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 Hexagonal, Rounds 2-3
by Peter Goldstein
Costa Rica had to play this game without any fans. Which was OK, because
for long stretches of the game they didn't have any players. And they
shouldn't have had any journalists either, because all the English and Spanish
words combined couldn't possibly describe what happened.
Begin at the beginning, though: at the end of the Costa-Rica-Mexico match in
February, some CR fans took it upon themselves to throw various and sundry
objects at the Mexican players as they exited the field. This is more or less a
tradition in Central America, but FIFA didn't see it that way--they slapped the
team with a fine and made them play the next game behind closed doors. This
seemed particularly harsh when you consider that Panama had a guy in the
starting lineup who had been convicted of attempted murder. José Luís "don't
call me El Pistolero" Garcés had appealed his conviction, and that was enough
for the moment to keep him out of jail and allow him to leave the country. As
long as he didn't throw anything at anybody, I guess.
Meanwhile, the never-ending saga of Jorge Luís "Who am I going to start this
time?" Pinto continued. Needing a partner for Paulo Wanchope, and with
Ronald Gómez suspended and Andy Herron coming off injury, he chose
Whayne Wilson, only fair technically, but hardworking, intelligent, and a
capable finisher. And in a truly surprising move, he sacrificed his beloved
two-defensive-midfielders bit to put Walter Centeno in a central role, pushing
Douglas Sequeira out to the right, with Carlos Hernández on the left.
For Cheché Hernández the choices were simpler. Ricardo "Patón" Phillips
was back after suspension, so the only change to the outfield 10 was Gabriel
Gómez for Engin Mitre in defensive midfield, a little less skill and a little more
power. He had no choice at all in goal--with Donaldo González out injured,
and Ricardo James still in the doghouse, the only pick was U-23 Jaime
Penedo, who had played well in a game against Jamaica.
Needing a win, Costa Rica began the game in attacking mode, with fullbacks
Leonardo González and Harold Wallace pushing up more than usual. Centeno
was having one of his best games--for once he was passing crisply instead of
holding onto the ball. But it didn't add up to much. Wanchope, now on the
bench at Malaga, looked rusty, and most of the time couldn't break free.
Wilson was showing all his effort and making smart runs, but the one chance
he got, on a nifty chip from Centeno, he couldn't handle. The only other
chance came off a corner, when Penedo made a great reaction save off
González. Panama looked comfortable, playing their usual aggressive defense,
largely controlling the air, battling hard in midfield.
At the other end, though, they had little to offer--unless you count the goal
they scored in the 14th minute. Garcés timed his run, Julio Medina sent him
through, and he put it past Álvaro Mesén. But the flag was up, the whistle had
blown, and it was small consolation that the replay showed the goal had been
perfectly legal. Otherwise, though, Gilberto Martínez and Luís Marín had little
difficulty holding off Garcés and Roberto Brown in the middle. Phillips was
ineffective, and although Medina was crisscrossing the field trying to get
something going, there were no more chances.
Still, Panama was doing enough on defense, and Costa Rica was getting less
and less convincing by the moment. But suddenly, inexplicably, they were up
1:0. In the 40th minute, Centeno sent Wilson through on the right, and Penedo
panicked. Although Wilson was actually headed away from the net, and
wouldn't reach the ball until the by-line, the youngster flew out and brought
him down. Marco Antonio Rodríguez called the penalty, and Wilson stepped
up and converted.
At halftime you wondered how Panama could possibly get an equalizer. But a
couple of minutes into the second half they caught a huge break when José
Luís López received his second yellow. The decision seemed a bit harsh--he
and Medina had gone for a waist-high ball and López' studs had caught
Medina's thigh--but of course it stood, and Panama now had the extra man.
With López out, the CR middle wasn't strong enough, and that was
tailor-made for Medina. In the 58th minute he came right down Broadway,
dancing past one, two, three, until a desperate González brought him down in
the area. Penalty, and although Mesén guessed right, Brown put it out of his
So with a half-hour to go, the game tied, and Panama up a man, just about
anything was possible--except what actually happened. After a brief lull,
Panama revved it up, and Costa Rica's defense collapsed. Brown sent Phillips
through with a header, but he shot right at Mesén. Then Phillips sent Garcés
through, and only a marvelous slide by Mesén denied him. Brown then found
Garcés open on the left, but he missed. Costa Rica helpless at home to
Panama? Even the empty seats were booing.
But with about 15 minutes left the surge abated, and for the very first time all
night CR looked threatening. With substitutes Froylan Ledezma (73rd minute,
centerforward) and William Sunsing (63rd minute, left midfield) providing the
impetus, they pressed the attack aggressively, and seemed on the verge of
scoring themselves--but each time the last pass or the shot went awry.
