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
Wrap-up: CONCACAF WCQ, Hexagonal, Rounds 9-10
by Peter Goldstein
Before we start, I just want to reproduce an article from the Associated Press, in its entirety:
“SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica (AP) --An airliner carrying the U.S. national soccer team to Costa Rica for a World Cup qualifier Saturday was diverted to Panama on Thursday night because of low fog in the Costa Rican capital, airport officials said.
Two other afternoon flights from the United States also were diverted.
Workers at the San José hotel where the team was scheduled to stay removed place settings for a scheduled dinner and said they had been told to expect players to arrive Friday morning.”
Whew. I was really worried about those place settings. Admit it, you were too. Wait, I’m getting a bulletin…one teaspoon, one salad fork, and one odd-shaped thing that nobody can figure out (but opens oysters pretty well) were accidentally left at the head table. More updates as they happen…
Although Costa Rica hadn’t actually qualified yet, everyone knew it was a done deal. For them not to clinch a berth this round, they’d have to lose at home to the USA, while Guatemala won at Mexico. There wasn’t much chance of the latter, and in truth there wasn’t much chance of the former either. The USA had managed a draw in their first WCQ trip to Costa Rica, back in 1985, but since then had lost 5 straight, as often as not looking completely outclassed.
Looking at Bruce Arena’s lineup, there was no indication this time would be any different. It was stronger than the group that had played at Guatemala last month, particularly on defense, but there was no Kasey Keller, no Claudio Reyna, no Landon Donovan, and no Brian McBride. Tim Howard was in goal, Brian Ching and Taylor Twellman were up front, Bobby Convey was in attacking midfield, and Chris Albright the right wingback in a 3-5-2. If the best and brightest hadn’t managed a point in 20 years, what hope was there for the scrubs, especially having missed that Thursday night hotel dinner?
Of course, Alexandre Guimaraes had to play it straight. He went the full monty, returning to his favorite 3-man back line, using only one defensive midfielder, Mauricio Solís, and throwing in three strikers, Paulo Wanchope, Álvaro Saborio, and Rónald Gómez in a withdrawn role. He had history, artificial turf, and a heavy rain on his side.
Costa Rica won. Easy to predict, although 3:0 was a bit surprising. But despite the howls of rage from USA fans (check any US soccer forum, but keep the kids away), it was by no means a mismatch. The Yanks were equal or better in midfield, and in an intense game, played under difficult conditions, kept reasonably composed. Convey, and Eddie Lewis at left wingback, caused occasional danger. Twellman actually tied the game at 1:1 off a set piece, but his legitimate goal was disallowed for offside. (By the way, that’s the fourth time that’s happened to the USA in the qualifiers, compared to zero for the opposition--not that I’m counting or anything.)
But on the whole, the team just didn’t have the right players in the right spots. The second-string strikers were swallowed up by a brilliant CR back line of Jervis Drummond, Luís Marín, and Gilberto Martínez. Without Reyna and Donovan, they didn’t have enough central control, and Convey and DaMarcus Beasley, who both played in the middle, are wingers. Plus the defense, particularly Carlos Bocanegra, had a bad night, and Tim Howard was shaky too.
As for Costa Rica, they weren’t overwhelming, but so what? The midfield held the line, the defense was superb, and when the lads had the chances, they got the goals. (They’ve been doing a lot of that lately.) In the 34th minute, Saborio took a pass on the right side of the area, fought off Oguchi Oneywu, and put his shot on goal. Howard only got a piece, and Wanchope sprinted in to convert the rebound. In the 69th, substitute Carlos Hernández, known for his powerful shot, slipped into space at the top of the arc and smashed one off the post and in. And with a few minutes left, he tied the ribbon with a supergolazo, an awesome 30-yard volley off the underside of the crossbar.
So, to absolutely no one’s surprise, Costa Rica qualified. But for a team that had struggled desperately for over a year to convince, it was a special way to go through. A third straight win, a decisive result over a strong rival, the fans at top volume in the stands, the country in full celebration mode. Good for Costa Rica, good for Guima, and good for a bunch of talented players. It was always unreasonable to expect a rerun of four years ago. They may not be dazzling, but they’re solid and opportunistic. We’ll take it. It’s a country with an honorable World Cup history, and they’ll represent us well in Germany.
