World Cup 2006


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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 7 & 8

    by Peter Goldstein



        For once, we're not going to talk about Ricardo LaVolpe here… actually, we are. Because he chose not to call in Cuauhtémoc Blanco for the big game, and that deserves some comment.

        I sort of like LaVolpe. (Mexican fans are getting out their slingshots.) Although occasionally his personnel choices are a bit odd, he's tactically astute and in general committed to attacking football. He knows how to develop young talent, and knows the value of depth at every position. Mexico's success in the qualifiers, and the strong performance at the Confederations Cup, are a fair reflection of his good work with the Tri.

        But Ricky baby, listen. You don't leave Blanco off against the USA. No, he doesn't like you very much, and yes, his emotional age is about seven, and yes, after being left out last time he claimed you "didn't have the trousers" to pick him. (Are those plaids or checks?) But to snub him for the biggest game on the schedule, where a win will qualify you for the World Cup, is just plain wrong. He's your most creative player. He's in great form in the league. He's done marvelous service for the team over the years. You don't diss him like that. You swallow your pride, get some new pairs of trousers, and stick him in the lineup. If he succeeds, you're a winner. If he bombs, that's his affair. (And as it turned out, Blanco couldn't have done much worse than the guys you played.)

        Bruce Arena definitely has big trousers, but that's only because he's gained about 30 pounds in the last 6 months. I'm not sure why; I mean, it's not like he's under any pressure. Soccer is so unimportant in the USA that for a while the game of the year wasn't going to be on live English-language TV. It seemed that ESPN preferred to show the Billy Conn vs. Joe Louis boxing match, tape delay from 64 years ago. Eventually they sorted it out, with Arena sagely noting that you're not going to grow the game here unless the fans themselves step up. Of course, he also said "Mexico is certainly and arguably our biggest rival," but we don't pay him to teach English.

        Oh, I almost forgot--here's a summary of the traditional pregame trashtalking. Jared Borgetti: blah blah blah. Landon Donovan: blah blah blah. Alexi Lalas: BLAH blah. Ricardo LaVolpe: blah BLAH. American fans: blah blah %@$*&# blah! Mexican fans: ¡blah blah tu madre blah blah! Thank you and good night.

        Eventually the players went out and played 90 minutes, but all you needed to know was the starting lineups. Arena put Chris Armas and Claudio Reyna in central midfield, showing he wasn't much concerned about scoring. LaVolpe started a back four with Maza Rodríguez and Carlos Salcido as fullbacks, and put both Gerardo Torrado and Gerardo Galindo in midfield, showing he wasn't much concerned about scoring either. Which meant set pieces would decide the game, and the USA would win.

        And the script played out perfectly. The Yanks dominated the first 20 minutes, using pressure high up the field to disrupt Mexico's equilibrium, but never got near the goal. Then Rafa Márquez moved out of the back line into midfield, and the Tri took control, and even managed a few passing combinations, but never got near the goal either. The only real chance of the half came in stoppage time, on (what else?) a free kick, when Kasey Keller dove low to his right to rob Ramón Morales.

        Meanwhile the game was getting, shall we say, rough. Carlos Batres had obviously decided to let the teams bump and grind a bit, but it was the wrong decision. Frankie Hejduk could have picked up at least three yellow cards in the first half. Márquez did get a booking, but it took two bad fouls to catch Batres' attention. These teams don't need an excuse to get physical with each other, but with that kind of encouragement, it was West Side Story all over again.

        And so to the second half, and the inevitable set-piece goals. The first was as scrappy as the rest of the action. In the 53rd minute, Eddie Lewis curled in a free kick from 30 yards out on the right, and Goliath One (Rodríguez) and Goliath Two (Onyewu) went up for it. They crashed, and the ball bounced off someone's head and found the inside of Oswaldo Sánchez' right post. It ricocheted across the goalmouth, and Steve Ralston headed into the open net for the easiest goal of the tournament. Replays weren't definite on who made first contact--but for the record, if it was Onyewu, the goal was offside. Hey, if you want artistry, go to Carnegie Hall.