So with the game winding down, and the home side winded, it was Panama
again. But with all the possession, and all the momentum, they didn't seem to
know what to do. Were they satisfied with the draw? Would you be? A few
tentative moves toward goal led nowhere. Finally, in injury time, Alberto
Blanco figured he'd take matters into his own hands, and fired one of his
35-yard specials--but Mesén judged it well, and tipped it over the bar. Nothing
came from the corner; all that was left was the final whistle, and a point
Except by Rodriguez' clock, there were about thirty seconds left to play. And
that was just enough time for Sunsing to belt it upfield, for Felipe Baloy to
head it out of the box, for Centeno to beat Blanco to the loose ball, for Baloy
to come out to challenge Centeno, for sub Roy Myrie to float into the hole, for
Centeno to find him with a pass, and for Myrie to finish into the far corner.
Full time 2:1.
That Costa Rica had won was incredible--over 90 minutes they had done
nothing to deserve it. That Panama had lost was unbearable--they had done so
much in the second half and come up empty. The Panama press, and even the
head of the FA, criticized Cheché for not playing it safe in the final minutes,
but that was crazy. In fact they had played it too safe. And the goal had come
with the team retreating after a corner kick. All you could say was what
people always say in these matters, as if it helps----"así es el futbol."
Guatemala-Trinidad & Tobago
You knew T&T were in trouble, because Jack Warner announced they were
changing their nickname. Soca Warriors no more--now they were just
Warriors. See, "Soca" implies fun and frivolity, and the World Cup is serious
business, and…well, you get the idea. (Remember, this is the same guy who
changed "CONCACAF" to "The Football Federation.") Rumor had it he also
wanted the whole team to change their first names to Stern. After all, with
Stern John already on the roster, why not also Stern Yorke, Stern Hislop, Stern
Eve, etc., just to show how stern you are?
Bertille St. Clair would have settled for players named Mickey Mouse, if only
they had been healthy. Cornell Glen, who had performed so well against the
USA, had an ankle injury, and word came from Scotland that Marvin Andrews
had anterior cruciate ligament damage. So up front St. Clair went with Very
Stern John and Kenwyne Jones, which was logical enough given Guatemala's
small back line. But in defense he pulled a shocker: Dennis Lawrence, who
had been simply horrendous in the semis. True, Ian Cox was hurt as well, but
he could have moved Anton Pierre over, or tried Atiba Charles, or played with
only 3 in the back. Instead it was Lawrence and Brent Sancho in the middle,
with Pierre at RB and Nigel Henry getting his first start at LB (Marlon Rojas
was limping too).
Meanwhile Guatemala continued to bore everyone to death. No name
changes, no injuries, no controversies, no news. Oh, a few of the lads had
signed with MLS: Guillermo "Pando" Ramírez for LA Galaxy, and Mario "El
Loco" Rodríguez with Columbus Crew. The suspended Rodríguez was
replaced by Carlos Figueroa, and the unsuspended Gustavo Cabrera rejoined
Pablo Melgar in the traditional 4-4-2. That sound you hear is all of
With Guatemala needing a win, they went to their usual quick ground attack.
But the Sternmen responded aggressively themselves, ready to make a game
of it. Dwight Yorke and Carlos Edwards were active, and although T&T was
under some pressure at the back, there was no indication that this would be
anything but a close, hard-fought, pleasingly open game.
But 17 minutes in the unthinkable happened. Ramírez, in his usual spot in left
midfield, decided to let fly with a 25-yarder. And Shaka Hislop, normally the
most reliable of the Serious Ones, made a complete mess of it. With plenty of
time to move to his right, he reacted slowly, never got his body in front, and
let the ball slip through his hands for a goal.
And the roof fell in. It didn't matter what nickname T&T gave themselves,
because the only one that fit was The Really Bad Defenders. In the 30th
minute Carlos Ruiz got free in the area, took a pass from Ramírez, and scored.
In the 38th minute Carlos Ruiz got free in the area, took a cross from Gonzalo
Romero, and scored. Lawrence was disastrous--but he had ample company in
Brent Sancho and Anton Pierre. With the game relatively open, and
Guatemala running free, T&T was in danger of losing by double figures.
But to their credit, the Solemn Boys didn't throw in the towel.
Sandwiched between Ruiz' two goals was one by Carlos Edwards, and
although it was a fluke (a 40-yarder that took a deflection), it presaged a
strong effort to come. Up 3:1 to start the second half, Guatemala let up on the
gas, and T&T took control of midfield, with Edwards, Yorke, and Eve
creating several decent scoring chances. But unfortunately Stern John has
been Slump John lately, and although his face may have been sufficiently
stern, his technique wasn't. So when Guatemala finally took back the reins, it
was all over. They wound up with 5, and by the end the defense wasn't even
bothering. On the last goal Dwight Pezzarossi walked into the area
unchallenged, took a pass from an equally unmarked Carlos Figueroa, and
scored, presumably with his eyes closed.
