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Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005
Wrap-up: CONCACAF WCQ, Semifinal round
by Peter Goldstein
OK, get out your atlas and find Panama. It's that neat twisty sort of country (a chance to look up the word "isthmus") joining North and South America. The population is around 3 million, the capital and largest city is Panama City. You can also see for yourself one of the enduring bits of geographical trivia: the Atlantic side of the canal is farther west than the Pacific.
Now slide up a bit and find Guatemala, just south of Mexico. Kind of an odd shape, really: what's that square bit in the northeast? The population is around 13 million, the capital and largest city is Guatemala City. If you've got a relief map, you can see the imposing volcanic mountain range in the southern part of the country, which at one point reaches almost 14,000 feet.
Panama and Guatemala: the bookends of Central America. And, of course, the latest members of the Hexagonal club. After the most exciting semifinal round yet, CONCACAF looks deeper than ever. Sure, maybe the USA and Mexico can still coast a bit, but no one else is safe--Jamaica? Honduras? Even Costa Rica barely squeaked by, and Trinidad & Tobago, expecting a waltz, got tested to the limit by St. Vincent & the Grenadines. If an El Salvador falters, a Panama is ready to take their place. We're on the move, people, and that 5th-place Asian team had better watch out.
The Hexagonal isn't until February, but with all the craziness of the semifinals (did it really only take 3 months?), it's good to take a breather. We'll be back in late January with a preview, and, of course, regular updates as the Hexagonal progresses. Here's our semifinal wrapup: the last-round games, the last-minute joy and despair--and at the end, for all you fellow nerds, a set of statistics for those long winter nights.
Panama was on the brink of qualifying--although if Jamaica won at the USA, they'd be out no matter what. But no one keeps a team focused like Cheché Hernández, and you knew you could rely on the canaleros for a top-class effort. Felipe Baloy would finally make his debut in defense, and although Roberto Brown was battling an injury, the rest of the regulars were healthy and ready. A few small surprises: centerback Carlos Rivera, displaced by Baloy, played left back for the first time, and up front Julio César Dély Valdés was replaced by José Luís "El Pistolero" Garcés, tall, agile, and clever.
As for El Salvador, they had played their best game of the tournament at Jamaica, and while they didn't really expect to win, over 90 minutes anything was possible. Missing their best playmaker in Victor Merino Dubón, they went the good-old-fashioned naturalization route. Faster than you could say "don't cry for me Argentina," Emiliano Pedrozo, a smooth attacking midfielder from Buenos Aires, received his Salvadoran passport a week before the game. All above board, actually: a long-time resident, with a Salvadoran wife, he had a decade of experience in the domestic league. Among the native population, it was time for striker Rudis Corrales to make a comeback, and in defense, with Rafael Tobar injured, Julio Castro would get his first start of the round.
You won't believe this, but for the biggest game in Panama's history, the stadium was only two-thirds full. The Panamanian FA, with the greed and stupidity common to people in suits everywhere in the world, had set ticket prices too high. But the marea roja, the red tide, was still 10000 strong, waving flags, signs and little foam beaters, and were making a heck of a lot of noise. Could El Salvador, the longest of longshots, handle the pressure?
Yes--for about three minutes. At which point some inattention in midfield let Ricardo Phillips into the area; Castro, instead of following the man, simply stuck out a leg and tripped him. After rubbing his eyes to make sure he'd actually seen it, Benito Archundia pointed to the spot. Roberto Brown converted--twice, actually, because the first one was called back due to encroachment. Shortly afterward Brown got by Erick Dawson Prado, and Misael Alfaro made a great save, but unfortunately that meant a corner kick, and again the defense failed. Julio Medina sent it to the far post, Baloy leaped over his man and headed in, and with only seven minutes gone it was all but over.
In fact, El Salvador would get one look at the game, when in the 11th minute Pedrozo set up Ronald Cerritos on the left side of the area. A snap shot might have done the job, but he hesitated, and Donaldo González got into position and made the save. So in the 21st minute came the clincher, as Phillips chased down a loose ball in the left corner, waited a beat, then lifted a perfect cross for a charging Garcés. Panama controlled the game with almost insulting ease the rest of the way--which meant over an hour of absolute agony for the fans, as the reports trickled in from Columbus.
