Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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    The group stage is over for CONCACAF, and not a moment too soon. Twelve games and exactly one win, over no less a world power than Iran. (Revenge for 1998!) We lost to Europe, to South America, to Africa. We didn't lose to Asia--but for the first time since the tournament expanded in 1982, Asia will have a better overall group stage record. Check your thesaurus under "disaster," and start your list of synonyms now; you may be done by 2007.

    The failure of Costa Rica, and the difficulties of Trinidad & Tobago, were hardly unexpected, although the way it happened was surprising enough. Costa Rica, who had transformed themselves from a free attacking side into a dogged bunch of grafters, gave up goals in buckets. Paulo Wanchope, who for months had looked completely washed-up, in fact performed quite well. There was even some encouraging play from one of the young defenders, Michael Umaña. But overall they were just outmanned. You could fault Guimaraes' defensive tactics, but even while playing it safe they gave up 9 goals.

    As for T&T, they proved tougher than anyone could have thought possible, and nicked a historic draw in a difficult group. Against Paraguay, though, they might have done better. To combat England and Sweden, Leo Beenhakker changed from the slow buildup to the long ball, but versus the South Americans he might have been better advised to stick to basics. You saw what happened in the second half, particularly after Russell Latapy entered. A little more poseession, with some intent to attack, could have unlocked Paraguay earlier. No one could fault the effort, and the Warriors got much of the world on their side, but a goal or two would have made the experience a lot more enjoyable.

    But that's life, I guess. Anything you get from your number 3 and 4 is a bonus. But surely we could rely on Mexico and the USA, our two great standard-bearers. Yes, yes, we knew they were way too high in the FIFA rankings (that'll change with the new system, not to mention with the results of the last two weeks). And the few delusive fanatics aside, we didn't expect either of them to win the World Cup. But we expected something a little better than embarrassment.

    The USA's failure was particularly dispiriting. If ever a team were riding for a fall, it was the Yanks, who in 2002 had gone much farther than their talent was worth. But if by international standards their skills were indifferent, at least you could always count on their cohesion, drive, and fortitude. After the back-to-the-wall draw against Italy, they were ready to teach Ghana a lesson. The Africans were enormously talented, but inexperienced at this level, and had to be brittle. Just give'em a dose of the old fighting spirit, and watch them fold.

    In fact, that's exactly what happened--the other way around. Ghana's first goal was a pure giveaway, and by two of the most experienced and poised players on the team. Claudio Reyna got caught in possession, Kasey Keller positioned himself badly, and it was 0:1. Nothing could have been more shocking, or more ominous.

    Near the end of the half, for just a brief moment, the flame flickered. DaMarcus Beasley, useless so far, broke loose and sent a perfect pass to Clint Dempsey, who smashed it home with authority. Now Ghana were in trouble. Even after a shameful PK call gifted them the go-ahead goal, you felt the Yanks were ready for an all-out assault. In the second half they'd test the debutantes to the limit. Italy were ahead of the Czech Republic, so the second round could be only forty-five minutes away.

    Forty-five light years, maybe. Never did a team look less likely to come from behind. I suppose they were trying--professionals rarely give up--but if so, it just shows how inadequate they really were. One half-chance, as Brian McBride hit the post. The rest was silence, the silence of reputations dissolving. Bruce Arena, Landon Donovan, heck, even Freddy Adu. Didn't the USA have a soccer team once?

    OK, it's not that bad. They got caught in a tough group, played poorly, and got beat. It's payment for 2002, and we still have our memories of Korea/Japan. But you wonder what the next step is. This team breezed through the qualifiers, and there's no reason to believe the 2010 edition won't do so as well. But unless the USA can get regular competition at the highest levels, they'll find it hard to progress. Possibly a foreign coach could help--unfortunately, the logical choice, Jürgen Klinsmann, is a bit occupied right now. José Mourinho, maybe? Guus Hiddink, if we can get the CIA to kidnap his assistant and frame the Russian mafia? Sven-Goran Eriksson (OK, that was a joke)?

    And speaking of foreign coaches, we come at last to Mexico. Back home the USA has their number, but at the World Cup they're our most trusted representative. Group winners in 1994 and 2002, brave underdogs in 1998, the Tri have always been the last best hope. Well, they're still in the competition, but hope is on life support. And it's about to be disconnected. The second-round opponent is that team with the blue-and-white stripes, and they're pretty good. Under normal circumstances we'd give our boys a chance--after all, they usually play their best against top opponents. And look at the record: they beat Argentina in the 2004 Copa America, and lost only on penalty kicks in the 2005 Confederations Cup. It's 2006--what's changed?

    The lineups, for one thing. LaVolpe just can't seem to stop tinkering. Against Portugal, he decided to bench the inconsistent Sinha and move Rafa Márquez into midfield, where the captain might be able to help in attack. Except that meant he had to put Francisco "El Maza" Rodríguez in the back line to replace Márquez. Approximately 100 million Mexicans will tell you that Rodríguez has no business being on the national team, and they're right. It took only 6 minutes for him to make the error that led to Portugal's first goal. And although he somehow managed not to concede any more, he was obviously overmatched. When the second half began, it was, inevitably, Sinha for Rodríguez, and both offense and defense perked up a bit. But you can't afford to weaken your side on a whim.

    Still, you can hardly blame LaVolpe for trying to shake things up. With Jared Borgetti still injured, and Guillermo Franco ineffective, there's no reliable striker. Kikín Fonseca, when he plays in his natural centerforward spot, looks OK, nothing dramatic. Omar Bravo, always a modest talent, seems to have reached the limit of his usefulness. Add the chronic shortage of creativity, and Iran may be the only team you can beat.

    Two thoughts: 1) this team peaked about a year ago; 2) they could use Cuauhtémoc Blanco. I actually like LaVolpe (anyone who alienates 100% of the press can't be all bad), but he should have swallowed his pride and put Cuauh on the plane. Then at least he'd have another weapon, even if half the time it'd be pointed at his heart. Right now, there's just not enough punch.

    But remember what we said: Mexico usually plays best against the best. Right now, Argentina is the best. With Márquez where he belongs, the back line is strong. They won the 2004 Copa America meeting with a conservative game plan and a beautiful free kick by Ramón Morales. I say start Morales: he's a veteran, he's fearless, and although not the best defender he can create a chance or two. If Borgetti can't go, keep Fonseca as your number 9, and support him with Franco. Either way, start Sinha, with Pavel Pardo and Gerardo Torrado as destroyers in midfield. Invoke the spirit of 1978, when a resourceful Argentina had a third-string keeper named Ricardo LaVolpe. It's CONCACAF's last stand. If you win, the nightmare is over. If you lose, hey, it's over too.



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