For Guatemala it was a most rewarding victory, the first time in months they
had looked convincing. Pezzarossi was man of the match, for his two
second-half goals and 90-minute all-out dirty work. Of course, nothing
interesting was said by either the coach, the players, or the press, but winning
is never boring.
For T&T there was very little to say. As always, they had shown potential,
and as always, some part of the team had failed. But this time the failure had
been so spectacular, so awe-inspiring, that you wondered how they could
recover. The only hope looked like another name change: maybe from
"Trinidad & Tobago" to "Mexico"?
This was, of course, the most important game of the day--or the least
important, depending on how you looked at it. After all, Mexico and the USA
were surely going to qualify anyway, so the game was only for pride. But
pride means a heck of a lot in Mexico, especially when in the last 8 games
against the Yanks they had scored exactly 1 goal. In the days before the game
the Tri were talking trash: the Americans play anti-futbol, we play the
beautiful game, etc. Even the newspapers got into the act, with daily headlines
proclaiming "we're better than they are," and going on to prove the point in
detail. No doubt about it: this was a clásico (but not a superclásico--that's
America vs. Chivas, and don't you forget it).
Meanwhile the USA played a friendly or two, went about their high-altitude
training, and kept quiet--too quiet. In fact, they slipped into Mexico City
under heavy security, without even giving the host FA their schedule. But
judging by his starting lineup, Bruce Arena had plenty to hide. It was a 4-5-1,
with Eddie Johnson as the lone forward, and DaMarcus Beasley, of all people,
as the central attacking midfielder, with Landon Donovan on the right and
Eddie Lewis on the left. Claudio Reyna and Pablo Mastroeni formed the
double pivot. But the real shocker was in central defense, Gregg Berhalter and
Oguchi Oneywu--essentially the team's 4th and 5th best men. OK, Eddie Pope
was hurt, but Carlos Bocanegra was over at LB, and Cory Gibbs was on the
bench. Berhalter and Onyewu in the Azteca? Sure about that, Bruce?
But at the beginning it didn't seem it would matter. Mexico started almost the
same eleven that had demolished Costa Rica (Ricardo Osorio replaced the
injured Hugo Sánchez Guerrero, and Oswaldo Sánchez was back in goal), but
for the first twenty minutes they were the same in name only. In fact, it was
every Mexican fan's nightmare: the team hesitant, the Yanks anticipating
every pass, Mastroeni and Reyna rejecting everything that came their way.
The USA wasn't really threatening to score, but they didn't need to. How
many times in the past 4 years had we seen it? You could write the script: 0:0.
But there had been one telling moment--in the 6th minute, a high ball from
Cuauhtémoc Blanco found Jared Borgetti beating Berhalter on the right side
of the area, and after his cross was deflected, Kikín Fonseca got the ball
unmarked. Reyna blocked the shot, and Mexico didn't get near the goal again
for quite some time, but the central defensive weakness was there for all to
see. And after 20 minutes the USA, playing for the nil-nil draw anyway, got
too passive. With Donovan uninspired, and Beasley in an unfamiliar spot,
Mexico grew in strength. Borgetti was more dynamic than he'd been in ages,
and Blanco was always dangerous on the left wing.
And then the Tri gave the Yanks a little lesson. Fonseca got into the right side
of the box, and was shut off by Bocanegra, but pushed it out to Salvador
Carmona. He crossed to the far post, Jaime Lozano headed it superbly back
into the middle, and Borgetti, who had beaten Onyewu, hammered it in. Three
minutes later Blanco sent a lovely high ball for Borgetti, loose between
Berhalter and Bocanegra, and he headed it across to a wide-open Sinha,
whom Oneywu had simply failed to follow. Sinha banged it in off the post.
Three minutes, two central defensive failures, two neat sequences, two goals,
and the game was nearly over.
(Which made it all the more amusing when in the 41st minute, LaVolpe was
ejected for complaining about the ref. As he walked off the field, the crowd
thundered "La-Vol-pe! La-Vol-pe!" Hmm…red-carded during a decisive win,
cheered off the field--who does he think he is, Hugo Sánchez?)
At halftime, Arena made the obvious move, putting Donovan into the middle
as a kind of withdrawn forward, and sending Beasley to the right. And with
Landon as the engine, the team came to life. Donovan sent Beasley through,
and Rafa Márquez had to break it up at the last minute. An excellent
Beasley-Donovan combination, with a dummy by Johnson, set up Lewis for a
shot, and Sánchez reacted quickly to his right to save. Meanwhile, the USA
was leaving spaces free, and Kasey Keller had to make saves of his own,
robbing both Sinha and Fonseca.
