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    Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Feb 18, 2004
    Update Mar 4, 2004
    Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
    Preview May 30, 2004 Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004 Preview Aug 9, 2004 Update Sep 20, 2004 Update Oct 26, 2004 Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004 Preview Feb 2, 2005 Update Feb 26, 2005 Update Apr 8, 2005 Update Jun 8, 2005 Update Aug 22, 2005 Update Sep 14, 2005 Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005 Preview Oct 29, 2005 Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005



    Update: CONCACAF Hexagonal, Rounds 4-5

    by Peter Goldstein

    ROUND 4

    USA-Costa Rica

        The USA had scheduled its home game against Costa Rica for Rice-Eccles stadium in Salt Lake City. That's the home of MLS expansion franchise Real Salt Lake, the most ridiculously named football club since Kansas City Wiz, Dallas Burn, San Jose Clash, and Tampa Bay Mutiny. (At least they can't blame us for Minnesota Wild.) A good idea to let the newbies host a game, except the home turf there is artificial, which is precisely the kind of turf on which Costa Rica plays its home games. But this is America, so money solves all problems: $150,000 later, there was a temporary grass field of such transcendentally poor quality that it was all you could do just to stay upright.

        That was a particular worry for Bruce Arena, who already had Eddie Johnson, Pablo Mastroeni, and Cory Gibbs out with injury, and Eddie Lewis excused for family matters. Plus, DaMarcus Beasley wasn't all the way back from his knee injury, and worst of all, there was no left back to be found (oh, right, that's been the case since 1492). With Gibbs unavailable, Arena went with a 3-5-2, with Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Pope, and Carlos Bocanegra across the back line, and Bobby Convey as a defense-oriented left wingback. Kerry Zavagnin replaced Mastroeni, and Josh Wolff replaced Johnson. But the real news was Beasley, who not only started but played in an unprecedented free attacking midfield role, which entitled him to a free "get hacked time and again by the Costa Rican defenders" ticket.

        The ticos had even more serious personnel problems. The squad had been rocked by the death of striker Whayne Wilson in a car crash. A number of key players were borderline match fit, including strikers Paulo Wanchope and Ronald Gómez, and defensive anchor Luís Marín. Playmaker Walter Centeno was suspended. But surely Alexandre Guimaraes would come up with something special. After all, this was Guima, Brazilian-born, apostle of the beautiful game, unafraid to dare and be great. And yes, he did come up with something special--a setup so conservative that even Jorge Luís Pinto would have blushed. It was a 5-4-1: the wingmen were defensive players Leonardo González and Jervis Drummond, there were two defensive midfielders, Douglas Sequeira and Carlos Hernández, and the lone striker, Alonso Solís, wasn't even a striker, but an attacking midfielder playing out of position.

        And only 6 minutes in the scheme failed. A weak header from Oscar Rojas gave the ball to Landon Donovan, who dribbled right down the middle and passed to his right for Steve Ralston. Ralston's cross caromed off the foot of Mauricio Wright and back to Donovan, who smashed it in from just inside the area. Having come to defend, Costa Rica had no answer. Solís, starved for service, had to drop back into midfield time and again to play his natural position. Rojas, one of the few natural attacking players in the lineup, was caught offside every other minute. Desperate, Guimaraes went back to his roots, taking González out and putting Steven Bryce in the lineup--but that just meant Gilberto Martínez had to go to an unfamiliar position on the left. The Yanks weren't exactly scintillating, but kept control of midfield, looked dangerous on set pieces, and would have been up 2:0 if Wolff hadn't botched a breakaway.

        With only 45 minutes left, it had to be Wanchope or Gómez soon. But in the locker room Guimaraes had injected his squad with some special pickle juice, vintage 2001-2002. Strikers? We don't need no stinking strikers! Costa Rica came in waves, and suddenly the Yanks' back line looked terribly vulnerable. But the USA has a guy by the name of Kasey Keller, who has been dealing with this sort of thing for a generation. In the 47th minute he robbed Jafet Soto from point-blank range. In the 49th he came out to thwart Rojas, who had broken through the middle on a long ball from Hernández. In the 51st he stopped a snapping shot from Solis. In the 59th it was a marvelous reach-back off a header from Soto. Whereupon Guimaraes finally sent in Gómez, and a desperate half hour seemed in store.