That was where Jamaica was playing the USA, and although the Reggae Boyz had never beaten the Yanks, now was as good a chance as ever. Bruce Arena started the kind of eleven that usually gets called "experimental": a few starters (Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, Brian McBride), a couple of fringe players (Steve Ralston, Chris Albright), a sometime regular out of position (Cory Gibbs at left wingback), two former regulars fighting for a roster spot (Tony Sanneh, Pablo Mastroeni), and a bunch of new faces (Oguchi Onyewu, Ramiro Corrales, Eddie Johnson). For his part, Sebastian Lazaroni junked the ineffective 4-3-3 for a 4-4-2, adding Andy Williams to the right of midfield. Up front, he chose Damani Ralph to partner Ricardo Fuller, with Jason Euell, the newcomer from Charlton, held in reserve. Suspended centerback Claude Davis was replaced with Damian Stewart.
Given that they needed a win, you would have expected Jamaica to come out charging. Or at least come out at all. But early on they went missing completely, as the USA, looking sharp in their replica 1950 we-upset-England-in-these-things jerseys, did pretty much what they wanted. The midfield had all the possession, and McBride and Johnson were finding space, winning every close ball. Fast Eddie was the biggest headache, and it was no surprise at all when he got the opener in the 15th minute. With the Jamaican back line pushing up, he timed his run perfectly, took a through ball from Mastroeni, paused, switched from his right foot to his left, and finished perfectly into the far corner.
Ten minutes later nothing had changed, and it was hard to imagine Jamaica in the same area code, much less winning. But with Panama way out in front, Lazaroni knew he had to make a move. He took out Stewart and brought in midfielder Jermaine Hue, a neat left-footed playmaker who had impressed for local club Harbour View. You can't quite say Hue turned the game, but out of nowhere the Reggae Boyz found a new urgency. Only two minutes later, Fuller showed his stuff, fighting off Onyewu on the left, dribbling into the area, and going down under a rash challenge from Corrales. No doubt about the PK, and after Williams converted, the teams were, against all odds, level.
That left 65 minutes, none of it pretty, all of it tense, especially if you were Jamaican or Panamanian. With plenty of yellow cards and injury delays, the game never recovered a rhythm. Jamaica soon established equality in midfield, but chances were nonexistent: although Whitmore and Hue were getting occasional traction, Ralph was shut down entirely, and Fuller, always the biggest threat, was off form. There wasn't much at the other end, either, and Johnson let the best chance get away, so with a half-hour to go it was still 1:1.
Then things started to happen very quickly. In the 67th minute Sanneh slipped and gifted Fuller a clear shot, but Keller stopped it. In the 68th Lazaroni finally yanked Ralph for Marlon King, and almost immediately King had Jamaica's best chance of the night. Or should have had. Whitmore sent him through, and he zeroed in on Kasey Keller--and was ruled offside. No one complained, but the replay showed he had been level with the last man. In the 72nd minute (at least a half-hour too late, maybe 72 minutes too late) it was at last time for Euell. In the 73rd his dangerous pass to King was blocked by Oneywu's very intentional handball; the yellow card, Onyewu's second, meant the USA were down to ten men.
So this was it: one man to the good, Jamaica had 17+ minutes to prove themselves worthy. But they folded up. Euell made a good pass or two, but Fuller was winded, and the rest of the side just wasn't up to the task. The USA controlled midfield, wasted time, and won comfortably. The one chance came in the 84th minute, when Ricardo Gardner found King, who spun away from Sanneh and closed from a narrow angle. With teammates in the area, it was shoot or pass, and King chose shoot--but it was weak, and Keller saved easily. The cameras then caught perhaps the most revealing moment of the game: someone, it looked like Ricardo Fuller, seemed to tell King he should have passed the ball, and King responded, very clearly and very loudly: "F--- off!" Jamaica was done, and 5 minutes of stoppage time just prolonged the pain. The roar from Panama City may not actually have reached Columbus, but a few seismographs in Texas probably trembled a bit.