Something had to give soon, and it was Mexico. In the 58th minute Johnson
broke free on the right, and sent it low back into the middle, where Donovan
collected, lost control for a moment, then pushed the ball over to Lewis, and
this time he put it where Sánchez couldn't reach it. 2:1, and suddenly it was
nervous time in the Azteca. For the next 10 minutes the USA pushed the
attack, and Mexico's left side was looking dreadfully vulnerable. At one point
Donovan sent in Cherundolo, and Sánchez had to come out to meet him near
the byline. The cross came over, and if a teammate had arrived first the game
would have been tied. But Sinha cleared.
A few minutes later LaVolpe (wherever he was) played his cards. The old
men, Blanco and Borgetti, went out for Luís Pérez and Alberto Medina, and
an ineffective Lozano was replaced by Ramón Morales. The world (including
Jan Alsos, watching in Norway) settled in for a thrilling last 20 minutes.
But the Yanks were done. Mexico dominated the rest of the way, with Medina
and Carmona constant threats on the right of attack. Only the brilliance of
Keller and the wastefulness of the forwards kept it close. At the end there was
no doubt the better team had won.
Would the result have been different if Arena had started a different lineup?
Probably not. As always in the Azteca, the team came to sit back, and Mexico
was simply too good on the day. It was a marvelous catharsis for the Tri and
their fans, who had gotten a sizeable monkey off their backs. The press were
delirious in their praise, and right to be so. As a USA supporter, I say Bravo
Mexico!--and maybe our guys will have some pride on the line back home on
Trinidad & Tobago-Costa Rica
What can you say about a game after which BOTH coaches were fired? An
0:0 draw, naturally, and a pretty ordinary one at that. And it won't surprise
you to find out that, in their last official acts, both coaches pronounced
themselves happy with the result.
The parallels didn't stop there. Desperate for improvement, both coaches
changed tactics, going back to earlier ideas. (That they hadn't worked the first
time was beside the point.) St. Clair, facing a manpower shortage in defense
(Andrews and Cox injured, Sancho off form), changed the new 4-4-2 to the
old 3-5-2 from the semis. Pinto, facing a manpower shortage up front
(Wanchope tired, Herron not fit, Froylan Ledezma having walked out of camp
claiming Pinto was a "dictator"), switched his 4-4-2 to the 4-2-3-1 he had
tried during the Copa America last summer. Both coaches tried new faces,
too. St. Clair gave first starts to Atiba Charles in defense and Silvio Spann in
midfield; Pinto gave a first start to Óscar Rojas on the right side of the 3-man
And both still got the sack, of course, not so much for the game itself but for
what had gone on before. Pinto had produced an uninspired, defense-oriented
team, with little spark in midfield and little consistency in results. St. Clair had
inherited a team in the depths and failed to bring them out. "Fuera Pinto!"
and "St. Clair must go!" were hardly new expressions.
The game itself? Unfortunately, I didn't see it--the scheduled TV showing was
preempted by the death of the Pope. OK, no argument, but still kind of
disappointing. And after all, John Paul II was a former footballer himself,
right? I'm sure he would have understood.
But we do have news and fan reports, and a few video highlights, and in any
case it was more or less clear what happened. Costa Rica had only a few
scoring opportunities, T&T fewer than that. The new faces acquitted
themselves well: Óscar Rojas gave a solid two-way performance before he
gave way to Wanchope for the last 20 minutes; Atiba Charles showed
positioning, pace, and ball skills; Silvio Spann made some hard tackles
(perhaps a few too hard) and delivered some good passes. But forwards for
both teams were disappointing. For Costa Rica, Whayne Wilson got very little
done as a lone ranger, and was subbed in the second half. For T&T, Cornell
Glen got the start but simply wasn't at full throttle, and Stern John continued
to sink into the sunset.
On the other hand, both keepers did the job when necessary. Álvaro Mesén
has been great since he got the spot back, and he made the key save in the
70th minute when sub Nigel Pierre got to a cross from Angus Eve and tried to
chest the ball across the line. Mesén's body was in the goal, but his hands and
the ball were outside, and that was enough. Clayton Ince took over for Shaka
Hislop and, despite a broken finger, made a couple of nice stops, the best
coming in the 26th minute when he denied Alonso Solís one-on-one.
Dwight Yorke probably summed it up best: "It was not a classical game by
any means." But everyone agreed that T&T had showed a lot of heart after
the disaster in Guatemala. No, they didn't score, but the midfield was solid,
there were no defensive breakdowns (even from Dennis Lawrence), and at the
end of the game they were unquestionably driving the action. It was
unquestionably their best performance in ages. But it wasn't enough to save
St. Clair's job, and of course it didn't help Pinto much either. No surprise
when both of them bit the dust.