        But less than a minute later it was over. A quick throw-in found Wolff attacking on the right side; he hooked it neatly into the box, where McBride, invisible all day, suddenly popped into view and headed firmly on goal. Álvaro Mesén could only parry, and Donovan poked in the rebound. The rest was academic, but in the 87th minute USA fans were treated to the unprecedented sight of Donovan outmuscling an opponent (big man Victor Cordero, no less), which started a sequence for McBride to score the third.

        Arena's tactics hadn't been terribly successful--Beasley had been indifferent, and the 3-man line shaky--but everyone was so Keller-and-Donovan happy that it didn't matter. On the other side, Guimaraes came in for severe criticism for his defensive setup. But Guima is no fool, and he knows this is CONCACAF. In other words, third place, and maybe even fourth, gets you to Germany. At best he was drawing to an inside straight--Costa Rica had managed exactly one draw in their previous 10 tournament games at the USA. Another loss? OK, just get a few guys in shape, and give the borderline players some rest. The big game would be next Wednesday, home to Guatemala.


        As for Guatemala, they were facing the most eagerly anticipated game in many a year--home to Mexico in the WCQ, for the first time ever. (True!) Mexico hadn't even played in Guatemala for more than 20 years, and tickets sold out instantaneously. Even a million-dollar scandal involving fake national team jerseys couldn't dampen the enthusiasm. But the fans couldn't take the field themselves, and the chapines were dangerously short of weapons. Carlos Ruiz was suspended, and strike partner Dwight Pezzarossi was out for several weeks with a torn leg muscle. At right midfield, Mario "El Loco" Rodríguez probably wasn't up to 90 minutes.

        Ramón Maradiaga briefly considered going with a 4-5-1, but settled on his usual 4-4-2, with Carlos Figueroa for Rodriguez, and strikers Juan Carlos Plata and Edwin "El Venado" Villatoro, a smallish smooth attacker who had excelled in domestic competition. Figuring he'd need experience and muscle in midfield, he brought back veteran Julio Girón in place of Fredy Thompson. It didn't seem too promising, but with more than 25,000 mad Mateo Flores fans clad in blue-and-white (legally or otherwise), anything was possible.

        For Mexico, a game at Guatemala was a somewhat less momentous experience, so they went back to basics and did some squabbling. First, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, tired from the long league playoff season, decided not to show up for camp. LaVolpe grumbled a bit, but he and Blanco don't speak much anyway, so he said "what the hell" and took him off the list for the qualifiers--and the Confederations Cup too. (Lucky bastard.) The real fireworks were saved for a classic club-country battle. Chivas was about to host Boca Juniors in an epic Libertadores quarterfinal tie, and of course wanted all their players available. LaVolpe insisted he had equal rights. Words were exchanged, as they say--at one point LaVolpe deliberately accused the club of falsifying an injury to Alberto Medina so they wouldn't have to send him to camp. Eventually, in a not-so-Solomonic decision, LaVolpe plucked Carlos Salcido and Oswaldo Sánchez, leaving Chivas with the lesser half, Omar Bravo and Ramón Morales. A steamed-up Chivas, without their two best defensive players, went on to wallop Boca 4-0.

        And as it turned out, Mexico didn't need Sánchez--Guatemala didn't get a shot on goal until a weak deflection in the 81st minute. And Mexico probably could have done without Salcido as well. After an early chance when Pando Ramírez shot wide from a Villatoro pass, the home side never looked like scoring. Figueroa occasionally found space on the right, but his crosses were laughable. Villatoro managed a good pass or two, but little else. As for Plata, one newspaper said the only time he was visible was when he came off to be substituted. (Ouch. But at least there were no lines about fake men in fake uniforms.)

        Meanwhile Mexico played it calm--too calm, really. With Pavel Pardo injured, LaVolpe started both Luis Pérez and Juan Pablo Rodríguez, leaving the lineup without a true defensive midfielder. But with Blanco out, there was no one to drive the attack. Sinha isn't quite as aggressive, and was only intermittently in evidence. So although Mexico controlled midfield, little came of it. Kikín Fonseca, looking off form, wasted a few half-chances, and when Jaime Lozano finally got through with only the keeper to beat, he chipped high. Guatemala's defense, not their most reliable unit, was hanging tough, and Jared Borgetti wasn't a factor. It wasn't terribly exciting, but for the home side, 0:0 at the interval would have been fine.