        Or the USA Soccer Training Ground Symphony Orchestra, which four minutes later performed a little masterpiece, Corner Kick From The Right. Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley hovered over the ball like secretaries chatting at the office watercooler. Beasley played it short to Donovan, and casually slipped around Galindo into space on the right side in the area. Donovan fed Reyna, who pinpointed the ball to Beasley, who stopped it neatly with his right and finished oh-so-sweetly with his left. It was like a Mozart melody dropped into a concerto for jackhammers. Mexico was beaten, and all that was left was some virtuoso body-banging. The only highlight of the final half hour was a horrific stand-up studs-up shot by Duilio Davino on Beasley, which the entire population of Mexico admitted deserved a straight red. Batres gave him yellow.

        The man of the match was, fittingly, Onyewu, who had subdued Borgetti with a combination of muscle and more muscle. The Yanks were in, the Tri would have to wait a few days, and the Mexican press lambasted the coach, the players, the federation, and everything else up to and including the Copernican theory of the solar system. LaVolpe on the USA: "They're a little team." Donovan on Mexico: "They suck." Aren't sports supposed to build character?

    Costa Rica-Panama

        In case you missed it, Panama qualified for a Mundial last week--in basketball, their first time in 20 years. Meanwhile, the baseball team, a traditional power, continued play in the World Championships in the Netherlands. But as we know, the football team's prospects weren't so rosy, and the tension was getting to the locals. A couple of days before the game, as Costa Rican reporters waited for Panama to finish a closed-door practice, they were accosted by a bunch of hulking, threatening Panamanians, demanding to know what they were doing there. One reporter, afraid for his life, hid behind a car and dialed the police and the local press. A full-scale international incident seemed in the offing--when it came out the whole thing was a prank, instigated by a television show. A prank? What do they do down there when they're upset, stack up the tire irons?

        Oh well, there was always the travel report. Last time the globetrotter was Jaime Penedo, jetting around Europe in search of a club. (He finally settled for the Spanish second division.) This time it was Luís Tejada, who was playing in the United Arab Emirates, and discovered that his team wouldn't let him go in time to practice for the game against Costa Rica. This was blatantly against FIFA regulations, but sheikhs have, well, a lot of money, and you know what that means. Despite vehement protests by Cheché Hernández and company, Tejada couldn't get there until the day before the game, setting world and Olympic records for jet lag.

        Alexandre Guimaraes had a striker problem too, since Paulo Wanchope was suspended. He chalked up a few frequent flyer miles himself, bringing Winston Parks all the way in from Russia, but eventually went with centerforward Álvaro Saborio, on a hot streak for Saprissa. Last time Parks was hauled around the world and left on the bench for 90 minutes, he quit the team. Would he get into the game this time?

        Not that it mattered early on. After 10 minutes or so of jockeying, Panama revved up the attack, and Costa Rica's strikers were marooned on the other side of the field. Ricardo Phillips was operating effectively in the middle, Tejada was dropping back to set up play, right back Luís Moreno was getting forward consistently, and we were treated to some nice ball-on-the-carpet rotation. Crosses were looking scary, too, with Jorge Dély Valdés heading one against the crossbar in the 17th minute. The CR back line was off-balance, with Luis Marín and Gilberto Martínez making surprising errors of judgment; eventually Guimaraes yanked midfielder Christian Bolaños for an extra defender, Michael Umaña.

        But Panama just couldn't get it right. Maybe it was the sand in Tejada's shoes, maybe Julio Medina's absence through suspension, maybe the thousands of tico fans who were outshouting the marea roja, maybe just the long long qualifying haul that had been so glorious and yet so frustrating. But they were just enough off their game to make the difference. The last ball was always wrongly struck, or wrongly judged, or wrongly planned. Dély Valdés should have done better on that crossbar shot. Moreno should have been more precise with his crosses. And so on.