This wouldn't be CONCACAF, though, without some truly serious craziness
in the job search. Even before the ticos' team plane touched down in San
José, the FA were talking terms with former coach Alexandre Guiamares. It
was supposed to be a top-secret meeting at L'Olivo restaurant in Sabana
Norte, only someone tattled (my money's on the proprietor--free publicity!)
and dozens of reporters besieged the place. The FA members literally had to
sneak out the back way to avoid getting overwhelmed. But the cat was out of
the bag, and a stunned Pinto was met at the airport by the hordes asking him
how it felt to be fired. He somehow managed to elude the media without
comment, and his younger son summed the whole thing up with an obscene
gesture at a reporter. The next day Guiamares was confirmed as the new man,
but everyone was so upset at how Pinto had been treated that the FA publicly
apologized to him. How often does that happen?
It was funtime over in T&T, too, as word got out that Jack Warner was about
to sign a prestigious European coach. Names like Keegan, Robson, and Taylor
were bounced around, and soon the announcement came: Leo Beenhakker.
Not a bad catch--except the next day it came out that the original choice had
been none other than Big Ron Atkinson. Yes, that's Ron "Mr. Racial
Sensitivity" Atkinson. Want some details? Google "Atkinson Desailly" and
"Atkinson Chinese," for starters. Several senior T&T squad members
absolutely refused to accept Atkinson, and so Warner did a quick two-step
and signed Beenhakker. All's well that ends well--except he also named
Russell Latapy and David Nakhid as co-assistants, and they just happen to
hate each other. Good luck, Leo.
This game shaped up as a classic psychological two-way test. Mexico was
coming off an emotional victory in their most important game--would they let
down on the road against a lesser opponent? Panama had suffered a
devastating last-minute loss in a game they could easily have won--could they
recoup in time to challenge the reborn CONCACAF giant?
If the starting lineups were any indication, Mexico wasn't in the mood.
LaVolpe (in the press box, by the way--remember the red card against the
USA) switched the 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2, benching Kikín Fonseca but keeping
Borgetti and Blanco up front. This seemed an odd choice: for one thing, why
not keep the pressure on with 3 strikers, and for another, why start the old
men in two games in four days, especially when the opponent had an extra
day's rest? Elsewhere, Hector "Pity" Altamirano went to right midfield, with
Salvador Carmona dropping into the back line, and Rafa Márquez moved out
of the back line into a sort of link role between defense and midfield. It was a
surprisingly conservative setup for a team that had thrashed Costa Rica and
the USA back-to-back.
Cheché Hernández, of course, doesn't know the meaning of the word
conservative. He started his usual 4-4-2, but the main midfield attackers, Julio
Medina and Ricardo Phillips, normally out on the wings, were allowed to roam
freely, and even switch sides if necessary. With LB Carlos Rivera suspended,
he stuck in young Armando Gun, the star of the U-20s. And he went with a
third different partner for Alberto Blanco in central midfield, this time Juan
Ramón Solís, the least technical and most aggressive of all.
Thirty seconds in the tone was set, when Cuauhtémoc Blanco got the ball and
was promptly hammered by Felipe Baloy. Foul, but Panama wasn't going to
give any quarter. For their part, Mexico had no plan: it was clear from the
start they were going through the motions. Passes from Blanco and Sinha into
the box were aimless. Borgetti was silent. Altamirano had nothing to offer.
Either the USA game had drained them emotionally, or they thought they
could win by just showing up.
But you can't just show up against Panama. The Costa Rica loss was behind
them, and they were hell-bent-for-leather as always. Eleven men, eleven
whirlwinds. Even Baloy was charging into the attack. Around the 12th minute
they took control of midfield, with Phillips and particularly Medina leading the
way. Roberto Brown was working well back to goal. Pavel Pardo was chasing
the game, Carlos Salcido was uncharacteristically wobbly. Only several fine
covers by Ricardo Osorio kept the home side from seriously threatening. And
in the 26th minute they had their best chance. José Luís Garcés, coming out
from the area, sent it to an open Medina on the left wing, then turned and
headed for the net. Medina sent in the cross, but Garcés slipped--which
functioned as a perfect dummy for Phillips on the right. He crossed it back,
but with Oswaldo Sánchez in no-man's-land the ball fell just between Brown
and a rallying Garcés, and Osorio cleared.
So of course a couple of minutes later Mexico scored. Ramón Morales,
replacing Jaime Lozano at left midfield, had the ball in the attacking third. He
passed it square to Blanco and zipped past Luís Moreno toward the area.