Guatemala had been living just a bit on the edge. Exactly how edgy? Take a look at this sequence:
Round 5--loss on a very last-second goal
Round 6--win on a very last-second goal
Round 7--loss after giving up two goals in the last five minutes
Round 8--draw after hitting a post in the 90th minute
Understandably, the whole thing sort of got to the press. In a friendly against Jamaica, Ramón Maradiaga tried out a few new ideas, such as Nelson Morales at defensive midfield and Gonzalo Romero at withdrawn forward. He also played each of his three keepers 30 minutes apiece. La Prensa Libre went berserk, pointing out that it was a little late to be experimenting, and that any competent coach would have had this settled long ago, and why the heck were they playing Jamaica anyway? Or, as Babelfish translates:
Because if outside to insist on the formula in which the players must leave difficult situations, he is acceptable the decision, although we have known that he has already done it, repeatedly, in several situations, without he fulfills himself his instructions. For example, so that they get used to solving the problems at the moment which had, like which they confronted before Costa Rica and Trinidad, in where the culpability is shared. This, to grief that the players load with the greater responsibility, because they are not no novices who begin "to give his first tanes" in soccer. There, something could do, while Maradiaga "put in order" its ideas…everything, to one week of first of two crucial parties that are going to decide if we go or not to the World-wide one!”
Which I think sums it up quite nicely.
As for Mexico, I categorically refuse to give any space to the Guillermo Franco controversy, because I’m so ABSOLUTELY TIRED of the LaVolpe-is-ruining-Mexican-football thing, and although the whole naturalization issue is moderately interesting, right now I’d rather concentrate on football, if that’s okay. Hey, how about those Mexico U-17s, huh? Eat turf, Netherlands and Brazil! Giovanni Dos Santos, the next Ronaldinho! Carlos Vela, what a striker! Omar Esparza, was that a golazo or what? Jesús Ramírez for president! Arriba CONCACAF! (Can you tell it’s been a long qualifying season?)
The game started with a shock. Guatemala came out in a 4-5-1, which on the road against Mexico was expected. What wasn’t expected was the pressing, all over the field. It was a bold and brilliant move: laying back against Mexico is a sucker’s game, and it made sense to keep the Tri as far away from Guatemala’s weak back line as possible. Two minutes in, Mario “El Loco” Rodríguez stole the ball from Gonzalo Pineda, zipped down the right wing, and sent a perfect low cross for Carlos Ruiz, who banged it in. Sensational!
The problem was that there were still 88 minutes to go. Rodríguez, Ruiz, Gonzalo Romero, Pando Ramírez, and Fredy Thompson continued pressing up front. There were no more scoring opportunities; on the other hand, Mexico, mostly second-stringers, couldn’t get their passing game going. But there was still that oh-so-shaky back line, and every time Kikín Fonseca and Guillermo Franco got near the ball the Tri looked dangerous.
In the 20th minute came the equalizer. Pineda, up in attack, made a nice move and passed to Gerardo Torrado, who found Fonseca dropping back unmarked about 30 yards from goal. Luís Pérez slanted in from the right, and got a half step on Pablo Melgar in the area. Selvyn Ponciano, the other centerback, made the wrong decision, vacating his spot to cover Pérez. Franco moved into the hole, Fonseca sent him the pass, and while moving to his left, Franco finished with his right.
Two things had happened: 1) Guatemala’s defense had failed again; 2) Guillermo Franco, the naturalized Argentine, the most controversial man in years to wear the green, had announced himself. It was an exquisite finish, and El Guille, as he is known, celebrated with an emotional salute, down on his knees, banging his fist repeatedly against his chest. The San Luís Potosí crowd, who had received him warmly all along, went chimichangas, banging foam beaters and waving huge Mexican flags. It was a moving moment.
Big trouble for Guatemala, but they didn’t balk. They kept pressing, looked for attacking opportunities, and remarkably enough, played the rest of the half equal. By the end, they even had the advantage. In the 42nd minute only a desperate dive by Maza Rodríguez denied Ruiz a clear shot. Thirty seconds later, a smash from Romero was barely deflected by keeper José Corona off the post. At halftime we had ourselves quite a game.
But after the interval came the real Guillermo Franco story. The Tri has a good team, of course, but up front there’s a small problem. Jared Borgetti and Kikín Fonseca, the starting strikers, don’t combine terribly well. That’s because they’re both basically centerforwards. Fonseca, in particular, has had a lot of trouble getting into his game, because he’s not where he belongs on the field. But Franco is more versatile: he can play both centerforward and support striker. With him in the lineup, Fonseca can play his natural position.
And so the second half was a massacre. As game as they were, Guatemala had too many weaknesses, and Fonseca destroyed them. Four minutes in he scored on a header off a corner--and then the action really started. In the 52nd minute he ran straight down the middle, split the defense, took a long pass from Jaime Lozano, rounded Miguel Klee with ease, and scored again. In the 63rd Franco stole the ball from Pablo Melgar and fed Fonseca, again right in the middle, for another. In the 67th Mario Méndez crossed from the right, Franco headed down, and Fonseca, yet again right in the middle, put it home. Four goals in 22 minutes, three from the centerforward spot. Sandwiched in there was a goal from Selvyn Ponciano off a set piece, but Guatemala had been chopped, minced, shredded, and parboiled.
