A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A. If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
This month we look ahead towards the final round of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Who's the best team? What stadium is the most difficult to play at? What opposing players will the U.S. need to be most aware of? We've got 'em all ranked on a scale of one to five, with five being the best or most difficult.
Mexico – 5
When the U.S. and Mexico square off in qualifying on March 27 in Mexico City, the Tricolores will be trying to do something they haven’t done in just under four years – defeat the Americans. Since the last time the two countries met in qualifying on July 1, 2001 (a 1-0 Mexico victory), the U.S. has shutout their southern rivals in the last four meetings, grabbing three victories. In fact, in total over the five-game span, the U.S. has held the Tricolores scoreless for 434 minutes. Despite the recent success against Mexico, the USA’s overall record is 11-28-10 and no doubt their toughest matches in qualifying will be against the Tricolores. Mexico has the players (Jaime Lozano and Jared Borgetti are tied for the scoring lead during qualifying in the region with 10 goals each) the experience (Mexico have qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals 12 times – more often than world powers such as France and England) and the virtually unbeatable home field advantage with the high-altitude Estadio Azteca (see below). Oh, and this will also be the first match between the two border rivals to be played in Mexico since the U.S. pulled off the 2-0 upset in the 2002 World Cup, so we’re thinking the fans will be somewhat less cordial than usual. Kasey, duck!
Costa Rica – 4
While losing at home to Mexico hurts, you’ve got to assume Costa Rica be able to bounce back and will make it difficult for any of the other four teams to take away three points in their visit to San Jose - something the U.S. has never been able to do. And remember, just four years ago it was Costa Rica who won the final round, suffering only one loss in 10 matches, and then went on to the World Cup and defeated China and drew with eventual semifinalist Turkey before giving up five goals in a loss to Brazil. Those five goals pushed Costa Rica’s goal differential to –1 forcing them to fly home leaving their fans with nightmares of Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Those nightmares continued for a bit as Costa Rica struggled early in qualifying, but the dangerous firepower duo of Paulo Wanchope (six goals in qualifying) and Andy Herron (if he can stay healthy), will be looking to push the Ticos to their second straight World Cup.
Guatemala – 3
Guatemala surprised people by getting past Canada and Honduras in the semifinal round, and are now concentrating on getting to their first World Cup. If they are going to secure one of the 3.5 berths from CONCACAF, talented striker Carlos Ruiz will need to throw his teammates on his back and carry them there. The U.S. holds a 7-4-3 record against Guatemala, but all four losses came in their first four meetings from 1977-1988. Since then, the U.S. hasn’t dropped a single match at home or away, including a 3-0-3 record in qualifying.
Panama – 3
If you look at the last match between Panama and the U.S., you might think the two meetings would provide a quick and easy six points for head coach Bruce Arena and the boys. While the U.S. did pulverize them 6-0 at home in the semis, if you go back one game earlier you’ll remember that the U.S. was extremely lucky to get out of Panama City with a point. Were it not for the right-place, right-time toe-poke by substitute Cobi Jones in the final moments, the USA’s trip through the semifinal round would have been a lot more treacherous. So, which Panama team will show up in the final round? It’s hard to say, but Bruce will no doubt be preparing for the one he met in Panama City.
Trinidad & Tobago – 2
Probably the weakest team in the group – they needed late goals to beat St. Kitts & Nevis and St. Vincent/Grenadines in the semifinal stage – T&T shouldn’t be much of a problem for the U.S. They already got the tough match out of the way, defeating the Soca Warriors 2-1 on Feb. 9 in Trinidad. The other three points won’t be easy to get, but playing in the friendly confines of the U.S., Bruce should be able to continue the MNT’s 24-game unbeaten streak (16-0-8) against Caribbean teams.
Estadio Azteca (Mexico) – 5
Estadio Azteca gets five out of five. Why? Because every time the U.S. has played at the stadium - or anywhere in Mexico for that matter – the players have barely ever left with points. The U.S. has never beaten Mexico in Mexico, going 0-21-1, which includes a 0-7-1 record in Azteca. The combination of the heat, high altitude and boisterous fans makes Mexico’s home stadium the toughest of the tough.
Estadio Ricardo Saprissa (Costa Rica) – 5
Estadio Ricardo Saprissa took a little dent in its armor during the first match of final round qualifying when Costa Rica fell to Mexico at home for the first time since 1961. That loss could be good or bad for the U.S., who is 0-5-2 in their seven meetings in Costa Rica. The positive thought is that maybe now the U.S. can widen the crack started by Mexico and get their first win in Costa Rica as well. The glass-is-half-empty thought would be that Costa Rica will be even more determined to make sure they don’t lose at home again during qualifying, making it that much more difficult for the MNT.
