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
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
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
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
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
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 socawarriors.net, 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?
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.
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?
WHERE WE STAND NOW
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
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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