Poor Ramón Maradiaga. The chances of beating Mexico were incredibly slim anyway, and he had tried the most daring strategy he knew. He just didn’t have the weapons. The Guatemalan press lost it completely, handing out 2’s and 3’s to the players, and calling Maradiaga a coward for not attacking more. That was incredibly unjust, but what can you expect? It’s tough to be a coach--just ask that guy LaVolpe.
Panama-Trinidad & Tobago
Match of the Day. Costa Rica was certain to qualify, Mexico certain to beat Guatemala. But this one could go either way. Could T&T, with everything at stake, get three points on the road? How great was the pride of the Panamanians? It was the match all true CONCACAF fans wanted to see.
Which meant, of course, it was the one they couldn’t. Unless you lived in Trinidad & Tobago yourself, no TV, not live, not tape, not Internet. Your humble correspondent opted for the T&T radio broadcast, with announcers in a studio calling the game from a live feed. Which would have been OK, if they hadn’t been in a parallel universe. They kept announcing plays by Felipe Baloy (suspended, not in the stadium) and Luís Tejada (with his club in the United Arab Emirates, not even in the same country). And they repeatedly named such noted Panamanians as Walter Centeno and Rónald Gómez, who at that moment were as usual playing up north for Costa Rica. It was almost a relief when the feed cut out near the end of the first half--eventually we would have heard about DaMarcus Beasley and Jared Borgetti, if not actually David Beckham.
But in a way you could hardly blame them. The Panama team on the pitch was unrecognizable. Out of the competition and looking to experiment, they started only four regulars: Jaime Penedo, Luís Moreno, Gabriel Gómez, and Julio Medina. The rest were youngsters, and I mean youngsters. Gabriel Torres, currently fourth-leading scorer in the local league, is sixteen years old. They were building sandboxes on the touchlines for the team to warm up in.
All this was tailor-made for T&T, who absolutely needed a win. Unfortunately, before the game, they had run into accomodation problems: several Panama hotels who had agreed to take them suddenly wouldn’t. Gamesmanship? Nope--the whole town was booked for the Nineteenth Latin American Poultry Farmers Conference. I’m not making that up; you can find the conference program in Spanish right here. It looks pretty interesting, with papers like “The Egg, Unbeatable Source of Nutrients--New Discoveries,” “The Eight Most Frequent Questions On Ventilation For Chickens,” and my favorite, “Which Came First, the Chicken, the Egg, or the Dély Valdés Brothers?”
Eventually the team found a hotel, even if they had to pick feathers out of the sinks. And with everyone except Brent Sancho healthy, even a town full of manic poultry farmers would find them tough to beat. But there was one problem: Leo Beenhakker insisted on playing Russell Latapy up front again. I suppose we can’t expect him to read Planet World Cup, but after all, he’s right there on the sideline watching the games. Don’t they have contact lenses in Holland? Once more, slowly: unless Latapy’s in midfield, the attack doesn’t function.
And so, in the first half, T&T had little but the longball and set pieces. Their best chance from open play came when Latapy dropped back to feed Yorke, whose blistering shot was turned aside by Penedo. Meanwhile Panama’s toddlers were toddling in, out, and all around, controlling midfield, producing some nice passing combinations, putting the pressure on. Alas, when it came to the finish, they were short a few teddy bears. Shots from all angles went wide. At one point, with an absolutely free header from only 8 yards, Torres chose instead to head to a teammate. Put it down to immaturity--but remember that in earlier games the adults had missed lots of chances themselves.
At the interval Beenhakker must have picked up some new bifocals, because he had Latapy drop back a bit, and T&T began to look more dangerous. But it wasn’t until the 61st minute that he figured out the eye chart. He sent on Kenwyne Jones, a true striker, and put Latapy back where he belonged. And in the very next minute, Penedo drove a long goal kick, and Dennis Lawrence headed powerfully to Stern John, who dropped it back for Latapy, playing MIDFIELD. Latapy sent a pretty through ball for Jones, on a neat diagonal run. Jones collided with a defender, went down--but managed to push the ball to Stern John, who blasted a beauty of a left-footer past Penedo. The rest was mopping up. Panama gave it their all, but never seriously troubled Kelvin Jack; if Yorke and John hadn’t missed good chances, it could have been a rout.
It had been a fine effort for the pre-schoolers, particularly in the first half, and the press was properly appreciative. The real disappointment was the “crowd,” maybe only a couple of thousand die-hards, out-noised by T&T’s enthusiastic steel-banders. You know you’re in trouble when the fans prefer a poultry convention.