So it's finally time to point the finger at Lazaroni. It wasn't so much that Jamaica didn't play to potential; it was that they never seemed mentally ready. In the early games they allowed late goals twice. In the game at Panama they were nearly played off the park before rallying. At home against El Salvador, they didn't even show up for the first half-hour, and then couldn't put away their chances. Against the USA, with a win almost certainly necessary, they were again absent at the start. True, they recovered well, and were unlucky on the second-half offside call, but in the final minutes, a man up and a real chance to win, they were bickering instead of working as a group. The coach has to get the blame.
Would they have done better with Carl Brown? Goodness knows he had his critics, both as coach and technical director, but he had the team playing well, and you can't just change horses because you feel like it. The irony is that the Lazaroni disaster cost Brown his job, too--a few days after the loss, the federation cleaned house, and the program will start again. No one knows who'll be in charge, but the FA claims they'll emphasize young, home-based talent. Jamaica has always relied too much on digging up UK legionnaires, which means they have to start over every few years (last week, by the way, the U-17s were humiliated by Haiti in the regional qualifiers). But the domestic league is growing stronger: for the first time ever, two Jamaican sides made the final of the Caribbean club competition. If Jamaica can break the English-league habit, they should someday develop a consistent program. But that's some time in the future, and doesn't make the present failure any less bitter.
El Salvador, unfortunately, proved they're not ready right now. It was a dismal showing in Panama: the attackers were ineffective, the midfield was consistently outgunned, and the back line just fell apart. Time to retool, and everyone knows it. The President of the Republic, Elias Antonio Saca, is a former sports journalist, and cares deeply about football--only a few days after the defeat he produced an ambitious plan for redevelopment of the national teams. In general it's best to ignore what politicians have to say, but with the FA's history of corruption, Saca looks like the best shot.
And then there's Panama. I don't know how much they pay Cheché Hernández, but it can't be enough. Yes, the youth program had been making strides before he arrived, but he's taken the senior side to a level no one thought possible. They play hard, fair, and passionate, and you can't drop your guard for a moment. They're resilient, too. After the opening loss at El Salvador, they came right back to win at Jamaica; when they lost 0:6 to the USA, they came right back to skunk El Salvador. And Hernández isn't standing still: he's going to add more players to the pool, including highly-regarded striker Nicolas Muñoz, current top scorer in the Salvadoran league. The fans are a great story, too: the marea roja, even when short of capacity, is on the way to making the Rommel Fernández as intimidating as the Saprissa. It's one of the most exciting developments in the region for some time. Yes, we'll miss the Reggae Boyz, but the Chechsters, free and undaunted, will be more than adequate compensation. Buckle up!
In Guatemala they filled the Mateo Flores for a celebration: the chapines, for a wonder, had qualified with a game to spare, and the fans expected nothing less than a rout over Canada. After all, the home side was starting the first eleven, and the visitors had brought a B team: instead of Radzinski, DeVos, DeGuzman, and Hume, the names were Occean, Gervais, Peters, and Simpson. But it didn't turn out quite as advertised. Canada had an equal share of the play, and all of the goals: one, to be precise, on a long shot by Dwayne DeRosario, one of the few regulars in the lineup. Ramón Maradiaga called the game a "disaster," although I suspect Frank Yallop would be happy to change places. Anyway, it was a nice win for Canada, who deserved a little good fortune at the end of the road.
Over in San Pedro Sula, the word "nice" wasn't in anyone's vocabulary. Honduras-Costa Rica, with everything at stake, and the build-up had more than its share of tension. Honduras had applied to FIFA to get the game switched from the Olímpico to the Francisco Morazán: smaller, with the fans closer to the action. Costa Rica opposed the move, and weren't terribly pleased when FIFA decided in Honduras' favor. A Costa Rican delegation visited the stadium and had harsh remarks about the pitch, and when the team arrived they were no more conciliatory. Oh, and Costa Rican reporters claimed to have been harassed when they tried to cover a Honduran training session.