        Except they never got there. In the 41st minute, a weak corner by Figueroa led to a Mexican counterattack. The defense appeared to get back in time, but when Pérez sent a looping cross to the far post, Ricardo Trigueño Foster blundered, coming out at the wrong angle, colliding with Borgetti, missing the ball entirely. Lozano calmly chipped it back into the area, and Sinha finished.

        Even worse was to come. On the stroke of halftime, Lozano drove an inswinging corner, and the ball simply bounced off Pablo Melgar's arm and into the net. 2:0 to Mexico, and the second half was mostly caretaking. In the 57th minute Mexico were lucky when referee Brian Hall missed a handball in the area, but a goal would have been far more than Guatemala deserved. Their only near-chance of the half, when Rodríguez sent in Gonzalo Romero, was foiled by a nifty tackle from Ricardo Osorio. The rest was waiting to see whether Mexico would get a garbage goal at the other end (they didn't, but not for lack of trying).

        The Tri had been workmanlike rather than inspired, but on the road you take what you can get. LaVolpe, remembering the draw at Panama, pronounced himself pleased, and the press, still ecstatic over the Chivas/Boca result, had little criticism. Guatemala had undoubtedly missed Ruiz and Pezzarossi, but the way Mexico controlled things even Henry and Shevchenko wouldn't have been enough. The big event had been a whimper, not a bang--but to be honest, the result mattered more in the heart than in the standings. As with Costa Rica, the one that counted was the one coming up.

    Trinidad & Tobago-Panama

        It was Game One of the Beenhakker Era in Trinidad & Tobago, and it would be Game Last if he didn't put up 3 points. But the fans were abuzz, because all the signs were positive. The team was working on a possession game to replace the St. Clair kick-and-rush, and a couple of new midfielders were ready to make contributions. There was "Aurtis Whitley," skillful star for San Juan Jabloteh, whose main claims to fame were 1) he had turned down invitations to play under St. Clair, and 2) no one seemed to be able to figure out his name. Was it "Otis" or "Aurtis"? "Seaton" or "Whitley"? And there was bustling Chris Birchall of Port Vale, UK-born and raised (but with a Trinidad-born mother), affectionately known to the fans as "that white boy." In the buildup the team had looked improved in friendlies against Alianza Lima and Bermuda. The big question was whether they could find someone to score. Stern John, looking like he'd eaten a few too many meat pies, continued to miss chance after chance, and people were running out of toilet metaphors to describe him.

        But Beenhakker put him on the field anyway, in a new-look 4-4-2. The centerbacks were familiar faces Marvin Andrews and Dennis Lawrence, but Avery John was preferred over Marlon Rojas at LB, and Atiba Charles went to RB. The midfield had Whitley/Seaton and Birchall in the middle, Carlos Edwards on the right, and Densil Theobald replacing Leslie Fitzpatrick on the left. John was joined by Dwight Yorke, now at striker instead of attacking midfielder. There was a worry at keeper: with Shaka Hislop in Europe working on his club career, and Clayton Ince with a sore back, it was third-choice Kelvin Jack, who had been shaky-to-frightful back in the semifinal round.

        For Panama there was just as much pressure, but fewer good signs. With goals very hard to come by, Cheché Hernández replaced the slumping José Luís Garcés with Luís Tejada, he of the historic chilena against Mexico. Defense was suddenly a problem too. With Felipe Baloy suspended, the original plan had been for Carlos Rivera to play in the middle and Luis Henríquez to make a comeback at left back. But Henríquez got hurt, which meant Rivera had to go out to the left and Joel Solanilla had to fill in at centerback. And maybe the biggest problem of all was the uniforms. T&T wears red, so Panama had to go to the second strip: white shirts and a distinctive blue short, but no substitute for the kit that had made the red tide famous.

        In the first 20 minutes T&T was tentative, and Panama held midfield control. Julio Medina, as always the most dangerous of the Panamanians, was giving Whitley (unless it was Seaton) significant trouble. But soon the Warriors caught their stride, and the defensive weakness started to show. Carlos Rivera was repeatedly embarrassed by Carlos Edwards, who looked dangerous every time he got the ball. With Birchall going all out in the middle, and T&T playing the Beenhakker possession game with some flair, it looked like a new team indeed.