        A sequence in the 36th minute told the tale. After a rare Costa Rica attack fizzled, Tejada got the ball all the way out at the center line, fought off Jervis Drummond, and passed on the right to a racing Moreno. It looked like a clear breakaway, with Ángel Rodríguez and Ricardo Phillips dashing into space on the center and left respectively. Moreno sent the ball low for Rodríguez, just out of his reach, but it still ran on to Phillips unmarked. He had the keeper alone, but before he could shoot he somehow ran completely past the ball, and had to retreat. So when he finally got the shot off, a defender was in the way. The ball rebounded toward the byline, and Phillips made a remarkable effort to get there first and poke it into the area for Tejada, who had sprinted to catch up with the play. From six yards out Tejada volleyed with his left foot--over the bar.

        So you knew what was coming. In the 44th minute, with the attack in abeyance, and not much happening, CR's Roy Miller crossed from deep for Saborio. He tried to chest it forward to Jafet Soto, and the ball caromed off Felipe Baloy and right back to him. Whereupon he blasted from the top of the arc, and Penedo's fingertips weren't enough to keep it out.

        The rest was a formality. Only six minutes into the second half, Soto lobbed one over the backline for Saborio, who knocked it down for Walter Centeno's nifty finish. Rónald Gómez got the third with on a powerful first-time shot from a counterattack. The boys in red never stopped coming, and Dély Valdés got one in the 90th minute, but it was no consolation whatsoever.

        It hadn't exactly been classic CR football, but goals win games, and you couldn't argue with the three fine strikes. It was a priceless road win, the first in the Hexagonal by anyone other than the USA and Mexico. And no, I haven't forgotten--Winston Parks got in for the final 17 minutes, and said he was happy. As for Panama, silence. You play your best, and sometimes it's not enough. As La Prensa noted, it's not a tragedy. Hurricane Katrina is a tragedy. But we follow the game for the joy it brings, and so we honor the pain as well.

    Guatemala-Trinidad & Tobago

        Guatemalan reporters love to follow their team close up: what time they awake, what they eat, when they go swimming and what stroke they use, etc., etc. So, courtesy of Siglo XXI, we learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about the flight to T&T. For example, when the team travels by commercial airline, there's a lottery for who gets to sit in first class with the technical staff and star Carlos Ruiz. This time around, Gonzalo Romero and Pando Ramírez drew the lucky numbers. Meanwhile, back in coach, Rigoberto Gómez took out his laptop and Mynor Dávila watched the movie Troy on DVD. Brothers Elmer and Selvyn Ponciano got to sit together, but Edwin Villatoro and Paulo Cesar Motta had to sit next to fans. The pilot joked that they were waiting for Leo Beenhakker's clearance to land in Port-of-Spain, then teased Romero about his "airplane" goal celebrations. Can your heart stand it?

        When Guatemala touched down, they found the city festooned with banners and flags in red, white, and black. Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago--but more likely they were celebrating the return of Russell Latapy. Who's Russell Latapy, you ask? Only the Little Magician. Only the twistiest, cleverest midfielder ever to put on a T&T shirt. Only the 37-year-old player-coach at Falkirk in the Scottish Premier League. Only the guy who, along with Dwight Yorke, abandoned the team during the 2002 qualifiers…oops. But when the prodigal son returns, you open your arms, especially if you're a team desperately in need of the one thing he can provide, creativity in midfield. Beenhakker warned that Latapy didn't have a spot sewn up, that he'd have to look at him in practice--but one look was all he needed. Latapy was in, with the number 10 shirt to boot.