Meanwhile, there was the matter of CONCACAF president Jack Warner, who had been roaming Central America in the days before the game. Stopping off in Honduras, he announced to the world that he expected the host team to win. Needless to say, the CR press, who on the whole think CONCACAF is biased against Costa Rica anyway, were not pleased. Of course, their indignation might have had a bit more force if they hadn't kept referring to the president as "Jack Wagner."
In Honduras, the fans were ready to give the lads their all-out support. "Operation Sticker" inflicted a large number of pro-Honduras bumper stickers on the motorists of San Pedro Sula. The supporters of the various Honduran clubs got together to work on chants, such as "El pueblo mas macho es el pueblo catracho!" ("The Honduran people are the most macho people!") and the ever-popular "Honduras! Honduras!" They also decided to collaborate on songs, most of which no doubt referred to the parentage and body parts of the Costa Rican players.
All in good fun, perhaps, or perhaps not--but in any case the game was deadly serious. Jorge Luis Pinto surprised nobody by picking a conservative lineup, with four straight across in midfield, including defensive specialists José Luís López and Cristian Badilla in the middle. Alonso Solís was mostly confined to the left, instead of the free attacking role he sometimes got. Interestingly, Gilberto Martínez, who had flown in from Italy, didn't start, and if anyone ever explained why, I didn't see it. Pablo Chinchilla took his spot in the middle, with Harold Wallace at right back.
As for Honduras, they had received the worst possible news: David Suazo was injured and out again. At first they refused to believe it, demanding that Suazo fly in from Italy for a separate examination by the local doctors. But eventually they bowed to the inevitable. Chelato Uclés had already jettisoned Carlos Pavón and Tyson Nuñez, and didn't call them back. Instead he went with Saul Martínez and Juan Manuel Cárcamo, a muscular forward with a touch of creativity. In midfield, he left off such stalwarts as Rambo DeLeón, who hadn't played well, and Édgard Alvarez, who wasn't seeing much time for his club. The five-man midfield had only one true defensive midfielder, Sergio Mendoza; Amado Guevara and Danilo Turcios had free roles in the middle, Ivan Guerrero was left wingback and Mauricio Sabillón right. The back three, left to right, were familiar faces Maynor Figueroa and Mario Beata, and new boy Erick Vallecillos.
The game turned out to be very simple: Honduras attacked and Costa Rica defended. In the first half the best attacks were down the right, where Solís was a defensive liability; Turcios and Sabillón were combining effectively, if a bit slowed down by some standing water near the touchline. But Leonardo González held his own at left back, and all Honduras could get were crosses into the area. Saul Martínez was playing mostly in the middle; he's good in the air, but Luis Marín was battling him to a draw, and the few times he got outside to use his pace, Chinchilla shut him off. Cárcamo rarely got free, although he managed to produce the best chance of the half: about 30 minutes in he got some space on Chinchilla, reached the byline, and sent in a dangerous cross. Martínez appeared to have a half-step on his marker, but Alvaro Mesén stuck out a hand and deflected the ball before the striker could get there. At the other end of the field, the suspect Honduran back line was having troubles, particularly with Solís and Herron, but Costa Rica attacked so rarely that chances were few. Victor Coello, starting over Noel Valladares, was tested twice, and saved both times.
The second half was the same, only more so. Costa Rica gave up any pretense of counterattacking, and settled into the bunker. Sabillón was eating Solís' lunch (eventually, in despair, Pinto replaced him with Walter Centeno), but again all he could manage were crosses into the box, which were easily turned aside. Honduras threw everything into the attack: Guerrero, largely absent in the first half, was getting possession both in the middle and on the left, and although Guevara was off and on, Turcios was roaming dangerously. Figueroa launched some superb long passes; Mendoza supported the effort as well. But with Badilla and especially López all over the pitch in defense, and the strikers in lockdown, even the best chances were only half-chances. In the 75th minute, a neat cross-field switch from Guevara to Figueroa to Turcios found Guerrero with a clear shot from 18 yards, but he drove it wide. A few minutes later Turcios beat Wallace, but from a narrow angle couldn't get off a shot or pass. The last gasp came in the 89th minute, when substitute Emil Martínez, free in the left corner, sent an excellent cross for an unmarked Turcios, about 12 yards out level with the far post; an absolutely perfect header might have done the trick, but Turcios, perhaps worn out, misfired. Extra time was a formality.
