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Monday, January 11, 2010

January 10, 2010
World Cup Qualifying 2010 Review: The Semifinal Round

[This is the third post in a multi-part review on the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.]

After the first two rounds, the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers entered the first group phase in which the 12 semifinalists were divided into three groups and the top two in each group advanced to the Hexagonal. The strength of the groups varied from a moderately balanced Group 1 (setting the USA aside), a highly competitive Group 2, and a pathetically unbalanced Group 3. (I also labeled the groups A/B/C instead of 1/2/3 that FIFA used, so if I lapse into doing that my apologies.)

There were a few trends from the semifinal round that persisted into the Hexagonal. There were very few draws (seven out of 36 matches played, or 19.4%), of which just two were goalless. Also, the home team won 70% of the time in the semifinal round, and in Group 2 the rate was 75%. (In Group 1, the home team won 57% of the time, and 42% of the time in Group 3.) In this qualifying cycle the home advantage was extremely strong, which featured in the high percentage of definite results and home wins. It was possible to advance to the next round by winning all of the home matches and picking off a point or two on the road -- and in a couple of groups, that's exactly what happened.

Group 1

Group 1 contained three participants of the last Hexagonal -- USA, Guatemala, and Trinidad & Tobago. Cuba was making its first appearance in the semifinal round since the 1998 cycle. The USA were always going to advance out of such a group, and they duly qualified for the Hexagonal with two matches to spare. (The loss on the road to Trinidad & Tobago was annoying but irrelevant.) The Americans' performance was far from their best, however. They labored to score wins in Guatemala and Cuba, only hit their stride at home to Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba, and then played indifferently in the final two games against T&T and Guatemala. The USA could afford to play in first gear in this round, but they needed better finishing ability for the Hexagonal. The qualifiers also marked the demotion of Freddy Adu from the national team picture.

The second qualifying slot for the Hexagonal was going to be between Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala, and Cuba. Of the three, Cuba were clearly on the outside looking in. They were going to be outmatched by all three of their opponents, and they could only score multiple goals on one occasion in the semifinal round. And of course, it was never a question of whether Cuban players would defect, but when and how many. That said, Cuba scored their lone win after the defections, a 2-1 victory against Guatemala that crippled the chapines' chances of advancing to the Hexagonal. That match was the most sensational result of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, next to the El Salvador-Panama series in the second round.

The beneficiary of that match was Trinidad & Tobago who, despite dropping home points to Guatemala, won enough away points to wrest second place away from Guatemala. Trinidad & Tobago prioritized the present over the future by recalling its aging stars, which got the job done (I don't think they would have defeated the USA without Yorke and Latapy) but only delayed the inevitable. T&T began their struggles against Central American opposition in this round when they failed to defeat Guatemala home or away, but the away result did feel more like a win in this case.

Guatemala have to be the biggest disappointment in this round. They were a younger squad than Trinidad & Tobago and perhaps a more balanced squad as well. But there were some moments of under-performance that hurt them badly in the race for second spot. They could have snatched a point at home to the USA before one of the Guatemalan players managed to get himself sent off, which changed the complexion of the game. In their next home match, they fell behind to Cuba before turning that match around, and then they dropped two points against Trinidad & Tobago (a side they routed at home in the 2005 Hexagonal). Despite these results, they still had the inside track on second place -- until the match in Cuba. Guatemala looked like a nervous side in that darkened stadium and gave the Cubans too much space, which they took advantage of right at the end through Allianni Urguelles. The match marked the end of Guatemala's World Cup aspirations and the end of Ramón Maradiaga at the helm.

Group 2

Group 2 was by far the toughest group of the semifinal round, composed of Mexico, Canada, Honduras, and Jamaica. This was reflected in the high number of tight and evenly played matches, of which only three matches of the 12 played were decided by more than a two goal margin. Two of the matches were draws leaving seven matches that were narrow one-goal victories. All of the Group 2 participants won their home matches. Except Canada.

I feel sorry for Canada. This was probably their best national squad since 1998 (better than the one that won the 2000 Gold Cup), but once again they landed in the most difficult of the three semifinal groups. In a round where away points would be at a premium, home performance would become absolutely critical. Canada's chances were crippled when they could only draw 1-1 to Jamaica, and they were ripped to shreds after the 2-1 loss at home to Honduras. The matches against Mexico were perhaps their best performances of the second round, but the most they could get out of both matches was a solitary point. The Canadians scored multiple goals in just one match (the 2-2 at home to Mexico), and that kind of offensive performance is not good enough in this kind of group. If Canada had been in Group 3 they might have advanced to the Hexagonal.