For the Warriors, a professional performance: nothing special, wobbly at times, but a vital win on the road. Most encouraging was John’s goal, a real striker’s goal; it showed again he might be able to deliver the goods when it counted. And maybe, just hopefully, just possibly, Leo had spotted exactly where to put the Little Magician. With Mexico only four days later, there was no time for an appointment with his optometrist.
The only one of 30 matches to have no bearing on qualification, and we can deal with it quickly. The USA played a young side, almost all MLSers; Panama played the kids, plus Felipe Baloy, plus the Dély Valdés brothers in their farewell game. As you might expect, the USA had most of the play, and won 2:0. Kyle Martino scored on a fine volley and Taylor Twellman converted a defensive mistake. Justin Mapp looked good for the USA, but the team has a surplus of left-sided midfielders. For Panama, Luís Gallardo might someday be another Julio Medina.
Oh, and Cheché Hernández got the sack a few days later. Inevitable, really; he’s a prickly character, and wasn’t terribly well-liked in the FA. Still, I suspect there were few coaches who could have brought Panama so far. For that, and for the exciting football his teams played, he deserves our appreciation.
Good thing there were only four days between the Mexico disaster and the finale against Costa Rica. At one point Pando Ramírez, a tiny bit upset at the implication he hadn’t been at his best lately, grabbed a reporter by the throat. The media was in apocalyptic mode. It was best to get it over with as soon as possible.
Actually, the chapines weren’t in such a bad position. Costa Rica was coming in with a second-string squad; the only regulars or semi-regulars to start the game were keeper Álvaro Mesén, defender Luís Marín, midfielder Jafet Soto, and forward Álvaro Saborio. If Guatemala won, and Mexico got at least a draw at T&T, they’d be in, despite all the handwringing (and neckwringing).
Maradiaga responded with the most attacking formation he could think of. He put Mario Acevedo up front with Carlos Ruiz, and replaced the ineffective Ramírez with Fredy Garcia on the left. Gonzalo Romero was in the middle, and Fredy Thompson was preferred at right midfield over Mario Rodríguez. The fans showed up for the last hurrah, ready to make some very loud noises. The whistle blew.
It was crazy. I mean total crazy, over-the-top crazy, Guatemala-crazy. In the last several months the blue-and-white had produced some of the wildest and most unpredictable football CONCACAF had ever seen, but this one topped them all. We got going three minutes in, when an excellent combo between Romero and Acevedo sent right back Elmer Ponciano through, with the ball at head level. He expertly nodded down and sweetly chipped an advancing Mesén. 1:0 already. A very nice goal--but nothing compared with what was to follow.
Guatemala was attacking with verve and skill, using neat one-touch passing, sending the fullbacks up the wing. Garcia, the team’s most dynamic player, was causing headaches both on the left and in the middle. Even the defense was doing its part, playing the offside trap, avoiding their close-marking weaknesses. But it wasn’t a one-team show: for Costa Rica, Soto and right wingback Roy Myrie were dangerous, and Soto’s 15th minute drive didn’t miss by much.
In the next minute, though, it was 2:0, and how. Another fine combination, this time between Julio Girón and Romero, got the ball to Garcia, about 30 yards out just to the right of center. He’s a left-footer, but the ball was on his right. What to do? How about a complete 360º pirouette and a crashing shot into the upper far corner? Unbelievable. Baryshnikov never did anything like that.
But we were barely getting started. Now it was time for the defense to do its thing, meaning collapse. Saborio, left unmarked on a free kick, shot just wide. Shortly afterward he got open in the area again, didn’t get much on the shot--but keeper Miguel Klee spilled it, and the ball bounced just out of the reach of Winston Parks.
So naturally it was time for another amazing goal. In the 31st minute left back Ángel Sanabria sent in a cross for Carlos Ruiz. Back to goal a few yards to the left of the penalty spot, he stuck out his left foot to block it, and the ball bounced a bit. So, with his eyes closed, eating his dinner with one hand, and answering a few fan letters with the other, he walloped a bicycle kick, perfectly placed into the far corner. A perfect 10 from the Korean judge, 9.9 from the Romanian. Even the Trinidad & Tobago judge gave him a 9.8.
Speaking of Trinidad & Tobago, down in Port-of-Spain they heard that Guatemala was up 3:0, and assumed the game was over. But the Guatemalans knew better. The sensible strategy would have been to sit back, but figuring that their defense might give up, say, nine goals, they decided to go for ten. When the second half started, it was up and down the field, with more open space than Montana.
The goal, when it came, was properly hilarious. In the 50th minute (for some reason the FIFA report says 60th, but no doubt they were as dazed as everyone else), Danny Fonseca sent Myrie through on the right of the area. His first touch was a little bit off, and Klee came out to block. The ball skittered toward the byline about halfway between the area and the corner flag, and Klee went over to retrieve, a bit casually. He got to the ball, looked up--and of course didn’t notice Myrie sneaking up from behind. Myrie knocked it away, ran it down about ten yards from the touchline, and sent a nifty narrow-angled flick just inside the far post.