        But it wouldn't be T&T without Stern John blowing a chance, and when he missed a tap-in on a cross from Edwards, you could hear flushing noises all over the stadium. But in the 34th minute Charles took a throw-in on the right, it was Yorke's turn to beat Rivera and cross--and miracle of miracles, there was the bulky John to poke it unartistically but unmistakably past Donaldo González. Buy that man an extra cheeseburger!

        Down 0:1 at the half, Panama stepped up the pace, with Garcés in for an ineffective Roberto Brown. Now they were dominating midfield, and the blue-and-white tide bore a strong resemblance to the red. But they had the same old problem: no width in attack. With Phillips and Medina cutting inside to try to make things happen, and little help from the fullbacks, the middle was just too clogged. And yet…two months ago against Mexico, things had looked the same, and the result was a goal for the ages. Could it happen again?

        Yes, indeed--but a goal of quite another sort. And for the other team. In the 71st minute, with Panama pressing, T&T got possession and the counterattack was on. Andrews, Charles, Lawrence, John on the left wing inside the Panama half--and suddenly there was the unimaginable sight of Dennis Lawrence racing into space and heading for the goal, calling for the ball. Dennis Lawrence is a central defender. He's eight feet tall. One of his nicknames is "Giraffe," except giraffes are faster and more graceful. The last time he had streaked down the field alone towards goal was at the age of six--in his dreams. But there he was, and John, mindful of the occasion, hit him in stride. He galloped into the right side of the penalty area--marvelous! He slowed down, faked a shot, twisted Solanilla out of his shorts--brilliant! He switched the ball from his right foot to his left--beautiful! And then, alone in front of the keeper, with a nation watching in delirious disbelief, he stroked it into the far side of the net--oh, exquisite! Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaká, you guys taking notes?

        The 2:0 final anchored Panama in last place. It had been a discouraging performance: there was little connection between midfield and attack, and the only real scoring chances came from long range. Four games gone, with only one goal from open play--and that had been Tejada's miracle. At least they could wear the red kit home to the USA.

        As for T&T, well, you can imagine the ecstasy at, even without Lawrence's masterpiece. The lads passed the ball around, the back line held firm, Yorke still had plenty of energy, the white boy and the mystery man were the long-awaited answer in midfield. Even Kelvin Jack made a couple of saves. A win, a real live win in the Hexagonal! And a coach, a real live coach in Leo Beenhakker! Mexico was next, but nothing could dampen the euphoria. Surely you remember Russell Latapy's goal that beat the Tri back in 2000?

    ROUND 5

    Mexico-Trinidad & Tobago

        And here indeed was Mexico, although not in the Azteca. Figuring this was the easiest game of the lot, the FA decided to forego the altitude advantage and go north to Monterrey, where the fans are known as the loudest and best in the country. The game was a bit of a homecoming for Leo Beenhakker, who in his varied career had coached both Chivas and America. Did he have something up his sleeve? What he needed was a keeper--Clayton Ince, apparently unhappy to be benched against Panama (but didn't he have a sore back?), had walked out of camp. Mexico was missing Rafa Márquez, who had suffered a groin strain against Guatemala, and Salvador Carmona, who was suspended, but that hardly mattered. Beenhakker or no, it was the usual speculation--how many goals are we going to win by?

        After the first few minutes, you would have guessed maybe eight. T&T started the same eleven that had beaten Panama, but they were decidedly jittery, and showed gaps, particularly on the left, where Avery John was struggling with Kikín Fonseca. Just about every Mexican attack looked dangerous, and calculator sales were mounting.

        But around the 15th minute a funny thing happened. All at once T&T got their balance, and you realized--wait a minute, this is a real football team with a real coach. Beenhakker's tactics were superb: he turned the 4-4-2 into a 6-2-2, with midfielders Densil Theobald on the left and Carlos Edwards on the right dropping all the way back. He stationed Chris Birchall and (let's just call him Aurtis Whitley) Aurtis Whitley in the middle, and let the opponent come on. Lawrence and Andrews were clogging the middle to perfection; the fullbacks, John and Atiba Charles, were moving out to challenge, knowing they had wing midfielders for cover. Mexico, with their patient passing game, had no way through, and it wasn't just because everyone in red was playing defense. Everyone on Dominica had played defense too, and they had given up 18 goals in two games. No, this was a team that knew how to mark, cover, and clear, knew how to play football.

