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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, Round 6

    by Peter Goldstein

    Mexico-Costa Rica

        With a trip to Mexico City on the schedule, it was nostalgia time in Costa Rica. With mist in their eyes, old-timers recalled the Aztecazo, the team's famous 2-1 win in the Azteca. With storied veteran Hernán Medford providing the winning goal in the 87th minute, the ticos handed Mexico their one and only home loss in all their history of World Cup qualifying. Ah, those were the days--four whole years ago.

        These days nostalgia seems Costa Rica's best bet. Whether under Jorge Luís Pinto or Alexandre Guimaraes (or, for that matter, Steve Sampson), the team hasn't once looked like repeating the feat. And in looking over the roster for this year's trip, Guima found himself distressingly shorthanded. Captain and defensive anchor Luís Marín was suspended, and keeper Álvaro Mesén was hurt. And midfield was a nightmare. DM is the team's deepest position, but with Mauricio Solís and Douglas Sequeira suspended, and José Luís López injured, there was suddenly a shortage of bodies. Then just before the trip, Carlos Hernández, both attacker and defender, came down with a high fever. And for some reason the team's most dangerous attacker, Alonso Solís, didn't even make the initial callup.

        Then there was the tactical uncertainty. The battle over 3 vs. 4 in the back has been going on for ages now, ever since Sampson switched to 4 at the last minute against Cuba. Pinto went with 4, then Guima came back with his usual 3, then announced that 3 wouldn't work and played 4 at the Gold Cup, then said he'd switch back to 3 for the game against Mexico. Nothing wrong with tactical flexibility--Bruce Arena switches formations all the time--but you got the feeling the whole thing was more desperation than strategy.

        As for Mexico, the runup was the same as usual--in fact, as a public service, I've put together an All-Purpose Mexican Football Paragraph, designed to simulate the local discourse about the national team. Each sentence has three options at the finish, so just mix and match. By my count there are over 6000 combinations, which should do for the rest of the qualifiers:

        "Ricardo LaVolpe is (a loser) (charlatan) (a bad person). He has absolutely no respect for (his players) (the club owners) (Hugo Sánchez). He may have (beaten the USA in the qualifiers) (beaten Brazil in the Confederations Cup) (qualified for the World Cup with ease), but he's still a (cabrón) (pendejo) (hijo de puta). Reliable sources say he (drinks toilet water) (practices human sacrifice) (goes on the roof to wave at sailors). Besides, (he's Argentine) (he's Argentine) (he's Argentine). We'd be much better off with (Hugo Sánchez) (Fernando Quirarte) (an amoeba)."

        After the first half against Costa Rica, this might have seemed a bit mild. As expected, CR had come to defend, playing a 3-6-1 with Paulo Wanchope alone at the point and Ronald Gómez dropped into left midfield. So how did LaVolpe respond? Well, it looked like a cross between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2, but the numbers didn't matter, because there weren't any attackers. On the wings were Gerardo Galindo and Francisco "el Maza" Rodríguez, both defensive players. In the midfield were Pavel Pardo and Gerardo Torrado, also both defensive players. OK, so Salvador Carmona was suspended for a year, Luis Pérez was suspended for a day, and Jaime Lozano was injured--still, there were plenty of other options. Ramón Morales was on the bench. Gonzalo Pineda was on the bench. Jesús Arellano, match fit for the first time in ages, was on the bench. Cuauhtémoc Blanco had been left off entirely, perhaps in revenge for refusing to play over the summer. Jared Borgetti, Kikín Fonseca, and Sinha were left to carry the can by themselves.

        So of course Mexico got nothing in the first half. They had only one chance--in the 10th minute Borgetti should have put away Pardo's cross, but hit the post. Costa Rica did a little bit of counterattacking early (and in fact had been caught upfield on Borgetti's miss), but then settled into the bunker. Cristian Bolaños was having a good game on the right, and both Gilberto Martínez and Michael Umaña were standouts on the back line. Sinha did his best to move things along, but with nothing at all from the flanks, the middle was way too populated, and Pardo and Torrado weren't the sort to help much there anyway.

        It was no surprise when Morales replaced Torrado to start the second half, but the realignment put Rafa Márquez in a strange position, right midfield. How Rafa felt about the switch is unknown, but a minute later he leveled Walter Centeno with a vicious elbow to the face. Only God and Jack Warner know why referee José Pineda didn't red-card him. Meanwhile, Morales added a little attacking pressure on the left, but nothing came of it. Costa Rica got into the game a tiny bit more, and in the 58th minute a spectacular run by Gómez was stopped on a last-ditch tackle by Pavel Pardo.

