within inches of the equalizer, only to give up two late scores on the
counterattack. And then there's the 0:3 that T&T played in Mexico, where the
other side hits the post 4 times and your keeper has to make several
spectacular saves to keep you on the same continent.
In the first half Mexico scored only once, but they looked like the only team
on the field. As in Port-of-Spain, T&T played passively, allowing the
opponents way too much room. With Anthony Rougier suspended, defender
Dennis Lawrence was installed in defensive midfield, but looked out of place.
With loads of space and loads of time, Mexico fired a barrage of
middle-distance shots, with only Hislop and the woodwork in the way.
Actually, the Tri didn't look all that good themselves. Blanco was out with an
injury, and the midfield sort of strolled around, much like the earlier games
against SVG. But against a submissive T&T, that's all they needed to do.
The Soca Warriors definitely looked better in the second half, challenging the
man with the ball, getting some play of their own. Kenwyne Jones contributed
well on the right, Stern John displayed his class, and Cornell Glen showed
some dangerous pace and ball skills. Unfortunately, Mexico shifted gears as
well. Both Jesús Arellano and Antonio Naelson "Sinha" were uncontrollable,
and T&T's defense wasn't strong enough. In the 55th minute, Arellano struck
a hard shot, and Hislop made a brilliant save, but found himself naked to his
enemies--not one but two Mexican attackers completely unmarked going for
the rebound. He denied Jared Borgetti with yet another sensational stop, but
Jaime Lozano recovered the ball and scored without being challenged. The
third goal came when Luís Pérez blew by Jones and passed to an unmarked
Lozano in the area. A headline in the Guardian a few days later: "Hislop
Suggests Different Approach." No surprise there.
There was another game that day, St. Kitts & Nevis home to St. Vincent & the
Grenadines. I'd love to give you the blow by blow--SVG wound up with a
convincing 3:0 victory, and they deserve a detailed chronicle. But my Internet
radio connection wasn't working, the St. Kitts & Nevis papers weren't up to a
full article, and I couldn't find a fan report. So all that's left is Searchlight, the
St. Vincent online paper (which costs money to subscribe to, folks, so you
better appreciate the sacrifice I'm making).
Searchlight tells us the Vincy bus arrived late and the game was delayed
half-an-hour by a power failure, but that this "did not distract the Vincentians
from their mission." Sure looks like it. Supported by a strong contingent of
Vincentians living in St. Kitts, "who turned out with their replica jerseys, flags,
and bandanas," Vincy completely dominated the game, with SKN "lethargic
and bankrupt of ideas." Although striker Shandell Samuel "made a hash of" an
early chance, midfielder Kendall Velox got the first in the 19th minute,
"rocketing" one into the net. But although Vincy were up only 1:0 at halftime,
they were "determined to accomplish their mission," and both Samuel and
Velox scored to make the final tally 3:0. Zoran Vranes was "buoyant" (yeah,
but what shirt was he wearing?), and the team continues its "upward trend."
But they'll have to "come up trumps in the November 17 escapade in Trinidad
& Tobago" in order to qualify. (Hey, this job's easier than I thought!)
WHERE WE STAND NOW
Mexico have clinched first place. Snore. St. Kitts & Nevis are eliminated.
Shame. But second place, remarkably, is still open, with SVG needing to beat
T&T on the road by three clear goals to nab the spot. Think they can do it?
I don't either. But let's take a serious look at T&T. In some ways, they're
stronger now than at any time during the competition. Hislop, if he plays, is
among the top keepers in the region. Up front, Cornell Glen, although he's had
trouble finishing, has a lot of potential as a partner for Stern John. Kenwyn
Jones showed some promise against Mexico, and Anthony Rougier remains a
good defensive midfielder. But there are still too many holes. In midfield,
there's no consistent attacking force, and no one on the left side. (With
Marlon Rojas out against Mexico, St. Clair tried Brent Rahim, and eventually
even Dennis Lawrence, to little effect.) The back line has struggled. Brent
Sancho, after some excellent games, was all over the place in Mexico. Ian
Cox, slow but steady, was fine against St. Kitts & Nevis, but a bit out of his
depth against the Tri. Marvin Andrews, normally the most reliable of
defenders, has hit a bad streak. Yes, it should be enough to hold off St.
Vincent, but what then?
We certainly wish T&T well--CONCACAF needs a strong T&T-- and we
hope they up their game in the Hexagonal. But here's a special salute to Vincy
Heat, who under the sartorially challenged Zoran Vranes are upping their
game right now. It's pretty much the same guys who've been there all along,
but somehow Vranes has them at a different level altogether. 0:1 home to
Mexico, 3:0 at St. Kitts & Nevis, both results well in line with the run of play:
that's a genuine contender, not a minnow. With a Hexagonal berth still
mathematically within reach, you have to believe they'll put up a fight in the
final contest. And it won't hurt that Vranes himself is a former head coach of
T&T. We wish them well, too. Want to join in? Well, after the game at
Mexico, Roxel John, head of the SVG delegation, protested that the hosts had
been disrespectful--they'd played only one verse of the Vincy national
anthem. Here's your chance to redress the balance: go to
http://david.national-anthems.net/vc.htm and sing along!
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