        And when T&T got possession, they didn't just boot it long. They played crisp passes out of the back, found the strikers retreating to trap the ball, moved out to execute complex passing sequences, and even threatened once in a while. In the 28th minute Aaron Galindo just got to the ball ahead of Stern John when a goal was in the offing. LaVolpe, no dummy, saw what was up, and in the 36th minute yanked Carmona's replacement, Mario Méndez, for an extra attacker, Alberto Medina, hoping his pace could open up the wing.

        It worked, for a bit. On his first touch, Medina forced a corner, and a few minutes later a through ball from Sinha found him slicing in from the right. He rounded Jack, and a goal seemed certain, but on his weaker left foot, didn't get enough on the shot, and Avery John cleared off the line. At the half it was still 0:0, not exactly what had been advertised. Those loud Monterrey fans knew exactly how to respond, too.

        In the second half Medina disappeared quickly, and once again the Tri were without ideas, and the Warriors cool and poised on defense. The pace of the game was slow, but the spectacle was mesmerizing: was this really T&T holding off Mexico, getting more confident by the moment? When in the 61st minute a rare mistake left Jaime Lozano open in the box, Kelvin Jack (the third string, remember) dove to the right to save the header. You really thought they were going to do it.

        But somehow these things never work out. A minute later LaVolpe made another smart substitution, Ramón Morales, more wing power, for an intermittent Sinha. And shortly afterward he got his reward. With his first touch of the night, Morales slammed a shot from the left side, and Jack left a rebound. Jared Borgetti had slipped behind Lawrence and took the easy tap-in. T&T appealed vehemently for offside, but the replay showed the goal had been legal.

        So with about a half hour to go, it was probably over. But then came the most remarkable segment of the game. You'd expect T&T, down a goal, to put the pressure on and attack. But no--they stayed in the same 6-2-2, inviting Mexico to go for more. Who could resist? But 20 minutes later the score was the same, and when in the 80th minute Hector Sam replaced Densil Theobald, suddenly the counterattack looked more dangerous than the attack. In the 84th minute a lovely backheel by John for Sam was just broken up by Osorio. Mexico were on their back foot, and once again a draw actually seemed possible. Alas, in the 88th minute Luís Pérez's shot was blocked by Andrews, the ball came right back to Pérez, and he got the clincher. Once again Jack should have done better--but in any case Mexico deserved a PK, since Andrews had blocked it with his arm.

        It had been a landmark performance for Trinidad & Tobago. A hundred years from now, researchers will note that Mexico beat T&T 3:0 at home in the semis and 2:0 at home in the Hexagonal, and assume the games were similar. No way. Last year T&T's most valuable player had been the post. This year, under Beenhakker's guidance, they were a full participant. You could only marvel at the transformation. (And--let's say it very quietly--wonder what might have been if he'd got the job in December rather than March.)


        Last time these teams had met in the Rommel, the USA had needed a freakish last-minute goal to steal a draw. So despite the poor result in Port-of-Spain, Panama was optimistic. The team had a history of bouncing back from disappointments, like the draw with Mexico after a last-second loss in Costa Rica. Plus, Felipe Baloy was back, and although RB Luis Moreno was suspended, Amilcar Henríquez was a decent substitute. Yanking Carlos Rivera for an inexperienced Joel Jiménez at LB was a bit of a gamble, but maybe some new blood would do the job. Besides, the USA was still missing four starters, and had needed some miracle saves to hold off Costa Rica. The marea was fully roja, and it was time for another inspirational performance.

        Only six minutes in, though, Landon Donovan took a corner, Carlos Bocanegra outjumped Roberto Brown, and the USA was on top. And Panama--well, you couldn't quite say they collapsed, because they had never been upright to begin with. Mexico had given them space, but the USA pressed, and from front to back, the team couldn't handle it. No coherence, no thrust, no nothing. Julio Medina was forced way deep, and was never close to a factor. Ricardo Philips was invisible. José Luís Garcés, getting the start this time, couldn't get into danger positions. The USA simply kept pressing, waited for mistakes, and turned them into goals.