        Stern John was in too, by the way. Yes, that Stern John, The Most Unpopular Man in the Caribbean, Hexagonal and Gold Cup statistics as follows:

    Games:                        9
    Goals:                        1
    Chances Missed:               67 (approx.)
    Swear Words Directed At:      3,436,279 and counting
        Why was he in the lineup? Kenwyne Jones had gone down with an ankle injury, and there wasn't much choice. But as we shall see, the football gods like a joke now and then…

        T&T's first order of business was to avoid an early goal, as against the USA. But as the saying goes, deflections happen. Three minutes in, Brent Sancho took down Carlos Ruiz, and it was free kick time. From fully 35 yards out, Pando Ramírez launched a howitzer, Marvin Andrews thought he might try to block it, and the ball was in the net quicker than you could say "What the…?" Only three minutes later Kelvin Jack's desperate dive barely kept out a shot by Fredy Thompson, and you remembered that last time these teams played, Guatemala had won by four goals.

        But this is a different T&T. Guatemala was playing a 4-5-1, letting the Warriors come at them, and the home side got the upper hand. Latapy, playing mostly out on the left, was tightly marked by Thompson and Elmer Ponciano. But there was plenty of danger from the right, with Carlos Edwards and an overlapping Silvio Spann generating trouble and several good crosses. They even got the ball in the net once, when John headed a Spann cross, Miguel Klee bobbled the shot, and Yorke put in the rebound. But the flag was up, and the tape seemed to indicate he'd been a whisker offside. Rotten luck, but at least you couldn't blame it on Stern John.

        But you could blame almost everything else. He wasn't hustling enough. He got caught offside about a hundred times. And at one point when a defensive error handed him a free shot at goal, he put it wide. When at halftime the score was still 0:1, his best bet was the bench, where he couldn't embarrass himself further.

        As for Latapy, it was odd to find him on the left, because he's a classic number 10. But Beenhakker's sharp enough to know when he's made a mistake. After the interval he put in an extra striker, Jason Scotland, took out midfielder Aurtis Whitley, moved the Little Magician into a more central role, and sat back to watch the show. Only two minutes later Edwards stole the ball on the right and fed Latapy about thirty yards from goal. He homed in on a mesmerized Gustavo Cabrera. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He did the Indian rope trick. He sawed a woman in half. He faked to the right, put the ball on his left, and drove it low into the corner. Delirium. They literally had to call out the riot police.

        And now the Warriors were in full cry. Latapy again ran right at the defense, got into the area, and went down--no call. A few minutes later a superb combination between Yorke and Latapy found John, back to goal. He pushed it out for Chris Birchall, who unleashed a tremendous 25-yard shot that forced a magnificent save from Klee. Then a cross from Edwards to the far post, Klee came out wrong, and John, with the net open…missed. Shortly afterwards a rocket from Scotland was blocked by Klee, and John got the rebound…and missed. But it didn't matter, because he had already been called offside. Forget the bench--he needed a witness protection program.

        Still, it seemed even John couldn't keep T&T from taking the lead. But when you go all out in attack, you leave gaps, and in the 61st minute the chapines found them. Cabrera played the ball out of the back to Romero in the center circle, who nodded neatly ahead to Carlos Figueroa. He one-timed it to Ruiz just outside the area to the left of the arc. In his haste Ruiz ran past it, then set himself, let the ball catch up, and delivered a lovely ball to Romero on the right to smash home. This was the Guatemala of the semis, and the win over Panama: cohesive, opportunistic, precise.

        T&T were deflated. The riot police withdrew. Beenhakker sent in yet another striker, Scott Sealy. For John? No, for Spann. Scotland tested Klee with a shot in the box. Then Latapy blasted one from outside the area, and John actually, amazingly, put in the rebound--but was offside. Again. One of the T&T radio announcers, absolutely beside himself, said "get a hairbrush and whack him!" and not in a fun and spanky way, either. The game was winding down, the chances were going Guatemala's way, and John was contemplating plastic surgery. But, as we say, the football gods love a good joke. Did you hear the one about…

        …the 85th minute, when Gustavo Cabrera, possibly having been whacked with a hairbrush, had to come off because his face was bleeding? And about a Guatemala team whose defense, shaky at the best of times, devolved from confusion into anarchy? An unmarked Scotland got possession in the center circle, ran straight down the middle and passed to the right for an equally unmarked Sealy, back to a still unmarked Scotland, a little to the left to a very unmarked Latapy, a lovely step and pass in the area to a thoroughly totally completely unmarked #14 (can't remember right now), and an absolutely perfect strike low inside the far post. Perfect equalizer. Perfect madness. Check the program--who's #14?