Baloy came out to meet Blanco, maybe a bit too far, and Sinha made a
slanting run into the vacated spot. Blanco sent it in to Sinha, who side-footed
it neatly to the left to Morales, who smashed it in. It was an exquisite piece of
team play, Mexico at their best--and it was the last scoring chance they would
get on the night.
Panama responded the only way they knew how, going forward. Mexico,
seemingly feeling they had done enough to win, went passive. And the red tide
spilled all over them. Medina and Phillips were pouring into the middle--but
that was the problem. In fact, with the two wide men moving off the wings,
the center got too clogged, and there was no width in the attack. Gun was
hesitant to come up on the left, and Moreno could only send random crosses
from the right. And even when the attackers seemed more evenly distributed,
the last touch always seemed to elude them. The impression was very clear: a
team with audacity and guts, but not quite enough skill. At the interval it was
The second half began much the same, Mexico sitting back, Panama attacking
without much result. The best chance came on a set piece: in the 52nd minute,
Medina's corner was headed by Baloy to Brown, but his following header was
weak, and gave Sánchez no problem. A minute later Brown was replaced by
Luís "El Matador" Tejada, a fan favorite who had been a frequent partner of
Garcés on the youth teams. The crowd had been calling for him, chanting his
name since halftime, but as he donned his traje de luces and headed into the
game, no one knew that 22 minutes later would come el momento de la
And a pretty strong momento came only a few minutes later, too. Going for a
loose ball, Solís crashed hard into Pavel Pardo. The two got tangled on the
ground, and an angry Pardo lashed out a hand. A recent graduate of the
Professional Footballers' School of Diving, Dissimulating, and Generally
Making the Referee Look Stupid, Solís exaggerated the effects of the blow,
and Benigno Pineda, staring right at the play, bought it hook, line, and sinker.
Or maybe he just wanted to make an example out of Pardo. Straight red.
So now it was much the same as against Costa Rica: Panama 11 on 10, most
of the second half left, the opposition minus a defensive midfielder. LaVolpe
naturally went more defensive, with Blanco out for Rafael Garcia. And
Panama once again set about the swarm, with much the same results, or lack
thereof. Mexico stopped up the middle, and there was nothing from wide. But
in the 73rd minute Panama finally got a chance. Medina and Phillips played a
neat one-two in the middle, both Altamirano and Carmona moved in to cover,
and Medina slipped it to Garcés on the left alone against Sánchez. He had
plenty of time, but hurried his shot, and missed badly. You knew Panama
wouldn't get another one like that.
And they didn't. They got something much, much better. In the 75th minute
they took a throw-in from the left side about ten yards from the attacking
by-line. Phillips, facing the left touchline, controlled and sent an overhead lob
into the area, where it found the chest of El Matador. He was back to goal,
marked tightly by Carlos Salcido. El momento de la verdad. He deadened the
ball on his chest. He bounced it on his right thigh. He bounced it on his right
foot. He…OH MY GOODNESS!!!!! Chilena--bicycle
kick--smash--net—goal--Immortality. You'll never see a finer goal on
any field anywhere. If when the great footballers pass on, they get to play the
game up in heaven--and what's the point of heaven if they can't?--that's the
way they score. On a good day. Maybe.
Everything else was anticlimax. With the marea roja going insane in the
stands, and Mexico flattened, Panama could actually, truly win the game. But
the final 15 minutes passed uneventfully. No chances, no glories. And nothing
could match Tejada's goal anyway.
The home side treated the draw as a win, and good for them. They had
outplayed mighty Mexico (one paper scoffed: "That's the sixth ranked team in
the world?"), and scored a goal for the ages. LaVolpe said he had no excuses,
then blamed the pitch, the lighting, the ball, and for all we know, the canal.
But it was quite obvious that the Tri hadn't been ready, and when you come
to the Rommel Fernández, you have to be ready. Especially when the
bullfighter draws his sword.
The big news before this one was that Landon "Braveheart" Donovan, after
all of three months at Bayer Leverkusen, had decided he wanted to come
home. Again. This wouldn't have mattered much to Guatemala, except in the
wonderful world of MLS, it meant he was going to be assigned to LA Galaxy,
which meant that Carlos Ruiz, the team's talisman, would have to go to Dallas
to stay under the salary cap. (This also meant that Pando Ramírez, who
thought he was going to join his countryman in Los Angeles, now finds
himself stuck with a lot of gringos, a few ticos, and Steve Sampson.) Ruiz
didn't have much to say, but you sensed he wanted a result very badly.
