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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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BRIGHT START FOR THE MINNOWS

Costa Rica pulled off the first major upset of the World Cup, surprising Uruguay, 3-1, in Fortaleza in a Group “D” game.

Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte and substitute Marcos Urena all scored in the second half to shock the Uruguayans, who reached the semifinals four years ago.  Two of Uruguay’s heroes at South Africa ’10 were non-factors; Diego Forlan, still recovering from the flu, was  substituted in the 60th minute, and Luis Suarez, 23 days removed from knee surgery, did not play.  [June 14]

Comment I:  The Ticos’ victory came 24 hours after Mexico defeated Cameroon, 1-0, to join Brazil–a 3-1 winner over Croatia in the tournament opener June 12–atop Group “A”.

The U.S. opens play Monday against Ghana and Honduras will face France on Sunday.  But at the moment, it’s a bright start for CONCACAF.  The Confederacion Norte-Centroamericana y del Caribe de Futbol has never had much respect from the rest of the world, which can point to the region’s thin World Cup record:  the USA’s semifinal adventure at the very first cup in 1930, then three quarterfinal appearances by Mexico and one by the Americans since.  At South Africa, Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. combined to win two games, lose five and tie four, with the Mexicans and Americans tumbling in the round of 16.

The victories by Costa Rica and Mexico may not mean much at a time when the combined FIFA rankings of CONCACAF’s four current World Cup finalists is a ponderous 94, but it’s temporary progress for a region still in search of a World Cup group seeding that doesn’t come by way of being a host (Mexico ’70 and ’86, USA ’94).

Comment II:  Earlier in the day, Colombia, a dark horse favorite, pounded Greece, 3-0, in Belo Horizonte.  The Group “C” game was played at breakneck speed, but it ended without incident.

That bodes well for the referee, Mark Geiger of New Jersey, who was assisted by linesman and fellow countryman Sean Hurd.  With a dreadful penalty-kick call by Yuichi Nishimura of Japan in the Brazil-Croatia match and two Mexican goals erroneously called offside by Wilmar Roldan of Colombia the next day, another solid performance by Geiger could get him into the middle for the knockout rounds–a first for an American referee.

 



THE USA’S RED, WHITE AND BLUE GREEK

Alkis Panagoulias, coach of the U.S. National Team from 1983 to 19985, has died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, at age 78.

The native of Greece  and naturalized U.S. citizen posted a 6-5-7 record as the USA’s coach, second in wins at the time to Walter Chyzowych (8-14-10 from 1976 to 1980).

Greek players were to wear black armbands in his memory during their upcoming European Championship quarterfinal match with Germany in Gdansk.   Panagoulias coached Greece from 1973 to 1981 and fom 1992 to 1994, guiding the Greeks to their first-ever World Cup appearance, in ’94.  He guided Olympiakos to Greek titles in 1982, ’83 and ’87, and he also coached Aris Thessaloniki and Iraklis.  [June 18]

Comment:  Panagoulias had the misfortune of presiding over perhaps the most frustrating and fruitless period in U.S. National Team history.  Worse still, it seemed as if no one cared–no one, that is, but Alketas “Alkis” Panagoulias.

A national team coach, of course, is paid to care.  But Panagoulias gave the U.S. Soccer Federation far more than it’s money’s worth in that department.  Chomping a cigar and sprinkling his brutally frank comments with profanities, the burly Greek battled with the federation and battled with the North American Soccer League, all the while leaving his players with no doubt as to who was in charge.  (He once told me in an interview that the team had “all these goddam California surfers,” such as Mike Fox, Paul Caligiuri, Kevin Crow, Jeff Hooker, Dale Ervine and Steve Sharp.)  Above all, he was unabashedly patriotic when it came to his adopted country and absolutely passionate as an advocate of the national team, trying with little success to explain to the media and public in general its importance in a country overwhelmingly indifferent to soccer.

A player for Aris before moving to America to earn a degree at NYU, Panagoulias turned to coaching and steered the New York Greek Americans to three straight U.S. National Open Cups beginning in 1967, back when that cup was more or less the championship for the country’s ethnic semipro clubs.

In 1983, with the U.S. having played only one match since a World Cup qualifier in 1980, Panagoulias was chosen by the USSF to succeed Chyzowych as coach of both the national and Olympic teams–a foreign-born coach with international experience and, presumably, an understanding of the American player.  And in a unique twist, his players were to play in the NASL as Team America.

Panagoulias recalled in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, “It was very difficult.  I first had to sell the league people and owners on the idea that the national team has to be the No. 1 team in the country.  We needed their players.  I was almost crying when I talked about the national team.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t know from the national team.”

NASL club owners dragged their feet over what some regarded as a flawed grandstand play, most of the Cosmos players invited to join this grand experiment chose to stay in New York and Team America, based in Washington DC and featuring naturalized Americans like Alan Merrick and Alan Green and national team regulars Arnie Mausser, Perry Van der Beck, Dan Canter and Jeff Durgan, stumbled to a league-worst 10-20 record in their only season.

The following year, with Olympic soccer’s amateur restrictions rapidly crumbling, the U.S. was allowed to field its national team at the Los Angeles Games.  The Americans went 1-1-1 but it wasn’t enough to get them into the quarterfinals, and a golden opportunity to put soccer on front pages across the nation–or at least get the sport some airtime on Olympic broadcaster ABC–was missed.

Then in 1985, the U.S., needing just a draw at home to advance to the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, before a small but overwhelmingly pro-Ticos crowd in Torrance, Calif.

That heartbreaking defeat ended Panagoulias’ run as U.S. coach, but he bowed out knowing that he was right.  The sport desperately needed the rallying point of a successful national team, not yet another NASL championship by the Cosmos.  And without one, soccer in America would remain largely rudderless, a game much more fun to play than to watch.  Unfortunately for Panagoulias, it would take many years, other coaches and several generations of American players for the country to actually experience what this passionate Greek had been talking about.