        A sequence starting in the 19th minute told the tale. Panama, with the ball on the left side in their own half, couldn't figure a way out. Anthony Torres, Baloy, Jiménez, Alberto Blanco, Gabriel Gómez, and Medina all got touches, but under the USA pressing, all got nowhere. Finally Medina just overhead-kicked it away, but Steve Cherundolo intercepted, and four neat passes later Steve Ralston crossed to Donovan, whose fine twisting header made it 2:0. Number three came in the 40th minute, when Baloy couldn't clear a long, low shot from Frankie Hejduk, and Brian McBride almost casually knocked it in.

        The highlight of the half? Kasey Keller, of course. In the 26th minute Medina sent in a free kick, and from 8 yards Brown headed hard toward the keeper's left. Keller reacted brilliantly, pushed it outside the post--which put it in the path of Blanco, who fired from a narrow angle. Keller somehow got up to deflect--so it bounced back up to Brown, only 3 yards from goal. He headed in, ready to celebrate--except Keller was in place to grab the ball. If Gordon Banks had done it against Brazil, it'd be legend.

        The second half was as ugly as they come. A frustrated Panama decided to dish out some punishment, and referee Mauricio Navarro, who already had let too much slide, didn't have a prayer. It was just a matter of who would be carted off, who would be sent to jail, and whose next of kin would be notified. Let's mercifully draw the curtain here--but a tip of the cap to Donaldo González, who gets this week's Kasey Keller Excellence In Goalkeeping medal for spectacular saves from Donovan and McBride.

        Cheché Hernández, press-baiter supreme, was unusually subdued in the post-match press conference, but Panama's performance was enough to sedate anyone. To calls for his resignation--the next day one paper displayed a huge airline ticket with his name--he replied: "as long I have a ray of hope, I'll follow it." Hey guys, lighten up and look at the standings. You're exactly 2 points out of fourth place.

    Costa Rica-Guatemala

        Finally, the main event. Since early on we knew this could be the battle for third place. The math was simple. Guatemala wanted a draw, which would keep them even on points, with 3 home games remaining to only 2 for Costa Rica, and the rematch in Guatemala City. Costa Rica absolutely needed a win.

        Since Guimaraes had largely rested Wanchope and Gómez against the USA, we figured to see them from the beginning. And we did. But what we didn't figure on was Guima going with a 4-4-2, for perhaps the first time in recorded history. Maybe it was because Steven Bryce, the team's only attacking right wingback, was suspended. Maybe the ghost of Steve Sampson had spoken in a dream. But he put Luís Marín and Victor Cordero in the middle, Jervis Drummond at right back, and Gilberto Martínez once more out of position at left back. With Bryce and Douglas Sequeira both unavailable, he brought in two new midfielders: Mauricio Solís, getting his 100th cap, and Christian Bolaños, getting his first. Solís, 32, near the end of his career, had done poorly in his first appearance for Pinto, and hadn't been recalled. But in his prime he was the greatest defensive midfielder in national team history, and a bulwark of the World Cup side. Bolaños, a comer for Saprissa, is strong and agile, and took the right midfield spot. Jafet Soto went to the left of midfield, and Carlos Hernández took the central role.

        Ramón Maradiaga had some ideas too. With right back Nestor Martínez suspended, he switched his usual 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2, with Nelson Morales, Pablo Melgar, and Gustavo Cabrera across the line. The midfield was as expected: Fredy Thompson back in the DM role, Mario Rodríguez at right wingback and Angel Sanabria at left, Gonzalo Romero and Pando Ramírez providing the punch. The big questions were at the front and the back. Carlos Ruiz had injured an ankle in MLS, and we didn't know until the day of the game whether he'd start. He did, alongside Juan Carlos Plata. At keeper, Ricardo Trigueño Foster was suddenly, shockingly, off the team. Not because he'd had a bad game against Mexico, but for unspecified disciplinary reasons. It was a bold move for Maradiaga, considering that his other potential first choice, Miguel Klee, was injured. It had to be the third string, and Luís Pedro Molina beat out Paulo César Motta for the spot.

        In the first half Costa Rica had most of the play. Bolaños and Solís were both excelling in midfield, the former moving aggressively into attack, the latter playing the destroyer role to perfection. For Guatemala, Romero looked too slow, and although Ramírez and Rodríguez had occasional moments, the attack had nowhere to go. Ruiz was obviously not at full strength, and Marín handled him with ease.

