Every month, we'll pose a question or make a statement about something in soccer that will be debated by two individuals from the same walk of life. Be it a coach, player, general manager or whomever, the two will each give their side of the story, so to speak.
In this case, we've enlisted the help of two of the top soccer commentators in the business. In one corner, wearing the bright red of a Costa Rica jersey under his shirt and tie ... Andres Cantor, who has been the world's premier Hispanic soccer broadcaster for the last 14 years for Univision and now for Telemundo, but also called the 2000 Olympics in English last year. In the other corner, wearing the classic white of the U.S. Men's National Team's home jersey under his khaki trench-coat ... Jack Edwards, an 11-year veteran broadcaster of ESPN who serves as ESPN/abc's lead play-by-play announcer for all U.S. Men's National Team and MLS Broadcasts.
This month's question: With one Matchday left in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, who is the best team in the region and who will be the third team to qualify for the 2002 World Cup?
Andres Cantor, pro-Costa Rica:
"Costa Rica is not only the best team in CONCACAF right now (win or lose against Jamaica in their final game they will win the group), but it has to be considered the comeback team of the year. In the present days of three to five important games a week in the world's theater, probably few remember that basically this same Costa Rican team was beaten by Barbados (by far one of the weakest and less prepared teams of the competition) in the Semifinal round of qualifying and that they only made it to the final six by defeating Guatemala at the beginning of this year at the Orange Bowl in Miami in a dramatic playoff game.
The players, then and now, are almost the same. So we must credit coach Alexandre Guimaraes for turning this team around in a hurry and taking it from near elimination in the previous round under Brazilian Gilson Sequeira to the World Cup in Korea and Japan via some incredible performances.
On their way to the top, the "Ticos" not only played the best soccer of the region, but broke Mexico's invincibility in Azteca Stadium, went unbeaten against Honduras in the Central American "classics," easily beat the Caribbean teams and only lost one game (out of four) at the hand -- literally -- of Clint Mathis of the USA.
If Mexico has enjoyed an overpowering edge when playing in the altitude of Mexico City, Costa Rica has been able to make its tiny Ricardo Saprissa Stadium its own fortress. It was there that perhaps the best of the "Ticos" appeared. Playing at home (and even away), they have shown a great deal of maturity as a team that was unthinkable only a year ago and with the same group of guys.
This team knows exactly what they are looking for when they take the pitch. They have the appearance of a well-managed and better-trained squad. "Guima" has been able to bring out the best of each player and they have responded without stellar performances, but with solid and consistent play one game after the other. Everyone from veteran Hernan Medford to superstar Paulo Wanchope to newcomer Gilberto Martinez to Rolando Fonseca has contributed enormously to making Costa Rica the best team to play collectively in CONCACAF.
Undoubtedly a step below comes the U.S., whose performance ratio was like Costa Rica's but the other way around. The U.S. went from edging Guatemala, tying Costa Rica and facing elimination in the last Semifinal Round match against Barbados, to a first half of this year that looked like a walk in the park. At the start of the final round, the team was piling points and wins and getting the job done without playing particularly good soccer, which in qualifying many times is the least of anyone's worries.
But a string of injuries and consecutive losses had all of a sudden made the team look as ordinary as ever. Luckily, the World Cup spot was clinched at home without having to go down to the wire and to Trinidad, again, for the clincher. I'm sure that with healthy players this U.S. team has the potential to become a whole lot better.
And now we all await the Nov. 11 showcase between Mexico and Honduras. Ninety minutes separates one or the other from the final qualifying spot. Although Mexico can make it through with a tie, it cannot play loosely against the best counter-attacking team of the six (CONCACAF) finalists.
Honduras has had trouble taking charge of matches and playing in tight spaces, but Mexico has not enjoyed the finishing prowess of other eras in Azteca Stadium, so it will be a test of character. A final between two good teams that should not have been in this predicament. A do or die match after a year and a half of qualifying. The team that wants it the most will prevail at the end.
Jack Edwards, pro-USA:
"Costa Rica is the best team in the region, but that doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot right now. In fact, it may make the goals clearer for the United States.
Costa Rica proved it was the best by doing the heretofore impossible, winning a World Cup Qualifier at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City; by playing classy, aggressive soccer on the road as well as at home; and by finishing the deal dominantly and conclusively at its first opportunity (you may remember the Saprissa shooting gallery/quagmire in which Brad Friedel slipped and slid heroically for 90 minutes on Sept. 5).
But who's going to remember if the United States qualified first, second, or third out of CONCACAF a year from now? Only those dinosaurs (like Sports Illustrated Senior Columnist Frank Deford and his ilk) who hate soccer will contort themselves and their publications in order to find any wisp of a cloud in an otherwise beautiful sky. Anyone who understands the sport knows that qualifying is a pass/fail test. You're either in or you're out. We're in.
Here's how not finishing first makes the goals clearer for the U.S.: Humility is a good thing going into a World Cup. It was clear, even in the first five minutes of the Jamaica game in Foxboro, that opponents study video of U.S. breakdowns and attempt to duplicate those situations. Coach Bruce Arena addressed previous breakdowns directly and cleaned up most of them quickly.
The shocking defensive collapse against Honduras, the inability to compete from a depth-challenged position at Costa Rica, and the year-long struggle to generate consistent offense will give the U.S. more specific situations to work on.
And if there's one thing we, as Americans, can put our faith in … it is that we can outwork anybody in the world. That has become the singular character trait of this team. Give the U.S. seven more months to fix the holes and get (and stay) healthy, and I have a feeling we'll all be proud of the work they do in Korea and Japan. And then we will know who's the best from this region.
Elegant? Tactically spectacular? Technically magical? None of the above. But this U.S. team puts pressure on its opponents all over the field to create its chances. The players show relentless willingness to put themselves in jeopardy to win the ball. U.S. players are playing smarter than they ever have before, being sure in the back third, creative in the middle third, and dangerous in the attacking third. Combine this rate of improvement with the red-white-and-blue-collar work ethic, and that late-summer stumble -- in retrospect -- may turn out to be a blessing, well-disguised.
As for the traditional power, Mexico, it needs only to tie to advance to the World Cup Finals. Honduras plays, by far, the most entertaining brand of ball in CONCACAF (they, it seems, would rather win 5-4 than 1-0), but chance-taking never pays against Mexico. I can't see Honduras winning at Azteca. But then again, I didn't foresee Trinidad & Tobago winning at Honduras on Matchday 9 as the Hondurans hit the crossbar five times.
Anything goes, but I think we'll see more Green in 2002 than Blue and White.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (USA's World Cup Qualifying)
2) Word Association (w/ WNT midfielder Shannon MacMillan)
3) Cobi's Book Club (w/ MNT midfielder Cobi Jones)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ U-23 MNT goalkeeper D.J. Countess)
5) DJ for a Day (w/ WNT midfielder Lorrie Fair)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ MNT midfielder John O'Brien)
7) Mark That Calendar (2002 World Cup final draw -- Dec. 1)
8) Point-Counterpoint (w/ commentators Andres Cantor and Jack Edwards)
9) From the Bleachers (w/ U.S. Soccer fans Keiran Downie & Jeniffer Huie)
10) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (U.S. WCQ history)
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