        So in the 61st minute it was time for Gonzalo Pineda, with Márquez, of all people, getting the hook. At this point one of the TV commentators called LaVolpe's tactics "una verdadera ensalada," a real salad, and it badly needed some ranch dressing. There was absolutely no indication that two minutes later Mexico would be ahead.

        But ahead they were, if somewhat unstylishly. After a throw-in on the right, Ricardo Osorio sent in a bouncing cross, and Gilberto Martínez, who had been impeccable for the first hour, simply failed to mark Borgetti. The ball deflected off Victor Cordero, Martínez flailed at it, and Jared smashed it home from close range an instant before Jervis Drummond got there to cover. Not exactly a Diego Rivera, but it killed off the game. Costa Rica were unprepared for a full-out assault, and Mexico held them off with all the anxiety of a guy lying on a sofa watching a telenovela. Fonseca got the nominal clincher in the 86th minute after a blunder by keeper José Francisco Porras.

        For Costa Rica the result had been far less worrying than the way it came about. Aztecazos come only once in a lifetime, but the team had shown little enthusiasm for anything except manning the ramparts. Guimaraes is far too popular in Costa Rica to get the LaVolpe treatment, but the waves of pessimism from San José are starting to disrupt air traffic a bit.

        And what about Public Enemy Number One? As the winners celebrated on the field, the cameras caught a touching scene: LaVolpe was heading off the pitch with a reporter, but Oswaldo Sánchez broke off from the group and pulled him back to join the party. The players bounced up and down excitedly, and a few patted LaVolpe on the head with what seemed like genuine affection. For a few moments he smiled, obviously moved--and then went off once more to purgatory.

    USA-Trinidad & Tobago

        Without much pressure on either side, this was the ultimate low-key qualfier. Both coaches called in the legionnaires, counted their wounded, said respectful things, put eleven men on the field, and didn't worry that the stadium wasn't filled. It was kind of touching, actually.

        Bruce Arena had by far the longer injured list, missing a top striker (Eddie Johnson), a top midfielder (DaMarcus Beasley), all four potential starters on defense (Eddie Pope, Cory Gibbs, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo), and assorted other possible contributors. But Together Again For The First Time, miraculously, were Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien, last seen on the pitch together in some game against Germany in some tournament in Korea (how long ago was that, anyway?). The central defensive pairing was Gregg Berhalter and Oguchi Oneywu, who had flopped at the Azteca but presumably would be sufficient for T&T at East Hartford. The surprise was on the left side, where Bobby Convey, on a roll at Reading, nabbed the midfield spot, and Eddie Lewis, an attacker to the core, got shunted to left back. (Think the USA has become a real footballing nation? The New York Times referred to Lewis' new position as "left defender," and the Hartford Courant said he went to the "backfield." Sheesh.)

        Leo Beenhakker had only one important injury, but it was a big one: Carlos Edwards, the team's fastest and most creative midfielder. He made the logical adjustment, moving Chris Birchall to his Port Vale position on the right, and adding Silvio Spann to partner Aurtis Whitley in the middle. The rest of the side was the same as against Mexico, with one interesting choice: although Shaka Hislop had been called in from England, Beenhakker stuck with Kelvin Jack, who had a good Gold Cup and was more match fit.

        Unfortunately, the first time Jack touched the ball was to pick it out of the net. Less than two minutes in, Convey's run beat Atiba Charles, O'Brien found him with a pass, and his cross was tapped in by Brian McBride, who had glided completely unmarked into the middle. It was the USA's second fastest qualifying goal ever, just behind Ante Razov's tally against the same team four years ago. It would also be the only goal of the game.

        Not that there looked a chance of that early on. For most of the first half the Yanks dominated midfield, rotated the ball well, made intelligent runs, and generally looked like a side ready to rack up a few. Although T&T looked decent on set pieces (and actually scored an offside goal on a free kick scramble), they had no effective counterplay. The USA's main weakness is a lack of pace, and the Beenhakker-era Warriors, deliberate and technical, aren't the kind of team to take advantage.

        It didn't help that T&T was making schoolyard mistakes. In the 31st minute, a nervous-looking Jack kicked the ball straight to Landon Donovan--who rolled it weakly back. But in the 41st there was no reprieve: Marvin Andrews' feeble backpass was picked off by Donovan, and Dennis Lawrence had little choice but to pull him back. Marco Antonio Rodríguez duly produced the red card, and a rout seemed inevitable.