After the spanking in Mexico, Bruce Arena wanted a result badly too, and
took steps to get it by going back to a 4-4-2, replacing Gregg Berhalter with
Cory Gibbs, putting Donovan in the middle where he belonged, and matching
target man Brian Ching with Eddie Johnson up front. DaMarcus Beasley was
suspended, so Eddie Lewis stayed on the left and Steve Ralston started on the
right. Two games in four days was too much for Claudio Reyna, so Pablo
Mastroeni got the call at DM.
(Guatemala's team news has been omitted to avoid an overdose of tedium.)
(OK, since you insist: "El Loco" Rodríguez came back from suspension to
play his usual right midfield, and everyone else stayed in exactly the same
This was the USA's first game at home, so only half the crowd was rooting
against them. But it also helps to have someone to root for, and in the first
half the USA were the only team on the field. Taking an aggressive, physical
approach against the smaller Guatemalans, they pressed all over the pitch,
won every ball, and would have been up by 5 at the interval if Eddie Lewis
and Brian Ching hadn't missed a boatload of chances. (Steve Cherundolo
missed one too, but let's give him a pass--how many times does your right
back try a diving header in the box?) The one goal came in the 11th minute.
Pablo Melgar's pass was intercepted by Mastroeni, who found Donovan on a
slanting run at the top of the box. Donovan's nifty backheel put the inevitable
Eddie Johnson through, and his left-footer caromed off the post and in. As for
Ruiz, he might as well have been in Dallas already.
Still, the US domination had abated a bit before the interval, and the opening
of the second half saw Guatemala putting up a better fight. For a while the ball
bounced around without much of interest. Then, in the 66th minute (why does
this sort of thing happen so often?), the game went bonkers. In a space of 2
minutes and 55 seconds, the following happened:
1) Lewis sent in a cross from the left. Donovan, who had been level with the
last man, headed home for 2:0. But the goal, unquestionably legal, was
disallowed for offside.
2) Guatemala had a great chance to equalize, as Ruiz outmuscled Onyewu just
outside the box and sent Rodríguez in. But Keller robbed him.
3) Lewis sent in another cross from the left. Ralston, at the far post, headed it
back to Donovan, whose backheel found Johnson. But Foster robbed him.
4) A clear handball by Nestor Martínez wasn't called.
5) Johnson, having apparently seen the highlights from Panama, delivered a
screaming bicycle kick, but Foster was properly placed, and stopped it.
6) Lewis sent in ANOTHER cross from the left, and it was flicked on by
Johnson to Ralston, on the right. Nobody robbed anybody. Ralston poked it
past Foster for the 2:0. This one stood, although Ralston, just to be sure, took
a glance back at the linesman before celebrating.
The rest was (blissfully) routine, except for a little incident in the 73rd minute.
Ruiz, frustrated all night by the positioning of Gibbs and the manhandling of
Onyewu, threw himself on the turf in hopes of a PK. Referee Ramesh
Ramdhan of T&T (who had allowed all sorts of mugging all night) pulled out
the yellow card for diving, so not only did Ruiz have to go to Dallas, he'd be
ineligible for the next game--merely a home date with Mexico.
It was a good win for the USA, who re-established their credentials after the
loss at Mexico, and a sobering loss for Guatemala, who learned that thumping
T&T at home doesn't get you very far. If you want some interesting
post-game comments, you'll be disappointed, because the press and coaches
had nothing but clichés. But why not? In all, the game went pretty much as
expected--which makes it rare in CONCACAF these days.
WHERE WE STAND NOW
We're only three games in, and already Mexico (7 points) and the USA (6
points) have put some space between them and the pack. It's particularly
impressive given that both have played only one out of three at home. The
USA-Guatemala game tells the story: although Guatemala was coming off
their best game in months, and the USA was coming off a clear loss, and had
one fewer day's rest, the Yanks were barely tested. Yes, Panama took a
well-merited point off the Tri, and Guiamares might yet bring Costa Rica out
of the doldrums, but it doesn't look as if the big two will be seriously
threatened this year.
Despite the hiccup against Panama, Mexico remains deservedly in first place.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco may be diving and whining even more than usual, and
may not be able to go 90 minutes anymore, but still has the genius and sublime
right foot. And if Jared Borgetti is on the decline, he showed against the USA
that he's still capable of a big effort in an important game. They're backed up
by Kikín Fonseca and the very promising Alberto Medina. The defense, too, is
deep and strong. Of course, in Mexico you're only as good as your last result,
and the draw in Panama City brought out the usual critics. (Some guy with the
initials H. S. said that if he'd been coaching, Mexico would have beaten the
USA 5-1--but he waited until after the Panama game to say it.) There'll be
some pressure for a win, or at least a better display, at Guatemala. But with
Ruiz out, Mexico should be able to control the game if they can keep all
eleven men on the field. With round 5 home to T&T, the Tri should hit the
halfway mark in first place.