        Against the smaller Guatemalan defenders, Costa Rica started by sending high balls to Wanchope and Gómez, who won most of them, but couldn't create chances. But eventually the ticos started working the wings against the 3-5-2, and then they were dangerous. In the 12th minute, Bolaños lifted a perfect cross to an umarked Wanchope at the far post, and he headed low, but Molina was in position, and blocked it bravely. Gómez was looking every bit the World Cup star, giving Morales fits on the left of attack. With Molina in good form, taking crosses, challenging attackers, Guatemala was holding, but just: a bit more precision in the attacking third and CR would have been ahead.

        And then they were. In the 35th minute Hernández took a free kick from the left side at the point of the area. Plata broke from the barrier too soon, and the ball curved low through the gap--and suddenly was in the back of the net. But there hadn't been a Costa Rican near the ball. What had happened? The replay showed that Molina was in position to take the bounce, but a diving Morales, trying to clear, had grazed it with his head, and the sudden deflection toward the near post gave the keeper no time to react.

        A huge break for Costa Rica, and they got another in the 43rd minute, on Guatemala's first good chance of the night. Thompson's pass deflected off Plata, and bounced toward Rodríguez unmarked on the right of the area. El Loco took a mighty swing--and whiffed. At the interval it was still 1:0.

        The second half started tense but uneven. Maradiaga had yanked an ineffective Plata for Edwin Villatoro, but although Guatemala was more aggressive, they couldn't break through. The one time Ruiz got semi-free, the ball bounced too high for him, and Marín quickly recovered. At the other end, the CR counterattack was always one pass short of danger. Nine minutes in, Guima went for more central punch, replacing Soto with Walter Centeno. Eight minutes later, Maradiaga countered, replacing an ineffective Romero with Carlos Castillo.

        The game held in nervous equilibrium--until the 65th minute, when Costa Rica got two more breaks. First, on a long high ball, Cabrera was called for a foul on Gómez, although replays showed little contact. So it was a free kick about 25 yards out just to the left of center. Gómez shot--and again a deflection (it wasn't clear by whom) left Molina helpless. How many times have you seen two deflected free kicks for goals by the same team in the same game?

        Costa Rica had been less than sharp, but they had controlled the action; if the goals were soft, the win was deserved. Except 12 minutes later, they weren't winning anymore. In the 74th minute, a pass from Ramírez in the middle found Villatoro in the area, and he finished. In the 77th minute, a pass from Sanabria on the left again found Villatoro in the area; his quick turn and pass found Rodríguez at the far post, and he finished too. Sudden, complete breakdown--Marín and Martínez had been beaten on the first goal, Cordero and Bolaños on the second.

        Costa Rica never really recovered from the shock. They would get only one more chance, in the 92nd minute, when from a quick free kick Gómez found space on the left. But Molina played the angle well, Gómez shot wide, and the chapines had snatched a stunning draw. And they had deserved it, for their courage and their timely execution. Back home the fans poured into the str…oh, wait a second. Yes, you're right, actually. The final score wasn't Costa Rica 2 Guatemala 2, it was Costa Rica 3 Guatemala 2. My mistake. But who could have believed how it ended? Have you ever seen a game decided on a last-second goal on a set piece FROM THE CENTER LINE?

        You have now. In the third and last minute of injury time, Martínez, from the left side, lofts the ball to the right side of the box, where Wanchope rises high to head into the middle. He chests it, actually, and it pops to Marín. The captain swings wildly, barely pokes the ball forward--but just enough to get it to Wanchope, who has circled inside his man. Goal. Victory. Absurdity.

        There was nothing to say. Martínez claimed it was a planned play, which seems ridiculous, until you remember that against China in 2002 Costa Rica pulled off the prettiest set-piece in recent World Cup memory. And when you watch the tape, watch the way Wanchope is isolated on the right, and the way he follows up his pass, as if he knows exactly what he's doing. So maybe it was planned. In which case I give up. Anyone want this job?


        Mexico and the USA, Affirmed and Alydar. (That was one for my generation.) We could spend hours talking about their weaknesses--Mexico's lack of aggression in midfield, the USA's fragile back line, etc.--but why bother? The way things are going they'll qualify during the Gold Cup.