        But the scoreboard wouldn't budge. The USA had already missed several chances before the sending-off, and in the second half, Jack suddenly became Shaka in his prime. He denied Onyewu and Donovan with spectacular dives, and Convey and Donovan with marvelous charges off his line. It also helped that Taylor Twellman's 86th minute goal was erroneously ruled offside. But to T&T's credit, they stiffened in midfield, with Dwight Yorke dropping back from striker to make room for Scott Sealy. They passed the ball around a bit better, and got close in the 66th minute, when Sealy sent sub Kenwyne Jones in, only to be denied by Berhalter's desperate tackle. But Kasey Keller never actually had to make a save, and in the latter part of the game T&T had nothing but the longball. Onyewu and Berhalter won everything in the air, and that was that. The final stats showed the USA with 18 shots, T&T with 1.

        It had been a courageous second half for the Warriors, but to be frank they had dropped a notch since the Mexico game. The USA were missing several starters, but without Jack's brilliance and the Yanks' wastefulness, the score could have been much higher. Although Yorke made a difference in the second half, overall there was little fluency in midfield, nothing like the precise passing and intelligent decision-making we'd seen in Monterrey. But certainly you couldn't fault the effort. So--was the glass half-empty or half-full? The Trinidad Express had it both ways: Ian Prescott enthused about Sealy's "high work-rate," Jones' "never-say-die attitude," and Spann's "total assurance"--but Fazeer Mohammed called the performance an "embarrassment" and a "deplorable showing," with "the almost complete absence of any of the fundamentals that you would expect from even a half-asleep Sunday morning side." I think I'll be an editor when I grow up.


        After seven losses in eight games, how low was the mood in Guatemala? Oscar Berger, the President of the Republic, stopped by training camp and boldly predicted victory over Panama--by only 1:0. But not to worry: he also reminded the players to "leave everything on the field, because on that day 12 million Guatemalans will be watching you." (I can count 20 votes he just lost.) The papers chimed in, with comments anywhere from "Winning is an obligation" to "A loss or draw would be a catastrophe."

        Which was odd, because there was more pressure on Panama. With the Gold Cup ancient history, the team was last in the standings, and a loss would make the hole too deep to climb out of. But by all reports Cheché Hernández was uncharacteristically relaxed at practice, at one point even telling a couple of jokes. (Of course, knowing Cheché, they were something like "How many ignorant Panamanian reporters does it take to screw in a light bulb?")

        But maybe he was relaxed because no one was paying attention. The big story was the Jaime Penedo saga (or perhaps "fiasco" was the better word). Penedo had been the star of the Gold Cup, and word soon came that the young keeper would be signed by no less than Cagliari of Serie A. The club had even announced the signing on its website. So he flew in clouds of glory to Europe--but was suddenly in Spain, not Italy. Reports were conflicting: he had turned down the club's offer, he hadn't been given an offer. All at once Cagliari was out of the picture, and he was training with Birmingham City of the EPL, currently in Coruña for a preseason friendly. Reports were conflicting again: he hadn't played at all; he had played, but only for the reserve team. While all this was going on, home club Árabe Unido wheeled out a five-year contract they said Penedo had signed--but Penedo claimed he was a free agent. So by the time he flew back to play against Guatemala, he had signed with absolutely nobody. Worst of all, he had angered Julio César Dély Valdés, who had played a prime role in setting up the Cagliari opportunity. Who to blame? The general consensus: his agent, Luís González, described by one paper as "Argentine-German." It's always the foreigners, isn't it?

        One way or another, Cheché had to hope that Penedo was ready to play, because he had no other keepers. Ricardo James hadn't been called since he skipped a game at Jamaica last year; Donaldo González had taken a hike after Hernández put him on the bench at the Gold Cup; Oscar McFarlane had been tossed out for disciplinary matters. At least the rest of the side was intact, although with José Luís Garcés under a disciplinary cloud of his own, Jorge Dély Valdés started up front with Luís Tejada. (By the way, Tejada, another Gold Cup success, had no trouble at all finding a new club…in the United Arab Emirates. Think his agent was Argentine-German too?)