Estadio Rommel Fernandez (Panama) – 3
The U.S. has only played one game in Estadio Rommel Fernandez and it isn’t a match that Panama players or fans are soon to forget. After being almost certain they’d be celebrating one of their biggest wins ever, Jones’ tap-in in the 92nd minute of play crushed any thoughts of dancing in the streets. Panama knows if it is going to have any chance of getting to the World Cup, it can’t let something like that happen again. Look for everyone from the players, coaches, fans and groundskeepers to be gunning for the U.S. when they return on June 8. The wild atmosphere will make it a difficult task for the U.S. to bring home one point, let alone three.
Mateo Flores (Guatemala) – 3
Playing anywhere in Guatemala hasn’t been kind to the U.S., with the MNT going 1-4-2 in seven matches. But bottom line, anything is better than the stadium in Mazatenango, the 10,000-seat stadium where the U.S. played their last qualifier at after a 3-hour winding bus ride to get there. Like any venue in Central America, it will be difficult for the U.S. to take home points, but they’ve done it before in Guatemala, so don’t be surprised if they do it again.
Queen’s Park Oval (Trinidad & Tobago) –1
The lowest rating, but not just because the U.S. already came away with three points in a 2-1 victory in T&T on Feb. 9. First, when the name of your stadium has the word “queen” in it, you’re not exactly injecting much fear into any opponents that will play there. Combine that with the fans being set far away from the field and being a bit less rambunctious than other fans in the region, the only real deterrent to cause some problems is the unbearable heat. Heck, even a huge party like Carvnival wasn’t able to help T&T distract the USA from the task at hand.
Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala) – 5
One of the most well-known strikers in the United States due to his scoring genius in MLS with the L.A. Galaxy, Ruiz holds the key to Guatemala’s World Cup chances on his right foot. As he goes, so does Guatemala. The bad thing for Guatemala is that everyone else knows it, too, and will be looking to shut him down. The question is: Can teams shut down Ruiz for 90 minutes? We're not talking about 87 minutes. Not 88. Not 89. You have to be aware of Ruiz for the entire game because can change the complexion of a game at any moment. He’s the Little Fish and as long as he can keep the rest of his teammates’ heads above water, they might have a chance to slip into that final playoff spot.
Jaime Lozano and Jared Borgetti (Mexico) – 5
It didn’t take long for Costa Rica to find out first hand how dangerous Mexico’s top two players - Jaime Lozano and Jared Borgetti - can be. Actually it took about two minutes. The duo scored in consecutive minutes (8th and 9th), providing Mexico with all the scoring it would need to start of final round qualifying with a victory. As mentioned above, Lozano and Borgetti are tied for the lead for goals scored in CONCACAF qualifying with 10 each.
Paulo Cesar Wanchope (Costa Rica) – 4
There’s a reason Wanchope holds the Costa Rican transfer fee record for his move from Herediano to Derby County. He scores goals. He scored 28 goals in 80 games for Derby before moving on to Malaga in Spain and currently is tied for third on the scoring charts in the region during qualifying with six (tied with Ruiz among others). If he keeps scoring enough to get Costa Rica back to the World Cup, the 29-year-old Wanchope will not only follow in the footsteps of Costa Rican legend Rolando Fonseca, but maybe continue on to start his own path.
Roberto Brown (Panama) - 3
Panama’s leading scorer in qualifying with five goals, Brown has proven he is one of the players that will have to pick up the slack left by veteran captain Julio Dely Valdés, who recently retired. Brown showed his ability against the U.S. in their first meeting in the semis, helping Panama outshoot the U.S. by a whopping 13-5 margin, but he’ll have to do much more (like win games where you outshoot your opponent almost three-fold) to get his squad to their first World Cup.
Stern John (Trinidad & Tobago) – 3
Crew fans will remember Stern John’s scoring exploits during his time in Columbus, but if they want to see the U.S. move on to the World Cup, they better hope those times are nothing more than happy memories. Against the U.S. on Feb. 9, John demonstrated how he became the all-time leading scorer for T&T over the years, as he was able to put a couple dangerous headers on frame. In the rematch, the U.S. defenders will need to do a better job of marking up on John or we could be in for a disastrous upset.