    Stern John, of course. Our Hero.

        Think the joke's over? Now Cabrera was on the sidelines desperately trying to get back into the game. But the fourth official wouldn't let him, because his uniform was bloody. Victor Hernández had been warming up, and could have gone in, but the coaches wanted Cabrera. The game started again with 11 on 10. Someone made a frantic call to the express laundry for a clean shirt. Two minutes later, Cabrera, clad in pristine white with light blue diagonal stripe, stood on the touchline waving wildly to the ref. But it was too late. Edwards crossed, Thompson cleared weakly, Yorke got there first, beat a defender, flicked to a wide open #14, Stern John, The Greatest Striker Ever, and he delivered the punchline, a textbook chest-trap and volley. Oh, and the ironic afterword: in stoppage time, Carlos Ruiz, the deadliest finisher in CONCACAF, missed an open shot from 6 yards.

        At the final whistle the fans poured onto the pitch, and the riot police whacked them back with hairbrushes. Beenhakker was a genius, Latapy was a sorcerer, Stern John was a god. Ramón Maradiaga, the most reserved of men, who never ever argues with officials, practically had to be restrained. Romero, the last Guatemalan left on the field, answered questions quietly: "It seems like we have no memory…we wanted to win…it looks like we can't stand prosperity…we lost because of our own errors…" We didn't hear much about the flight back.



        When the schedule first came out, this looked like the logical clinching date for the Tri. Home game against the newcomers, two games to spare, just about the right spot for the big celebration. But a lot of water, and perhaps blood, had passed under the bridge since then. The day before the game, the club executives met and gave their express backing to FA head Alberto de la Torre and coach Ricardo LaVolpe, but it didn't do much to lighten the mood. The Azteca was maybe one-third full, and a lot of work remained to get the fans all the way behind the team for the runup to Germany.

        The game must have helped a bit. LaVolpe started his most attacking lineup in months--only one striker, Jared Borgetti, but attacking midfielders Sinha, Luis Pérez, Ramón Morales, and newcomer Óscar Pérez, plus Gonzalo Pineda at left back--and breezed 5:0. Panama helped out by playing more passively than usual: instead of their standard midfield pressing, they camped in their own end and looked for counterattacks. But that strategy doesn't even work for the USA at the Azteca. Sinha had all day to run at the defense from the inside right channel. Morales kept darting inside from the left wing, creating space for Pineda to overlap. Mexico had maybe 70% of the possession, and from the first few moments it was only a matter of time.

        The time turned out to be a bit longer than expected, mostly because Borgetti was off form and spurning chances. But in the 32nd minute came the breakthrough. Sinha fed Morales, cutting inside as usual, and he sent it to an open Pineda on the left wing. The cross overshot Borgetti, and Felipe Baloy headed out, but Luis Pérez rushed in ahead of the defense, played it off his chest, and struck a superb volley into the far corner.

        The cameras turned to LaVolpe, who didn't bother to smile. In fact, the cameras showed him after each of the remaining four goals--Rafa Márquez' header from a Pardo free kick (55'), Borgetti's PK after Luís Moreno took him down (60'), Kikín Fonseca's header from a Pineda cross (75'), and Pardo's drive from outside the box (76')--and he didn't smile once. I suppose he didn't have a lot to smile about, and a man wearing a tie that ugly should never smile in public, but in such a comprehensive victory you'd have expected a millimeter or two upturn somewhere along the line.

