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THE BOY WITH THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE BULL’S-EYE

Christian Pulisic scored both goals to power the U.S. National Team to a 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside Denver to enable the Americans to close out the first half of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in third place, six points behind front-running Mexico and one back of Costa Rica.

The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder struck in the 52nd and 62nd minutes, lifting his tally in this World Cup qualifying cycle to five goals in eight matches.

The U.S. victory sets up a showdown with Mexico three nights later at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, where the Americans are 0-5-2 in World Cup qualifiers and 1-8-2 all-time.  [June 9]

 

Comment:  If he didn’t already have one, Pulisic slapped a big red, white and blue bull’s-eye on his back with his performance against Trinidad & Tobago, a must-win game that righted a USA ship that had all but capsized in November when the Americans opened the Hexagonal with a last-minute 2-1 loss to Mexico at home and a humiliating 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

If Pulisic–5-foot-8, 140 pounds and the heir apparent to now-retired Mexico tormentor Landon Donovan–was treated harshly by T&T defenders, that will be nothing compared to the welcome El Tri has in store.  Mexico (4-0-1, 13 points), will all but punch its ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia with a victory, and coach Juan Carlos Osorio knows stopping the USA’s most in-form player, regardless of his age and international inexperience, is key.  Also working against the U.S. (2-2-1, 7 points) will be the sky-high altitude, heat and the choking smog of Mexico City, as well as history.  Though the Americans eked out a 1-0 win in a 2012 friendly and a scoreless draw four years ago in its last WCQ game there, the Mexicans are 39-2-7 against all CONCACAF opponents in qualifying at the Azteca.

Perhaps most ominous for Pulisic and his mates is the current climate.  Relations between the two nations have never been worse (well, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 was pretty bad), thanks to President Donald Trump’s insulting Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and his threats to make Mexico pay for a border wall, not to mention a vow to levy a 20 percent border tax on imports from Mexico.  Many in the sellout crowd of 87,000-plus will let the U.S. players know all about it when they emerge from the tunnel at Azteca, a place where insults and rowdy chants fly as freely as beer bottles, batteries and bags of urine.  (There was, of course, the 2004 Olympic qualifier at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco where 60,000 taunted the U.S. under-23s with chants of “Osama, Osama,” but that’s another story.)

Given these circumstances, coming out of this caldron with any points at all would be a miracle.  For U.S. coach Bruce Arena, his greatest hope would have to be seeing the key to his team’s final four qualifiers, the speedy, heady, wonder-waif Pulisic, walk off the field at the end in one piece.

 

 



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.

 

 

 



A MEMO TO WORLD CUP ALL-STAR TEAM VOTERS

The Netherlands became the first team to win a World Cup match in regulation after trailing in the 88th minute when it shocked Mexico, 2-1, in Fortaleza and moved on to a quarterfinal meeting with Costa Rica while the Mexicans were eliminated in the second round for the sixth consecutive World Cup.

Four minutes into added-on time, Arjen Robben was controversially fouled along the goal line by veteran Mexican defender Rafael Marquez, and substitute Klaas jan Huntelaar buried the resulting penalty kick for the winner.

Mexico dominated much of the first half and was rewarded three minutes into the second on a sparkling left-footed strike by Giovani dos Santos from the top of the penalty area.  That only awakened the Dutch, however, and after 40 minutes of increasing pressure they drew level through Wesley Sneijder.  The Netherlands’ 10th corner kick (to Mexico’s two) was cleared to the top of the area and Sneijder ripped a shot first-time inside the left post.  [June 29]

Comment:  So much for El Tri, but more important to soccer fans, so much for the hottest goalkeeper at Brasil ’14.  Francisco Guillermo Ochoa Magana.

Memo Ochoa helped get Mexico a 1-0 victory over Cameroon, a scoreless draw with tournament host and favorite Brazil, and a must-win 3-1 triumph over Croatia, and his heroics continued into the second round until Sneijder and jan Huntelaar got off shots that no mortal could stop.  Though no player whose team was eliminated in the round of 16 made the 2010 World Cup all-star team, Ochoa, with no more miracles to offer, could make the 2014 World Cup all-star team based on only these four matches.  (Germany’s Manuel Neuer, however, may ultimately stand in his way.)

This World Cup was sweet retribution for the bushy-haired Memo.  At the 2006 World Cup, he was Mexico’s 20-year-old understudy, its No. 3 goalkeeper.  Four year laters, for South Africa, he was controversially No. 2, behind the veteran Oscar Perez, a decision that mystified and disappointed his many fans.  This time, he made 10 official saves–many of them acrobatic–in four games, and while perhaps his greatest save was made, point-blank, by his face against the Dutch, he stamped his name on this World Cup.

So Ochoa leaves a loser.  Only he sparkled in the biggest shop window of them all.  After seven years at Club America and three in France, his club, Ajaccio, was relegated to the second division last spring, and Ochoa announced his intent to leave.  What kind of impression did Memo make while with Ajaccio?  One Ajaccio supporter announced that he would sell his home and everything in it–including his wife and kids–for $13.6 million in an effort to help raise what he believes would be the funds needed to keep Ochoa in an Ajaccio shirt.

 



BACK IN THEIR HEADS?

Seventy-five years of frustration came to an end as the United States shocked Mexico, 1-0, in a friendly at Estadio Azteca for its first victory in Mexico in 25 tries.  Midfielder Michael Orozco Fiscal, who plays in the Mexican First Division for San Luis, scored the game’s lone goal with an awkward left-footed shot from close range.

The Mexicans’ defeat was only their ninth in 120 international matches at the Azteca, which opened in 1966.  The USA’s modest record against Mexico improved to 1-19-1 at the legendary Mexico City stadium, 1-23-1 in Mexico and 16-32-12 overall.

Mexico dominated for most of the evening, but in the 79th minute a trio of second-half substitutes pushed the U.S. in front.  Brek Shea beat Severo Meza on the left side of the penalty area and slid the ball across to Terrence Boyd, whose back heel found Orozco Fiscal near the far post.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who brilliantly denied Mexico scoring ace Javier Hernandez in the 85th and 89th minutes, and a new-look U.S. back line that featured Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu in the middle, helped preserve the shutout.  [August 15]

Comment:  It was only a friendly, and neither side was at full strength.  But the fact remains that the U.S. at long last shattered the notion of El-Tri invincibility against their hated neighbor on home soil.  Fourteen months after Mexico ended a run of failure north of the border with a 4-2 humiliation of the U.S. in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl, the Americans might just have gotten back into the Mexicans’ heads.