        Ramón Maradiaga had a lot more decisions to make--in fact, almost every position offered a choice of some kind. Two of his regular defenders, Gustavo Cabrera and Nestor Martínez, were suspended, and the back line had been so bad that an overhaul was necessary anyway. He went with a 4-man defense: Pablo Melgar and veteran Selwyn Ponciano in the middle, Ángel Sanabria on the left, and Elmer Ponciano in his first WCQ start on the right. At left midfield, the fans had been clamoring for Fredy Garcia, quick, creative, and excellent on set-pieces, and with Pando Ramírez suspended, it was time to take the plunge. In other head-to-head decisions, it was Miguel Klee over Paulo César Motta at GK, Julio Girón over Fredy Thompson at DM, Carlos Figueroa over Mario Rodríguez at RM, and Juan Carlos Plata over Edwin Villatoro at F beside Carlos Ruiz.

        With so much at stake, the game started out predictably intense, and just a bit too physical. In the 12th minute a fight almost broke out after a collision between Figueroa and Penedo. For the most part the action was in midfield, but Guatemala was getting some traction on the left, with Garcia and Sanabria combining effectively. In fact, in the 10th minute Garcia's pass found Ruiz behind the defense, and he put it past Penedo, but the goal was correctly called back for offside.

        Although they were winning most of the air battles, Panama had shown little so far. But in the 19th minute they opened the score. An excellent passing sequence from Julio Medina to Tejada to Ricardo Phillips to Luís Moreno found the fullback in space on the right. His low cross was missed by Tejada--which acted as a perfect dummy for Dély Valdés, who finished neatly at the far post. This was Panama, Gold Cup Edition, and all at once Guatemala were in big trouble.

        But they responded aggressively. With Garcia and Sanabria a constant threat on the left, the attack had Panama in danger several times. A tight Garcia cross was cut out by Penedo; a Garcia-Sanabria combo got the ball to Ruiz, who fired straight at the keeper; another left-side combo found Plata, who headed just over the bar. Of course, if you're attacking, you can't be defending, and Guatemala were wide open for counters. In the 32nd minute, with Garcia and Sanabria pushed up, Phillips found Tejada free on the right. He powered past Melgar, closed in on Klee, picked his spot low to the keeper's right--and was denied on a textbook dive. In stoppage-time, Penedo answered with a dive of his own to keep out a long-range blast from Julio Girón. Halftime 1:0 to Panama, but it was still anyone's game.

        At the interval, needing more balance in attack, Maradiaga put Fredy Thompson on the right for an ineffective Figueroa. Two minutes later he should have been rewarded: Thompson started a sequence which found Elmer Ponciano in the area, and Carlos Rivera brought him down. The replay showed a clear penalty--but Rodolfo Sibrian didn't call it. A minute earlier, Medina had come in hard on Garcia, an obvious yellow. It would have been his second yellow--except Sibrian didn't call that either. This is the Mateo Flores, Rudy, can't we get a home call around here?

        But a few moments later Guatemala's luck changed. Medina, perhaps figuring he could get away with anything now, slid into Gonzalo Romero. It was nowhere near as bad as the tackle on Garcia, but this time Sibrian went to his pocket. Medina fell to his knees, imploring, but out came the second yellow, and the red, and with an entire half to go, advantage-Panama had become advantage-Guatemala.

        And suddenly we had a classic on our hands. The chapines, a man up and desperate, poured into the Panama half. Left, right, center, over, under, the attack came from everywhere. Thompson, Garcia, Romero, Sanabria, maybe Maradiaga himself. Panama wasn't on the ropes--they were knocked flat out in the third row. But Penedo punched, leaped, dived, stood tall, kept the ball out. Panama countered bravely, with Moreno's cross just missing Dély Valdés for the clinching goal. Thirty seconds later Ruiz's cross just missed Plata for the equalizer. The half was still less than ten minutes old--how long could this last?

        The rest of the night, seemingly. Guatemala was sending ball boys, equipment managers, and vendors into the attack, and astonishingly, a man down, Panama refused to bunker. In the 60th minute came the most spectacular moment of all, as Klee flew high to his left to stop a scorcher from Phillips. A minute later Penedo positioned himself perfectly to deny Sanabria. In the 65th Garcia, charging into the area, blasted over the bar. Somehow, somewhere, someone had to put it in the net.

        And it was Panama first. In the 68th minute Penedo booted it long, and sub Ángel Rodríguez got possession. He sent it to Phillips, and a one-two put Tejada in alone, absolutely alone, coming in on Klee. With the game, and maybe a World Cup berth, on his right foot, "El Matador," the man who had shocked Mexico, shot--sort of. In fact, he trickled the ball embarrassingly wide of the net. You can't miss any worse.