For Honduras, the result was very tough to take. In some ways it had been their best effort since the opening win in Costa Rica; they played dynamic attacking football from the opening whistle, and showed all the heart of which they were capable. But Costa Rica played superb defense--by no means their traditional forte--and you couldn't say they didn't deserve it.
But how could the catrachos have failed? After 5:2 at Costa Rica, and a dominating first half in Canada, they had looked like sure qualifiers. In part it had been bad luck: David Suazo, perhaps the most irreplaceable man in CONCACAF, had missed the last three games. But it shouldn't have come down to the last game. Honduras could have put Canada away in the first half in Edmonton. Their tactics in the rematches against Canada and Guatemala had been woefully conservative. At times, as in the second game against Canada, the effort just hadn't been there. Once Bora got scared off, the coaching situation was at best a scramble. In all, it was a great waste of a talented team. With Costa Rica wounded by two early losses, Honduras should have figured out a way to make it, Suazo or no Suazo.
In Costa Rica, the predominant emotion was relief--remember, this was a team that had been nearly eliminated by Cuba. I've been critical of Jorge Luís Pinto's tactics, but I'm glad to eat my words. Some of them, anyway. He transformed the side completely and got them home in the toughest group of all, a fine achievement by any standard. But the adjustment took a very long time, and so he still needed a result in the final game, where he was lucky indeed to find Honduras shorn of their best player. Would the bunker have held against David Suazo? We'll never know. But all hail Pinto and the ticos for coming back from the dead--and let's face it, a Hexagonal without Costa Rica just wouldn't have been the same.
Mexico and St. Kitts & Nevis met for a couple of games, and there were two disappointments: 1) because the SKN home game was played in Miami, we didn't get to see Warner Park; 2) because SKN had been eliminated, we didn't get to see famed striker Keith Gumbs. Oh, well. What we did get to see was the Mexican second string win 5:0 in Miami and 8:0 in Monterrey. The Sugar Boyz actually played quite well in the first half in Mexico, and were behind only 0:2 at the interval, with one of the Mexican goals a suspect PK. But the Tri simply overwhelmed them in the second half. Overall the big story for Mexico was Francisco "Kikín" Fonseca, the young Pumas striker getting his first chance at international level. After scoring twice in a friendly against Ecuador, he notched four more in the games against St. Kitts & Nevis, and it would've been five had not an overeager SKN defender put the ball into his own net just before Fonseca was going to do it himself. He's more a battler than an artist, but has a creative streak and very fine finishing skills. Look for him in the squad come Hexagonal time.
Look for Trinidad & Tobago too, although they're not awfully proud of the way they finished the competition. St. Vincent & the Grenadines flew in needing to win by three goals, and although no one really expected them to do it, you couldn't deny that Vincy Heat was on the boil. After the impressive 3:0 win at St. Kitts & Nevis, they had thumped Grenada 6:2 in a friendly, and Zoran Vranes was saying sure, we can beat T&T by three goals, just watch us. T&T was hampered by the absence of their starting strikers, Stern John and Cornell Glen, both out with injuries. Still, three goals at home?
As it turned out, it could very easily have been three, or more. After an early flurry by T&T, Vincy took over the game. With complete control of midfield, they attacked at will, and only some first-rate play by keeper Clayton Ince kept the game scoreless. The Trinidad Express called it "possibly one of the worst first-half performances by a national football team," and they may have been including American Samoa and Montserrat.
(By the way, you'll notice that my description of this game is kind of sketchy. That's because none of the news reporters seemed to be paying close attention to the game, or maybe were paying close attention to different games altogether. Who did what where? Your guess is as good as mine. You can get some good fan reports in the forums at the excellent site Socawarriors, but they focus on the T&T players, so there's no way to know what the Grenadiners were up to.)
The second half started with T&T on the attack for once, but in the 49th minute, a quick counter down the left (unless it was the right) found an SVG attacker closing in on goal. Ince came out to block the shot, but the ball rebounded into the area, where T&T's Avery John, getting his first start of the competition, took a mighty swing and missed the ball completely. Renson Haynes scored into the open net, and suddenly, with nearly a full half to play, SVG had one of their three goals.