Now it was 3:1, and the game, already seriously unbalanced, went berserk. Guatemala, assuming the doom had come upon them, could think of nothing but attack. Costa Rica was only too happy to oblige. If I tried to tell you everything that happened, I’d break the keyboard, but here’s a sampling:
The ref missed an obvious Costa Rica handball in the area. Ruiz missed an easy chance from eight yards. Michael Umaña headed away a dangerous Garcia cross. Klee came out to rob Parks (and luckily the rebound went to someone else). Soto missed an open net. Acevedo’s header just went past the post. Mesén denied Garcia with a dive. Mesén tipped Thompson’s chip over the bar. Garcia went for the gold with a spectacular scissors kick, missing by inches. Mesén fumbled a cross but Acevedo couldn’t get to the rebound. Parks made a brilliant move on the left but sent his cross wide.
There were still twenty minutes to go. A team of doctors had arrived with emergency cardiac equipment. But the teams were spent. No more insanity, no more chances. Guatemala, for the first time in months, seemed in control. Everyone took a deep breath…but the defense had one surprise left. In the 85th minute, still pushing up, they let Minor Díaz in alone. Klee brought him down, and Costa Rica had a PK. But what the heck--the team, the press, and the fans had suffered enough. Soto hit the crossbar.
The game had been way off the scale, but Guatemala had dominated the action, and deserved the win. (Not to mention those fabulous goals!) Unfortunately, a win wasn’t enough. They still had to get the result from Trinidad & Tobago. And so…
Trinidad & Tobago-Mexico
Twenty months and 109 games came down to this: could Trinidad & Tobago beat Mexico in Port-of-Spain? They had done it back in 2000, in the WCQ semifinals, a late goal by Russell Latapy bringing home a 1:0 victory. Now they had the manpower advantage: with nothing to play for, Mexico had brought only a few regulars--although Guillermo Franco and Kikín Fonseca were still together up front. T&T were missing Silvio Spann via suspension, but were otherwise at full strength. And they had a mad red-clad Hasely Crawford crowd beating the drums behind them. But could they actually do it?
It helped that Beenhakker had figured out the Latapy factor. For the first time, he played a 4-5-1, with Stern John as lone striker. Behind John was a line of three, Latapy, Dwight Yorke, and Carlos Edwards. Latapy on the left wasn’t quite the same as Latapy in the middle, but he had full license to roam, and Yorke was in his optimum spot. One worry: at right back replacing Spann was Cyd Gray, who had been substandard at the Gold Cup. But Avery John, suspended against Panama, returned at left back, and the big men in defense, Marvin Andrews and Dennis Lawrence, were in their best form of the tournament.
The first part of the game was played underwater. Not literally, I suppose--although in CONCACAF you never know--but how else to explain the achingly slow play? T&T, understandably tentative, emerged for a dog paddle or two: Latapy dribbled a bit and occasionally tried a through ball, and some crosses came in for Stern John. But mostly they treaded water and watched the sea turtles race by.
Meanwhile Mexico were completely submerged, probably as a result of the Elcock Effect. Back in a 2000 qualifier, T&T’s Ansil Elcock put Cuauhtémoc Blanco out for 8 months with a horror tackle. Ever since, Mexico has openly acknowledged that they play extra-carefully against Caribbean teams, particularly on the road. T&T has always been more technical than physical, and that’s particularly true under Beenhakker, but don’t tell that to the Tri. Rodney Jack’s ugly tackle on Israel López at St. Vincent & the Grenadines this year did nothing to change their point of view.
And so we had 25 minutes of synchronized swimming. But all at once T&T picked up the pace, as if someone had heard the score from the Mateo Flores. On the half hour, Edwards, who makes his living racing up the right wing and getting in crosses, finally did his thing. The ball caromed off Carlos Morales and went out for a corner. Latapy sent it in low, Yorke tried an acrobatic kick--and referee José Pineda was pointing to the spot. Joel Huiqui, a powerful but not particularly agile defender, had dragged Stern John down in the area. Mexico hardly bothered to argue.
So who would take it? T&T hadn’t had a single penalty in the qualifiers, so there was no form book. Latapy was a logical choice, and so was Yorke. But the man who grabbed the ball and stepped up to the spot was none other than Stern John.
If you’ve followed the Stern Saga, you’ll know what this meant. T&T’s all-time leading scorer, he’d been in a horrendous prolonged slump over the course of the qualifiers. There was no end to the abuse from the fans. Somehow the coaches, first Bertille St. Clair, then Leo Beenhakker, had kept the faith, and a couple of months ago he burst out with the two late goals that beat Guatemala. But lots of people still weren’t convinced, and although he’d scored the winner at Panama, he’d missed a few chances as well. To claim the PK now was a courageous statement: I can do this, and I will.
