Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 

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SHOOTIN’ HOOPS
The U.S. National Men’s and Women’s teams will have a new look when they play their next domestic matches in late May.  For the first time since Nike took over as the USA’s uniform supplier, both teams will feature the same design and concept.  In this case, the jersey will feature horizontal red and white stripes with a blue crew neck collar; the shorts are solid blue and the socks white with a blue band at the top.  The men will debut their uniforms May 26 when they play host to Scotland in a friendly at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL.  The women will sport the new look the following day in a friendly against China at PPL Park in Chester, PA.  [April 16]
Comment:  For Nike, which has been getting it wrong for so long, perhaps the tinkering can end for the next 10 or 15 years.  he U.S. jersey has always cried out for horizontal red and white stripes.  Given the most prominent feature of our flag, what could be more distinctively American?  The closest the team has ever come to that, however, was at the 1994 World Cup, when adidas, the supplier at the time, gave the team vertical red and white stripes.  (The shorts, in a weird nod to Levi Strauss, were denim blue.)  Worse, the jersey stripes were wavy, as if adidas didn’t want the U.S. National Team to be confused with Chivas Guadalajara or the Paraguayan National Team.  (Paraguay failed to qualify for  the ’94 World Cup, and neither, for obvious reasons, did Chivas).  American soccer apparently has had an aversion to horizontal red and white stripes–call them hoops– since January 1992 with the introduction of the World Cup USA ’94 mascot, a Warner Brothers’ creation called Striker, the World Cup Pup.  Striker was probably the most easily forgotten feature of the World Cup once the tournament began, but at the time, his first appearance was attacked, chiefly by Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, because of the horizontal stripes on his jersey.  Typically American, wrote Gardner:  Given a World Cup, their mascot trots out wearing a rugby jersey.
Some, but not many, pointed out that such storied sides as Glasgow Celtic and Queens Park Rangers–Brits like Gardner–have proudly worn horizontal stripes for decades.  Didn’t matter at the time.  The first-time hosts were desperate to be politically soccer correct, and so Striker’s design was quickly altered, giving him red sleeves and a white trunk–no stripes at all.  A silly over-reaction.
Nearly two decades later, it is hoped that the U.S. can take the field May 26 in red and white hoops and no one will mistake them for ruggers.  Given time, and a few victories, they’ll be unmistakably Americans.

Clint Dempsey, in the USA's new garb

Striker, in his previous life as a rugby player

The reformed Striker