        Anyway, after the game he read an extended statement apologizing for any offense he'd ever given, and calling for support from the public and media, unity among football officials, an end to world hunger, and a better mousetrap. How much he's going to get I don't know, but let's salute the Tri for a successful campaign. They split with the USA, conceded only one draw against the rest of the field, and finished in style. But this is Mexico, so now comes the hard part. Emerging from the executives' meeting, one club president gave LaVolpe his explicit verbal support--then added he expected the team to reach the semifinals in Germany. Buena suerte.


        The chief beneficiary of the USA-Mexico game, besides the medical supply companies, was Guatemala. With the Yanks already in, there was no reason to play the first eleven, and so Arena fielded a B-minus squad, most of whom had been less than stellar at the Gold Cup. But the chapines were still reeling from the disaster in Trinidad, and were missing Carlos Ruiz, who had picked up a silly yellow card late in the match and was suspended. The Guatemalan press, by now impervious to optimism, noted with a straight face that the USA was even more dangerous with substitutes in the lineup. They'd try harder, you see, in order to win a place on the squad. In fact it was anyone's guess how this one would play out.

        And to be honest, it's still anyone's guess. Some games just defy description. The words "stupefyingly awful" come to mind, but that would be unfair: the game was relatively open, the teams got up and down the field on a regular basis, and both sides had genuine chances to win. But somehow it wasn't really football. It was 22 guys who had clearly learned the game at some point in their lives, but had somehow forgotten, and were trying to reconstruct things from memory. For every good pass there was a bad one, for every connection a breakdown, for every intelligent move one which was completely incomprehensible. 0:0 was the only conceivable result. Poster boy was USA keeper Marcus Hahnemann, who made two outstanding saves but had no clue what to do with the ball when he actually had it in his hands. (Note to M.H.: punting it to the other keeper isn't the first option.)

        Guatemala obviously missed Ruiz badly. He's so much more than a scorer: smart, creative, instinctive. Juan Carlos Plata and Mario Acevedo ran around a lot, and hurled themselves at every loose ball, but weren't sure how to construct a scoring move. The one good first-half chance was either brilliance or accident, as a spinning Acevedo somehow turned a cross into the path of an unmarked Plata. Hahnemann bravely came off his line for the body block. The best second-half chance came from a midfielder, Julio Girón, who smashed a poor Chad Marshall clearance toward the top right corner but was himself magnificently denied by Hahnemann. Only at the very end did we see inspiration up front: in the 90th minute sub Edwin Villatoro made a neat diagonal run, took a pass, beat his man, had plenty of space in the area--and hit the post.

        At the other end, the USA attack was mainly good for comedy. A typically leaky Guatemalan defense meant plenty of chances to flub. Jeff Cunningham, open in the box, fired the ball off fellow striker Taylor Twellman. Twellman botched a chest-trap while unmarked in the area, and sent a cross well over the bar from close range. Even the big boys had their problems. Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan got into the game in the second half, and Johnson looked OK after his long layoff. But when after a Guatemalan turnover Donovan sent him a cross for an absolute gimme, he headed wide.

        The play that epitomized the game came in the 38th minute. After a bit of midfield pinball the ball came to Bobby Convey on the left of attack. He undressed Elmer Ponciano one-on-one, but his cross from the side of the area was deflected by a hustling Fredy Thompson. Keeper Miguel Klee misjudged the ball entirely, and his so-called punch defied the laws of physics, somehow managing to float the ball backward toward the goal. Ángel Sanabria made an inspired block on the line, the ball bobbed up in the goal mouth, everyone and his brother converged on it, and Clint Dempsey's clever half-bicycle caromed off Selvyn Ponciano and out for a corner.

        After the game Bruce "One Point On The Road" Arena pronounced himself satisfied, but Bruce would be satisfied with a draw at Montserrat. The USA had more and better chances to win, but with the exception of Hahnemann and maybe Marshall, none of the scrubs really helped themselves. Ramón Maradiaga had very little to be satisfied with. Although the defense figured to be spotty, and the attack a crapshoot without Ruiz, the midfield had done little to help. Fredy Thompson was the best of a dreary lot, but tired toward the end; Gonzalo Romero, who had played well the last two times out, sleepwalked like the rest; Pando Ramírez was so bad he had to be substituted at halftime. Guatemala had missed an unparalleled opportunity to steal a win against the Yanks, and even with a point in their pocket, the repechage seemed miles away.