        Still, it would nice to say the big two are just so world-class that the brilliance of their football leaves the region helpless with awe. But the reality is kind of otherwise. The Tri started fast, but has looked pretty ordinary the last few times out. The USA seems to need Kasey Keller to dive and leap and pirouette and somersault. Yet the results still come like clockwork. We can't hide from the truth: it's just not a strong year in CONCACAF.

        And yet a third team has to qualify somewhere, and by the look of things, it'll be Costa Rica. Not just because they're ahead in the standings--after all, a win by Guatemala in the return match and they're back even. And not just because they seem to have the most phenomenal luck--two where-did-that-come-from wins in the final seconds. But because they've looked the strongest on the field. Like Guatemala, they lost to Mexico at home, but despite being overwhelmed in the first half, made a real game of it, where Guatemala went under. Again like Guatemala, they lost to the USA on the road, but Guatemala was never in the match, and Costa Rica might have drawn without Keller's blinder. Right now the team is in transition, with Guimaraes trying all the permutations he can think of. Wanchope and Gómez, when fit, are a match for any pair in the region, and Andy Herron and Winston Parks can still be useful. Walter Centeno, Alonso Solís, and Carlos Hernández offer effective midfield attack; Douglas Sequeira, Mauricio Solís and José Luís López can do the dirty work. Luís Marín and Gilberto Martínez give you stability in the back. Álvaro Mesén is a good keeper. The magic of four years ago may never return, but it's a solid squad, and Guima's a smart coach. They still have to travel to Mexico, but they get the USA at home, and that's one they always win. (And the Yanks will have clinched a spot by round 9 anyway.) So let's give them the advantage until further notice.

        You have to feel for Guatemala. After months of mediocrity, they come up with an incredible effort in their biggest game of the tournament, and get nothing. They're still in the hunt for third place--and of course everyone down to Antigua & Barbuda is in the hunt for fourth--but the squad has weaknesses that won't go away. The defense is still subject to errors, and midfield production is inconsistent. Gonzalo Romero has been one of the biggest disappointments of the Hexagonal. One good sign is the emergence of Edwin Villatoro, who will provide much-needed depth up front. Another is Luís Pedro Molina, who had a superb game in goal. And maybe the Gold Cup will allow more talent to develop, like Carlos Castillo. But unlike Costa Rica, they seem to have reached their limit. Right now the best chance looks like a trip to the desert in October.

        Now say it with me: Trinidad & Tobago have a legitimate chance to qualify for the World Cup. (Hey, that felt good!) No, they're not a great team, and they're fortunate to be in a weak Hexagonal. But under the magic wand of Leo Beenhakker, they are without question competitive in this field. They're short on pace, short on midfield creativity, but long on discipline and tactical sophistication. The performance against Mexico was a wonder: a textbook example of how to play against a stronger team on the road. They didn't get the draw, but they got close, and more importantly, would have deserved the point had they got it. Three worries right now: 1) Keeper: Kelvin Jack isn't good enough to take them to Germany. They need Ince or Hislop. 2) Coordination in attack: at the moment John and Yorke aren't combining terribly well. Maybe Kenwyne Jones will help, or a few more training sessions can make the difference. 3) Schedule: they have only two home games remaining. One is against Mexico on the final day, where an uninterested Tri might drop a point. The other is against Guatemala, which might be the battle for fourth place--but Guatemala's 5:1 win has all but wrapped up the tiebreaker. Not too encouraging? Compared to a couple of months ago, it's 1989 again.

        Finally, Panama. The team has gone downhill so far so fast that it's hard to know what to say. Against T&T they couldn't organize the attack. Against the USA they seemed to have no ideas whatsoever, and the defense fell apart. A team that has been remarkable for cohesion and verve was disconnected and lifeless. Maybe they just had a bad week--but if they're not all together, they're nowhere, and right now they're nowhere. Has Cheché's magic run out? I don't know. But here's what I said in the Hexagonal preview: "This is as determined a team as you'll find, and remember, with the 4th-place team going to a playoff, no one's going to be eliminated early. I certainly wouldn't want to have to play them down the stretch." I'll stick by those words. They only have two home games left, but they're against Costa Rica and T&T, teams that can be beaten. Don't count them out.


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