He blew it. You’ve heard the phrase “telegraphed the shot”? He sent mass e-mails, personalized handwritten notes, and a flock of carrier pigeons. You could see it all the way from Guatemala City. José Corona dove to his left and saved easily. And Mexico awoke. A couple of minutes later the Tri took their very first shot of the game, a snapper from Jaime Lozano that Jack turned aside. Then Lozano, open in the area, headed Franco’s cross wide. And in the 38th minute, Luís Pérez slanted in from the right and passed to Franco, who side-footed back for Pérez, who found Lozano on the left at the top of the area. He spotted Kelvin Jack out of position and lifted a glorious chip into the far corner.
Bing-bang-bong, and Mexico were ahead. It had been so casual, so elegant, like flicking dust from your sleeve. This was pedigree. Shortly afterwards Fonseca just missed getting onto Lozano’s cross. You would have bet your life that T&T were done.
But sometimes desire, with a little luck, is stronger than pedigree. Less than a minute later Aurtis Whitley drove past Pérez on the left, moved inside, and cracked a heavy shot from 25 yards. It hit Corona’s right post and came straight out. John, in perfect position--a bit too perfect, it seemed--banged in the equalizer. Check the replay…slow it down…uh oh. Offside. A clear step behind the defense when Whitley shot. But the goal counted, and T&T weren’t about to look back. In the 45th minute John nearly broke away from Hugo Sánchez Guerrero in the area. In stoppage time Marvin Andrews came out of the back to blast a shot just over the bar. Mexico barely got into the locker room even.
Now 90 minutes had become 45. Kelvin Jack had injured himself on the Lozano goal and couldn’t continue, but that just meant Shaka Hislop, the more experienced keeper. Two minutes into the second half he made his mark, diving to the left to save Fonseca’s header.
The big question was how T&T, absolutely needing to score, would play it. All-out pressure, you’d figure. But no. They kept their shape, met Mexico in midfield, controlled the action, poured forward when they got the ball. Whitley in the middle and Latapy on the left made dangerous inroads. On the right Edwards was in top form, dribbling and getting in crosses. In the 55th minute a dazzling move by Latapy sent John through for a goal--but offside again, and they called it this time.
Mexico were being outplayed. T&T were quicker, more skilful, smarter, better. And when they got another piece of luck, they cashed it in like champs. In the 61st minute Whitley, having a tremendous game in attack, surged forward in the middle past Jaime Lozano, but with a comeback slide Lozano poked it free about 30 yards out. Israel López tried to clear, but the ball caromed off Whitley and bounced right to Stern John at the top of the area. He braced, pounced, drove a gorgeous left-footer into the far corner of the net. 2:1 to Trinidad & Tobago.
A half hour to go, to hold on against the CONCACAF giant. How many Mexico chances would T&T have to survive? The answer: none. The Tri never got close. The Warriors played them off the park. Eleven heroes, twelve including sub Densil Theobald. Everyone did remarkable things. But let’s mention three names in particular. First, Cyd Gray, right back. He was the suspect man, the supposed weak link. But he held off speedy substitute Alberto Medina the whole second half--it wasn’t always pretty, but he made every play. Second, Dennis Lawrence, central defender. Early in the qualifiers he had been a liability, even a disaster. But under Beenhakker he became a different player, composed and precise. In the final half hour he was letter-perfect, positioning, marking, heading, six foot seven inches of mastery. Third, Marvin Andrews, central defender. Less than a year ago he was facing a cruciate ligament injury that threatened his career. He defied the odds, refused surgery, and somehow managed to continue for club and country. When T&T most needed him, he was everywhere, bodying up to strikers, launching powerful tackles, and in a memorable sequence, striding commandingly all the way up the field to set up John, whose 84th minute shot for the clincher was somehow deflected off the post.
But let’s not forget the ultimate profile in perseverance, Stern John. Hated, reviled, cursed--even after the goals against Guatemala and Panama, not everyone believed in him. You don’t want to know what the fans were saying when he blew the penalty. (If you do, check the forum at socawarriors.net.) But then the tying goal--sure, he was offside, but reacted alertly on the rebound. And then the winning goal, with absolutely no hesitation. SMASH! There’s a striker for you. A few minutes later, with all the assurance of the great ones, he lifted a breathtaking 40-yard lob that only a magnificent leap by Corona kept out. He knew it was his night, and the Warriors’ night too.