The USA looks in good shape too, although there remain questions up front (is
there a target man in sight?) and in the back (suit me up, coach, I can play left
back). But Eddie Johnson has been an absolute marvel, Landon Donovan has
found his place in the middle, and Pablo Mastroeni looks ready to take over
the DM spot post-Reyna. After a disappointing performance in Mexico, the
team dispatched Guatemala with ease. There's still a visit to the Saprissa
ahead, but that doesn't come until round 9, and by that time they may have
wrapped up a spot. In June it's home to Costa Rica, who have only 1 point in
their last 6 games in the USA, then a difficult tie at Panama. Four points
should be enough to keep the lads on track.
As for Costa Rica (4 points), all bets are off now that Guiamares is back. No
CONCACAF fan will ever forget the spectacular Hexagonal and fine World
Cup last time around. (Oh, and he was on the 1990 WC squad as a player,
too.) He figures to scrap Pinto's defensive approach and go to an attacking
3-5-2, although he may have to wait a while to go full throttle. That's because
the next game is at the USA, and he'll be missing Walter Centeno through
suspension. In 2002 Guiamares had a lot of success with Centeno and Wilmer
López as dual playmakers, and although López has retired from the
international game, Alonso Solís, who developed then faded under Pinto,
could fill that spot. Wanchope, outstanding in the semis, has been off form in
the Hexagonal, but at any moment he can break loose. Come June his inaction
at Malaga may even be a plus, since he'll be rested. Winston Parks, the
exciting young Russia-based striker and noted Pinto-hater, says he'll rejoin the
team. The defense looks sound. It may be too much to expect lightning to
strike twice for Guiamares, but at least the team should be fun to watch again.
Right now it looks as if CR will battle Guatemala and maybe Panama for that
all-important third spot; after the USA game the chapines come to town, and a
win will be vital.
Guatemala (4 points) plods along as ever, and nothing could be clearer than
the sequence of results: 0:0 at Panama, 5:1 home to T&T, 0:2 at the USA.
They're a middle-of-the-table team, no more and no less; but in a table with a
crowded middle they can finish anywhere from 3rd (ecstasy) to 5th (despair).
Positive omen: Ricardo Trigueño Foster seems to be over his semifinal
nightmare. Negative omen: Gonzalo Romero isn't doing the job often enough.
Positive omen: Carlos Ruiz continues to find the net. Negative omen: he won't
be there for the game home to Mexico. A lot may be decided on June 8, when
they visit Costa Rica. A point there, and they'll have drawn on the road with
their two most important foes. A loss, and fourth place may be all they can
As your Not-So-Roving CONCACAF Reporter, I of course must maintain
strict neutrality, but if I were an outsider, and hunting around for a team to
support, I'd be tempted to pick Panama. Can you name any other team in the
region who would have responded to the Costa Rica loss by blistering
Mexico? On the field they're like a bunch of red wasps, buzzing, stinging,
swarming, rarely beautiful but fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, despite
two home games, they still have only 2 points, and while the Mexico draw was
wonderful they're going to need more. They'll also have to get some
production from the forwards. Roberto Brown has been ordinary, and José
Luís Garcés a big disappointment, missing chances literally left and right. But
Julio Medina has grown with every game, and seems ready to be the
playmaker the team needs. The pressure is on right now: at T&T in round 4
(without Felipe Baloy, who's suspended), home to the USA in round 5. Points
are there for the taking, but they won't come easy. And goals like Tejada's
come only once in a lifetime.
In T&T (1 point) they're ecstatic over Leo Beenhakker, but the team might
have waited three games too long to make the change. They've already played
two of their key rivals, registering a road loss (Guatemala) and a home draw
(Costa Rica). Neither result is satisfactory if you want to qualify. And
Beenhakker has absolutely no margin for error--the next game, home to
Panama, is a must, and I mean must win, because then it's back to back at
Mexico and the USA. Is Beenhakker the right man? I guess we'll find out;
although he certainly has a strong resumé, it's mostly in the past, and mostly at
club level. The encouraging datum: he qualified Saudi Arabia for its very first
WC back in 1994 (although he was promptly sacked in a row over training
methods). And he inherits a squad that may finally be starting to perform.
Dwight Yorke was again excellent as the midfield conductor, and new faces
Silvio Spann and Atiba Charles may be the men who stabilize the midfield and
defense respectively. For the first time in a very long time T&T fans can think
semi-seriously about qualifying. But they have to win now and the talent pool
isn't deep. Beenhakker will be tested to the limit, and has frankly admitted
there's a lot of work to do. But he's decisive (he's already in effect nixed the
Nakhid/Latapy team and is ready to bring in his own people), and he's
knowledgable. And best of all, he's not Ron Atkinson.
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