    Costa Rica-Trinidad & Tobago

        This was the tenth game of the tournament between teams not named USA and Mexico--and the very first in which both teams were coming off a victory. Costa Rica had ground down Panama, T&T had scored an inspirational comeback win over Guatemala. How to react?

        Change tactics, of course. (Coaches have too much time on their hands.) With Avery John suspended and Brent Sancho injured, Leo Beenhakker unveiled a new-model 3-5-2, with Ian Cox, Dennis Lawrence, and Marvin Andrews left-to-right across the back, Carlos Edwards at right wingback, and Silvio Spann in an unfamiliar spot at left wingback. A 3-5-2 wasn't a bad idea against a Costa Rica deficient in wingers, and Spann was a decent try at a spot that's been a hole since the qualifiers began. What was strange was the setup in attack. Didn't we just compliment Leo for playing Latapy as a number 10? Well, scratch that, because this time he put Latapy up front alongside Stern John, with Dwight Yorke in the hole behind the strikers. It's true Yorke has played well in attacking midfield, but you can't waste the Little Magician like that. 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-5-1 or whatever, Latapy has to get the ball where he can run at the defense and view the whole field. How much is Beenhakker getting paid?

        Alexandre Guimaraes didn't pull anything so dramatic, but he started his fifth different attacking setup in five games. Paulo Wanchope, back from suspension, was joined by Álvaro Saborio at striker. Behind them, left to right in a line of three, were Alonso Solís, Walter Centeno, and Rónald Gómez. For tico fans this was more like it--all the attackers on the pitch at the same time. Gómez, a left-sided player, may have been a bit out of position on the right, but Solís is left-sided too, and something had to give. At least you knew the team would be going forward.

        And forward they went, dominating the first 20 minutes. It was easily Costa Rica's best stretch since the beginning of the Hexagonal. Solís was dribbling his head off, Centeno providing incisive passes, Saborio sliding in and out to shoot and create, and Gómez doing pretty much everything. Wanchope was still subpar, missing two good chances early, but was getting stuck in where possible. T&T was battling bravely, but were in danger of being overwhelmed.

        As it turned out, they were merely whelmed, but that was enough. In the 15th minute Centeno blocked a Spann pass, Gómez nipped in front of Aurtis Whitley, got the ball, and took off down the right wing. And suddenly the 3-5-2 showed its weakness. Gómez, in absolutely top form, blew by Spann and into the miles of open space. He caught Cox backpedaling, and turned him inside out. He crossed low for Saborio, marked closely by Andrews; the ball caromed off Andrews' foot and Saborio's leg, and into the net. A bit of good fortune, perhaps, but Gómez' sensational run deserved no less.

        Down a goal on the road, on artificial turf, and facing a rampant opponent, T&T could easily have folded. But they didn't, mainly because they too came ready to attack. Spann, Whitley, and Chris Birchall all were getting forward, and soon the Warriors were getting their share of possession. But the attack lacked a leader. Latapy, stranded up front, didn't see the ball enough, and Yorke, having his least effective game in months, couldn't take charge. Still, at the end of the half came two great chances. First, Edwards beat Roy Miller on the right and pulled it back for Birchall just inside the area. He unloosed one of his patented high smashes, but José Francisco Porras was equal to the task, and pushed it over the bar. From the ensuing corner, Lawrence headed at the far post down to John, whose neat overhead kick found Andrews on the doorstep. But somehow Porras was in the right spot again.