At this point one could very easily have imagined the miracle. But T&T, to their credit, got off the deck. Reports differ on exactly how well they played in the second half (either terrible or OK), but it was well enough--although Vincy still had a good percentage of the midfield play, keeper Melvin Andrews had to make some saves of his own to keep T&T off the board. Then, in the 84th minute, substitute strikers Scott Sealy and Hector Sam executed a neat combination, and Sam scored the equalizer. Undeserved? Maybe. But that was nothing compared to what happened in the 90th minute, when Sealy won a free kick, skipper Angus Eve curled it in, and T&T had themselves a very surprising 2:1 victory. Afterwards coach Bertille St. Clair conceded that it had been their worst performance of the competition, and Brent Sancho publicly apologized for the team's play.
For SVG, it was a disappointing finish, but they had much to be proud of: two wins over SKN, two near-wins against T&T, one excellent half against Mexico. A very honorable third place. Those 18 straight semifinal losses? Forget 'em. Pinocchio's a real boy now. The next step is rebuilding; it's an old squad, and they'll need to find some new players soon. Watch and see how they do in the Digicel Caribbean Cup--with Jamaica and T&T fielding reserve sides, they have a genuine chance to qualify for their very first Gold Cup.
As for T&T, well, even Jack Warner admitted they're only in the Hexagonal because of the draw. A few days after the game he organized a symposium of local football luminaries, and everyone who was anyone in T&T football attended--except for Bertille St. Clair, that is. After the meeting it was announced that Technical Director Lincoln Phillips and CONCACAF Technical Committee member Alvin Corneal would have what was politely called "expanded roles" with the team. A few days later, former international David Nakhid was brought on board as an assistant coach. And then there's former England coach Graham Taylor, who was signed for a Hexagonal consulting role even before the SVG game. Who'll be calling the shots?
I'm a big advocate of continuity, and normally I'd say stick with St. Clair. But he's had the team for a while now without much success, and a flying leap into the unknown may be the best chance at this point. Warner and others want to give local players more chances in the Hexagonal, but we've heard that sort of thing before. How many teams have pledged themselves to development, but stuck with old faces when the chips were down?
A lot may depend on the schedule, which is due on November 30th, and may be available by the time you read this. With any luck, T&T will get the hardest games first: if they start with Mexico and the USA, it'll give a new lineup some time to develop without much pressure. But if the opener is home to Panama or Guatemala, with a win essential, only a very brave man would send out a largely untested side. The home- and USA-based players are getting a workout right now in the Caribbean Cup, but won't have the chance to face top competition before February. In any case, we'll know a lot more about T&T's thinking as the Hexagonal approaches.
And now the stats!
- El Salvador scored two goals in the first half of their first game, and never scored again;
- In their 12 games combined, El Salvador and St. Kitts & Nevis totaled zero goals from open play;
- Guatemala and Panama both qualified with a negative goal difference, ahead of other teams (Honduras and Jamaica) who had a positive goal difference;
- Jamaica and Honduras had identical records (1 win, 4 draws, 1 loss) and goal differences (+2), both won their only game by 3 goals on the road, and both failed to qualify;
- Mexico scored 27 goals, more than twice as many as anyone else;
- Jared Borgetti was top scorer with 6 goals, despite playing in only four of six games;
- Roberto Brown was the only man to score in four different games;
- Carlos Ruiz was the only man to score over half his team's goals;
- In the three games David Suazo played, Honduras scored 8 goals, but in the three he missed, they scored 1;
- 6 out of 36 games were decided by a goal in the 88th minute or later;
- For the third straight cycle, fewer goals were scored in Canada's semifinal games than in those of any other team (tied with Jamaica this time);
- In the history of World Cup qualifying, there have been 83 four-team double-round groups:
- Group B was only the second such group in which every team allowed at least 7 goals;
- Group C was the very first such group in which each team defeated all of the teams below them twice;
- Guatemala became the first team to finish in the top half of such a group despite allowing the most goals outright;
- Panama became the first team to finish in the top half of such a group despite allowing 11 goals.
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