T&T aren’t in the World Cup yet. They have to play Bahrain twice, and I have no clue what’ll happen. But this was a World Cup night. Some are saying Mexico weren’t fully focused, and they’re right. And some are pointing to the offside goal, and they’re right too. But put this down in your football diary, so 50 years from now there’ll be absolutely no doubt: Trinidad & Tobago deserved this victory. They were the better team. And when the better team wins, justice is done.
Wrap-up, Honors, and Stats
I’m exhausted. How about you? The Hexagonal, like most qualifying systems, is a marathon, but what makes it especially draining is that the teams are closely matched. No minnows here, no San Marinos or Andorras. Even Panama, who picked up only two points in ten games, played a lot of teams very tough. They could easily have beaten both Costa Rica and Guatemala, and they drew with Mexico on the merits. You just can’t take a break in the Hexagonal, not as a player or a fan.
Admittedly, as we suspected, the USA and Mexico had an easy time of it. Four years ago the tournament was much more competitive. But also as we suspected, elsewhere the battle was sensational. At the end Costa Rica finished a comfortable third, but they needed miracle wins against Panama and Guatemala in the first half of the competition to stay close. And the Guatemala-T&T battle for fourth, like their crucial showdown itself, went to the wire.
Let’s spend some time on Guatemala. T&T, after Beenhakker arrived anyway, was a solid team that went out, played their best, either won or lost, and had their feet on the ground. But Guatemala was a bunch of guys caught in a high wind. From game to game, even minute to minute, you had no clue what they’d do, and you had the feeling they didn’t either. They fell behind at Costa Rica, staged a marvelous rally, then lost on a last-second goal. They fell behind home to Panama, staged a marvelous rally, then won on a last-second goal. They had T&T beaten, and collapsed. They showed tremendous courage against Mexico in the first half, then got torn apart. In the finale with Costa Rica, they were both sublime and ridiculous. It was like a prime-time soap opera, only less believable.
Their obvious weakness was the defense, which imploded early and never recovered. But remember that starting striker Dwight Pezzarossi got injured early too, and missed virtually all of the last seven games. They never found a replacement. Even so, they had the inside track until those ten nightmare minutes in Port-of-Spain. Just as important as the two late T&T goals was the yellow card handed out to Carlos Ruiz. It meant he missed the following game, home to the USA. They got only a draw against the Yanks’ third string; if he had played, they might very well have won, and finished fourth.
As for Ramón Maradiaga, I feel for the guy. He’s a good man, and he did a great job bringing the team through the Group of Death in the semis. But you look at how he failed with Honduras four years ago, and you wonder. That team had more talent, but the same profile: unpredictable, disorganized on defense. Maybe it’s the way he coaches--and that’s not the way you qualify for the World Cup. He was fired after the final game, and you can’t say it was the wrong decision.
And now we come to a subject which I’d just as soon avoid. But if you cover CONCACAF football, you have to face it sometime: the Jack Warner factor. Jack Warner is a vice president of FIFA, and the president of CONCACAF. He’s also a very rich businessman who spends a lot of money supporting Trinidad & Tobago football. Whenever something good happens to T&T, people always wonder if Warner fixed it. And people are wondering now about the T&T-Mexico result. You can read the comments on any online forum in the region. Wire service stories had Mexican players denying they threw the game. The leading Guatemalan online newspaper ran an editorial with the headline “Warner Can’t Be Trusted.” One report said a Guatemalan journalist sent an abusive e-mail to Warner himself. On GolTV, a Latin American cable soccer network, commentators very clearly implied Warner had bought the refs, and maybe Mexico too.
Do I trust Warner? Of course not. I don’t trust anyone in FIFA. Would you? On the other hand, I don’t for a second believe that Mexico sold the game. That’s just not their way. Like any other team in that situation, they were worried about injuries and cards, and didn’t go the extra mile. That’s all.
The refs? Here’s the evidence:
1) A linesman allowed an offside goal.
2) According to the Spanish-language live telecast, the other linesman got his flag up late on Stern John’s second-half offside goal. The whistle did seem to come later than usual in such situations.
3) With ten minutes left, and T&T ahead, a Marvin Andrews tackle sent the ball out for what seemed like a clear corner kick. A goal kick was awarded instead. According to the Spanish-language live telecast, the linesman signaled the corner, but was overruled by referee José Pineda, who was at least 40 yards away. The replay confirmed it should have been a corner kick.
4) Pineda signaled for two minutes of extra time at the end of the game. T&T had possession deep in the Mexico end for the first minute and a half. As soon as Mexico got possession, he blew the whistle, 30 seconds early.
Decide for yourself. It doesn’t seem like much to me. I don’t think the fix was in, although number 3) was pretty bizarre. But refs can be influenced, and in CONCACAF it doesn’t take much to get people wondering.