        But it was still Panama first. Because thirty seconds later, at the other end, Thompson found Sanabria on the left, he crossed to Ruiz, and Felipe Baloy, flying to block the pass, redirected it past Penedo. Even a Serie A keeper couldn't have stopped it. Own goal. Tie score.

        With 20 minutes left, Guatemala held all the cards. Panama was devastated, had to be. But no--they tightened the defense, with veteran Anthony Torres leading the way. They kept countering, putting Guatemala off balance. Maradiaga, who had already subbed Villatoro for Girón, played his last card, Mynor Dávila for a tiring Plata. But the only chances came from long range--in fact, the best chances were Panama's. In the 82nd Rodríguez sent in sub Roberto Brown, who rounded Klee but missed from a narrow angle. In the 86th Klee dove to his right to parry Brown's header. The clock kept ticking. Panama were in control, and Guatemala had missed their way.

        Sibrian signaled for three minutes of extra time. For two-and-a-half of them, nothing much happened, unless you count Phillips' yellow card for knocking down Selwyn Ponciano. But that meant a few extra seconds tacked on at the end. And so at 2 minutes 50, with Alberto Blanco in possession, there was still some time to kill. He could have whacked it long; instead he tried for Rodríguez near the left touchline. But Villatoro intercepted and sent it toward the corner for Fredy Garcia, who ran it down inches short of the byline. He turned, got it on his left foot, and crossed. Ruiz and Torres collided, and the ball fell free in the area. Blanco got to it first, and this time he really did whack it--but he was off balance, and it only went as far as Sanabria, 35 yards out. He sent it to Davila, back to goal at the top of the arc. Davila's first touch was off, the ball rolled out a few yards, he went to retrieve, stopped--because there was Gonzalo Romero coming right at the ball. Romero, the man with the magic left foot, who tonight had delivered his best game of the qualifiers. At 3 minutes 11 seconds, he met it sweetly, crisply, decisively. The ball stayed on the grass, and lost part of its pace, but was hit too hard and placed too well. Penedo went full stretch to his left, but it was by him and into the corner.

        As the players leaped on each other, embraced, and cried, streamers flew out from the crowd, and about eight billion pieces of confetti cascaded onto the pitch. After the game, as Cheché Hernández addressed the press, his voice broke, and for a few moments he couldn't continue. It's the oldest cliché in the book: for every winner there's a loser. You can't have the thrill of victory without the agony of defeat. You had to feel for Panama, a team with skill and a colossal amount of heart, a team that has brought a special fire and fascination to the competition. They just fell short, in the worst possible way. It was a sad day for them. But--isn't football a great, great game?


        I'd love to say something profound about Mexico and the USA, but all I can think of is "they're beating the crap out of everyone." They've played a combined 10 games against the rest of the field, scoring 9 wins and 1 draw, with a GF/GA of 20-3. And the three opposing goals, each in their own way, have been flukes. Paulo Wanchope scored by accident on a corner when Oscar Pérez swatted the ball into his foot; Angus Eve scored on a narrow-angled shot that deflected off Kasey Keller's hand; Luís Tejada scored on a once-in-a-million-years bicycle kick.

        But on September 3 at Columbus the teams finally get some real competition. With an unexpected bonus: the winner of the game absolutely, positively, Sepp-Blatter-guaranteed, qualifies for the World Cup. The loser? Sadly, if things break right, they can qualify too--and both might make it with a draw. But let's hope it doesn't happen that way. What's the point if you can't beat your bitterest rival, draw yourself up to your full height, beam with pride, and shout "nyaah, nyaah, nyaah"?

        On the surface the numbers look gloomy for Costa Rica. Tied with Guatemala, with the final-day rematch in Guatemala City, it's time to read up on Uzbekistan. But look closer at the schedule, and you'll see the ticos aren't in bad shape at all. Besides the head-to-head finale, the teams have three games apiece. Both face the USA at home, but CR's game is a round later, when the Yanks are less likely to care. Both face T&T, but Costa Rica gets them at home, Guatemala on the road. And in the remaining game, Costa Rica goes to Panama, while Guatemala goes to Mexico. If CR get their act in gear, they could be more than three points clear by the final round.