Mexico were starting to enter crisis mode. The FMF had shown the door to Hugo Sánchez after the Olympic debacle, and after Jesús Martínez's interim appointment they gave the national team job to Sven-Goran Eriksson. Thanks to Hurricane Gustav, Mexico would play three consecutive home matches to start the semifinal round. After a tight opening match with Honduras (won almost single-handedly by Pável Pardo), the Mexicans were on their way with wins against Jamaica and Canada. All they had to do was make sure they scored enough goals at home to give themselves enough margin in the tiebreakers. As it turned out, they needed every bit of that margin and then some. They lost by the minimum to Jamaica and needed a late goal to avoid disaster in Edmonton. Mexico were going to find any match in San Pedro Sula difficult, and the 0-1 had them looking over their shoulders toward Jamaica. This was the round where Mexico's failure to win away from home would be brought out into sharp relief, and it also marked the beginnings of severe turbulence in the Mexican flight toward South Africa.

Honduras had a comfortable progression to the Hexagonal. They showed their quality and potential in the opening match, in which they were the first side to put Mexico under pressure at the Azteca. (Funny that despite being put under pressure at home, Mexico still manages to win in the end.) They won all of their home matches, and picked off three points at Canada to advance to the next round. That said, the last home match was not straightforward by any means and required an own goal by Ricardo Osorio. That deflection was the difference between being in the final six and finding themselves eliminated way too early.

Jamaica had an outside chance of progressing, but they needed all of their talent and improved organization and ended up with neither. The JFF re-hired Rene Simoes as their manager, but reality overtook nostalgia fairly quickly. Perhaps Jamaica were unlucky; because of the hurricane they had to play their first three matches away from home, which put them under pressure for the remainder of the semifinal round. Their defense wasn't all that terrible with six goals allowed, but they could only manage to score six goals, which put them at a disadvantage in the goal tiebreakers. There was criticism in the Jamaican press about the conflicts between the Simoes and the excluded senior players of the national team, who might have made a difference in the away match against Canada. Jamaica showed some improvement over 2006, but advancing to the Hexagonal would have been difficult from this kind of semifinal group.

Group 3

Group 3 contained Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, and Suriname. It was clear the moment the second round finished that Costa Rica and El Salvador were very blessed by the nature of their opponents. This group was ridiculously lopsided: all of the wins in the group were by Costa Rica and El Salvador, and 75% of the goals scored were by Costa Rica and El Salvador (with an aggregate goal difference of +24).

Haiti and Suriname had actually improved their previous qualifying performance by advancing to the semifinal round, but they were shown to be a very weak side. The warning signs were there in the previous round against Netherlands Antilles when they failed to score at home and only advanced thanks to an own goal. Suriname, for their part, had knocked off Guyana who had (oddly) received a pass to the second round. Haiti and Suriname were so bad that they could not beat the other in their home matches, and all but one of the goals that they scored in the semifinal round were against each other. The one Haitian goal not scored against Suriname came off a set-piece against Costa Rica, which highlighted Costa Rica's problems with set-pieces than Haiti's goal-scoring ability. Suriname might have had a better chance had they altered their policy of relying solely on locally-based players. I'm not sure whether it's insularity or misplaced nationalism for barring foreign-based Surinamese players from future consideration in the national team, but it's difficult to understand why the Surinamese federation is intentionally putting their senior squad at a disadvantage.

This group turned out to be a mixed blessing for Costa Rica. It was beneficial in that Costa Rica were given time to evaluate lineups, build the confidence of the squad, and determine the best choices from matches against what was essentially sparring partners. The downside was that the Costa Rican press and fans bought into the gaudy scoring stats and perfect record and anointed the Ticos as the best side in CONCACAF. Where was the criticism that said after Grenada, "If this is the best we can play, then goodbye South Africa?" At any rate, these deficiencies would become apparent in the following round.

The round was more of a blessing across the board for El Salvador. They lost to Costa Rica twice but they won three of four matches against Suriname and Haiti and that was good enough. More importantly, El Salvador witnessed the emergence of additional players for the national squad, such as Rodolfo Zelaya, Miguel Montes, and Cristian Castillo. Unfortunately they were likely to be among the weakest squads in the Hexagonal, particularly in this edition.

Here's how I would categorize the relative performance of the teams up to this point in the qualifying cycle:

Improved: El Salvador, Honduras
Stabilized: USA, Canada, Haiti, Suriname, Cuba, Costa Rica
Stagnated: Jamaica, T&T
Declined: Mexico, Guatemala


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