And that’s the point. T&T fans naturally don’t like it when someone points the finger at Warner. And as I’ve said before, there’s absolutely no doubt T&T deserved to win this game. But--and let me state this very clearly--the man to blame for all the speculation is Warner himself. He’s president of CONCACAF, and an open financial supporter of the T&T team. Any way you slice it, that’s a conflict of interest. It’s great for T&T, and great for CONCACAF, that there’s a guy out there willing to pour so much money into football. But no man who actively supports a team should head the confederation. It’s that simple.
Warner doesn’t help his cause by the way he runs the show. The Hexagonal draw was a perfect example. It was held behind closed doors, and when the schedule came out, lo and behold, T&T had the perfect final game. The best time to get Mexico at home was in the last round, where they almost certainly would have nothing to play for. Was it fixed? I don’t know. But if the draw had been conducted openly--if CONCACAF’s procedures were even in the slightest transparent--we wouldn’t have to wonder. There’s only one way to show you’re honest, and that’s to act honestly.
Like I said, I don’t think the fix was in for T&T-Mexico. I don’t know about the Hexagonal draw. But one thing about which there’s no doubt: T&T deserved to make the playoffs. They were more consistent than Guatemala, at least after Beenhakker came in, and they beat Guatemala in the crucial game in September. As for the draw advantage: T&T may have had Mexico last, but Guatemala had their shot too, at home to a weakened USA. If they’d won instead of drawn, they’d be in the playoffs right now. The Warriors unquestionably earned it on the field, and, as CONCACAF boosters, we hope they kick the living daylights out of Bahrain. And we hope they do it in a manner that leaves no room for suspicion.
And now some Hexagonal honors:
Luis Tejada’s bicycle kick against Mexico. Trap on the chest, bounce on the thigh, bounce on the foot, and boom. Has there ever been another one like it?
Honorable mentions (and very honorable they were):
Carlos Hernandez’ long-range volley vs. the USA
Carlos Ruiz’ bicycle kick vs. Costa Rica
Dennis Lawrence’s gallop vs. Panama
Fredy Garcia’s pirouette vs. Costa Rica
Russell Latapy’s solo twisty run vs. Guatemala
Jaime Lozano’s chip vs. T&T
DaMarcus Beasley’s set-piece finish vs. Mexico
Guatemala 2:1 Panama, with a breathtaking second half decided by Gonzalo Romero’s last-second goal.
Panama 0:0 Guatemala, an opening round megasnooze.
I’ve picked 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 strikers, but they don’t fit into a true 4-4-2. There was no outstanding fullback or true defensive midfielder in the competition. So I just picked the best performers.
Kasey Keller (USA). Rolled back the years with some memorable performances, including a classic against Costa Rica.
Rafael Márquez (Mexico). Showed his class in both defense and midfield. Still the best defender in the region.
Carlos Salcido (Mexico). The revelation of the Hexagonal, a young defender with strength, skill, and intelligence.
Luís Marín (Costa Rica). The old man was as good as ever, providing leadership and fine all-around play.
Gilberto Martínez (Costa Rica). Started slow, but by the end was living up to his Italian reputation. Quick, tough, and technical.
Julio Medina (Panama). His team didn’t score much, but the left-footed number 10 showed he was a natural playmaker.
Dwight Yorke (Trinidad & Tobago). The flamboyant one surprised by doing effective grunt work day in and day out.
Landon Donovan (USA). On and off, as usual, but when in form showed he was the best attacking midfielder in the region.
Jaime Lozano (Mexico). A quiet player who did almost everything right. A rare natural scorer from the wingback position. Didn’t play every game, but that was LaVolpe’s fault, not his.
Jared Borgetti (Mexico). Had been looking old in league play, but kept his reputation as the region’s classic centerforward.
Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala). Scorer, creator, inspiration, the most irreplaceable man in the tournament.
And, of course, some Hexagonal stats!
- In 30 matches there were only two penalty kick goals, and both occurred in the same game, Costa Rica-Panama.
- The teams scored 83 goals combined, compared to 73 in 2002 and 76 in 1998.
- There were only 4 draws in 30 matches, compared to 6 in 2002 and an amazing 13 in 1998.
- Panama scored only 4 goals and allowed 21, both Hexagonal records.
- The USA allowed only 6 goals, a Hexagonal record.
- Stern John (!) and Kikín Fonseca topped the scoring table with 6 goals each.
- Trinidad & Tobago had the most unbalanced scoring: Stern John scored 60 percent of his team’s goals.
- Costa Rica had the most balanced scoring, with 6 players with two or more goals: Paulo Wanchope, Roy Myrie, Álvaro Saborio, Carlos Hernández, Rónald Gómez, Walter Centeno.
- Mexico, USA, and Guatemala all had 9 different players who scored at least one goal.
- Guatemala, who finished fifth, had as many goals as the USA, who finished first.
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