        But that's a big "if." Guimaraes has been in charge for three qualifiers, plus the Gold Cup, and there's no sign of the spark that drove the team four years ago. A big worry is Paulo Wanchope, who's dreadfully off form, and out of desperation will play in Qatar so he can get some first-team football. He's suspended for the Panama game, but that's probably just as well, because right now he's a liability. Maybe Rolando Fonseca can make a comeback, or Winston Parks can be coaxed out of Russia. The team also badly needs punch in midfield, and I can't imagine Alonso Solís will be left off again. On defense things look better: Luis Marín will be back, plus midfield enforcers Mauricio Solís and Douglas Sequeira. Michael Umaña showed against Mexico that he's ready for the big time. The team still has more pure talent than Guatemala, not to mention World Cup pedigree. But Guimaraes has been playing it absurdly conservative, even more than Jorge Luís Pinto, if such a thing is possible. That's not the Costa Rica way. If he lets it rip, there's still an excellent chance for third place.

        Guatemala is amazing. They can flail around helplessly for months, their back line can look downright excremental, they can lose game after game--but when you look up they're always in the middle of the table. The chapines now find themselves the favorite to make the playoff, and an even bet to qualify directly. But as we've seen, the schedule goes against them until the final day, and it's a long road home. The defense hardly distinguished itself against Panama; in fact, it may finally be time for Pablo Melgar to take a seat. Luis Swisher, who plays in Poland, is recovering from a rib injury, but if healthy is worth a try. At least Gustavo Cabrera will bring his air game back for T&T. Up front, the longtime absence of Dwight Pezzarossi has taken a toll; neither Plata nor Villatoro has been consistently up to the mark. The good news is in midfeld, where they struck gold with Fredy Garcia. He has to stay in the lineup. Pando Ramírez usually plays on the left, but he's naturally right-footed, and can go either to the right or DM. Gonzalo Romero has come out of hibernation, and just in time. September 3 is the big one, at Port-of-Spain. A draw there and they should finish no worse than fourth. A win, and they're in excellent shape for third. A loss, and anything is possible.

        Trinidad and Tobago didn't expect a result at the USA, but they lost ground in the race when Romero hit the net. They now must absolutely beat Guatemala at home on September 3. It's doable. Dennis Lawrence will miss the game, but Brent Sancho looked like his old self against the Yanks. Dwight Yorke remains in good form. And this is still the team that beat Panama and scared Mexico. My advice, Leo, since you asked? Bench Stern John. Let me say it a little louder. BENCH STERN JOHN. He's kept his spot because he's a technical player in the Beenhakker mold. But he's not producing, period. Kenwyne Jones isn't as polished, but he's scoring for Southampton and matches up well against the short Guatemalan defense. Scott Sealy has the hot hand in MLS, plus the smarts to beat an inconsistent back line. Dwight Yorke says he wants to play in midfield, so let him run the attack. You've got one shot: a win and there's all to play for, anything else and it's back to the tulips. Roll the dice.

        Panama isn't quite eliminated yet. If they beat Costa Rica and T&T at home, and pick up a point at a sleeping USA on the final day, they finish with 9, and there are several semi-plausible scenarios. But rather than go through the possibilities, let's ask why they're on the brink.

        First, a lack of scoring punch. José Luís Garcés, a player of such promise, never found the range. Up until last week, Roberto Brown was invisible. Panamanians are rightly proud of the Dély Valdés comeback, but they only returned because the front line had failed. Even Luís Tejada missed, twice, when he could have put Guatemala away.

        Second, tactical inflexibility. Cheché Hernández deserves a medal for bringing the team so far, but ultimately he may have been a bit too rigid. Julio Medina, by far his most creative midfielder, is at his best in the middle of the pitch, and Hernández' system put him out wide too often. If you saw what Medina did during the UNCAF tournament in a central position, you'll know what I mean. In the qualifiers Cheché never really changed his approach, and in the end I think it made a difference.

        Third, inexperience. Panama had the talent, but at a whole new level they were never quite confident enough. Opening at home to Guatemala, they seemed unready, and never found their rhythm. In round 2 at Costa Rica, they failed to press their advantage. After the fighting draw with Mexico, they didn't quite know what to do. And even after the marvelous Gold Cup, they lacked killer instinct. No disgrace--it's happened to a million teams just that way. And yes, they're still mathematically alive. But if you're a member of the marea roja, you have to be deeply disappointed. The World Cup comes around only once every four years, and who's to say when you'll pass this way again?


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