        The late T&T surge promised an exciting second half. But it never materialized, because five minutes in Wanchope won a doubtful free kick from 25 yards, and Walter Centeno rifled it over the wall and past a helpless Kelvin Jack. Beenhakker tried the same substitutions that had worked against Guatemala--Jason Scotland for Whitley (with Latapy at last dropping back) and later Scott Sealy for Spann--but no cigar. Up two goals, Costa Rica could concentrate on defense, which they did very well. Mauricio Solís, Jervis Drummond, Luis Marín, and Gilberto Martínez were masters of the pitch, and for the next half hour T&T were thoroughly stymied. Towards the end Costa Rica seemed to tire, and the Warriors finally managed a couple of chances, but Sealy and Scotland both fired wide.

        Costa Rica had taken six points from two games, and were suddenly all but qualified. No one really knew how to take it. The fans, who by the way had done the unthinkable and failed to fill the Saprissa, were appreciative but somewhat short of delirious. The press, pessimistic for so long, lost all perspective--La Nación rated Gómez only a 7, and Wanchope an 8 based entirely on "entrega" (commitment), "despliegue," (display) and "honestidad" (honesty). Hey, this could start a trend. What if you rated, say, airline pilots based on commitment, display, and honesty? T&T wants to know, because their return flight had to make an emergency landing when smoke was detected in the cabin. Even in fifth place, it helps to get home safe.


        Let's see. USA and Mexico on top, Costa Rica a clear third…couldn't we have phoned this in nine months ago, and saved everyone a lot of trouble?

        But let's give a shout to the USA. In retrospect their rise seems inevitable, but let's not forget that last cycle they barely made it out of the semifinals, and barely made it out of the Hexagonal. The 2:0 win over Mexico in Korea was regarded by many as a fluke, but since then the Yanks have consistently excelled when it counted. They've earned their place at the top. Unless you count 1934, it's the first time the USA has qualified ahead of the rest of CONCACAF. Mexico may be their equal, and there's no reason the Tri can't outstrip them in Germany, but the stars and stripes deserve regional honors this time around.

        Costa Rica remains a bit of an enigma. It's much the same team as four years ago (with the key absence of playmaker Wílmer López), but they don't have the same fire. Guimaraes has pleaded patience, and the team seems to have come round a bit recently. Certainly the goals have been high quality. And if in the early games they needed a bit of luck, so what? At this level everyone needs some luck to succeed. The standings are absolutely correct. They're the third-best team, and that means they go to Germany. At this point in the process you can't ask for anything more. After all, the USA and Mexico stumbled in last time out, and look what happened.

        We've already talked a lot about Panama in this space. It's a real shame they went so meekly at the end. You expect to lose at the Azteca, but 0:5 isn't the legacy you want to leave. Let's see what happens in round 9, home to T&T, where they can play the spoiler's role. If Cheché can get them ready to rage one more time, they may yet wind up feeling good about themselves.

        That leaves Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago, in the mad and marvelous race for fourth place. T&T always gives the effort, rarely gets the results. Guatemala can redeem hours of failure with a moment's brilliance, and ruin hours of good play with a sudden nightmare. What's a football handicapper to do?

        Look at the schedule, I guess. Guatemala has a one-point advantage plus the tiebreaker in hand. I assume they'll lose in round 9 at Mexico. T&T has to go for the win in round 9 at Panama, since they can't expect more than a point home to Mexico in round 10. Guatemala's final game is home to Costa Rica, probably against the second-stringers, so they're at least an even bet for a win.

        So OK, here's my prediction. In round 9, Guatemala will lose at Mexico and T&T will win at Panama. In round 10, in Port-of-Spain, a Dennis Lawrence header off a corner in the dying moments will get T&T a draw against Mexico. That means Guatemala will need to beat Costa Rica. In the 93rd minute, with the score 1:1, Gonzalo Romero will pass to Edwin Villatoro, who will turn and feed Fredy Thompson 8 yards from goal. He'll make a quick move to his left, then to his right, and shoot--and all the lights in the stadium will go out. No one will know if the ball went in. The teams will appeal to FIFA, who will order replays of all 30 games of the Hexagonal, every game Uzbekistan has ever played, and the 1966 Final between England and West Germany. And we'll start all over again…


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