Thursday, March 27, 2008

World Soccer Recap

By Kevin Beane

Yesterday was a FIFA match day, which means all of the pro soccer teams the world over are compelled to release their players to go play for their country. This means the second part of my announcer column will once again have to wait.

In deciding which games to watch, I decided to stick to the USA's "conference," if you will, CONCACAF.

It's already a pretty busy time for CONCACAF squads. Olympic Qualifying just wrapped up for the region's under-23 squads (where, as you might imagine, there is some overlap with the full men's national team for some countries).

The United States breezed to qualification by winning their group stage and then the region's semifinal. The race for the second spot was a barnburner.

Eight countries were split into two groups. The top two in each group would go on to the semifinals, and the winners of the two semifinal matches would represent the region in the Olympics.

The U.S. finished undefeated atop Group A, but the story was Group B, featuring Mexico, Canada, Haiti, and Guatemala.

Canada surprised a lot of people by drawing with Mexico, and Guatemala dispatched Haiti. In the second group night, Mexico again was surprised, losing 2-1 to Guatemala. Canada could have closed the door on El Tri right there, but they themselves got upended by Haiti, leaving a glimmer of hope for a Mexican squad to finish in the top two even with a loss and a tie. They just had to produce a better result than Canada in their final match.

Canada was up first, and they annihilated a Guatemalan squad that was already assured a place in the semis, 5-0. The task for Mexico in the nightcap would be to beat Haiti by the same score, or better. Haiti would be through to the semis if they could muster just a draw, but no one really expected that in a packed house of Mexican fans in Carson, California.

Mexico went into halftime up 1-0, and it seemed they had no hope. But a red card brought the Haitian squad down to ten men, and Mexico started to furiously pour on the goals.

Alas, the problem with playing uber-aggressively is that it exposes you defensively, and the Mexicans gave one back. It was 3-1 Mexico, then 4-1, then Mexico scored their fifth with only a few minutes of stoppage time to play. In stoppage time the Haitian keeper made the saves he needed, and 5-1 would prove not to be enough for Mexico. It was Canada to the semifinals where they were thrashed 3-0 by the Americans to put the Canuck Olympic dream asunder. The runner-up in the U.S. group, Honduras, beat Guatemala in the semifinal in a shootout. Hence, no one from the more thrilling group of qualifiers would go on to play in the Olympics.

And that was the CONCACAF prologue going into today's action.

Haiti vs. Ecuador: In soccer terms, Haiti reminds me of another CONCACAF Caribbean Nation, Guadeloupe. Like Guadeloupe, who made a surprise run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals (they are ineligible for the World Cup because they are as much a province of France as Hawaii is a state), Haiti is very capable of mustering an upset or two. They both specialize in spectacular, long range, top-shelf goals, and...they both speak French.

The Haitians traveled to Ecuador today as heavy underdogs to the home nation. I watched the game online, at a website that had a chat feature alongside it. Many Ecuadorian fans populated the chat. They all spoke Spanish, which I don't, but I could tell most of their attention was to geared towards, not the game, but a user calling herself "Ecuababe." Occasionally, a Haitian fan would pop in with "Go Haiti!" in English.

I imagine it was a lot of cussing I saw in the chat when Haiti went up 1-0 early. It was, believe it or not, a beautiful, top-shelf strike.

But rather than being another great Caribbean upset, it was more like the U.S.'s "B" team game against Argentina's "A" squad in last year's Copa America: just a tease. Both games ended 3-1 in favor of the South Americans.

Canada vs. Estonia — Wow, was this a fun game to watch. Not because of the skill or excitement on the pitch, but because it was played in a driving snowstorm in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

Normally, refs won't allow soccer games in the snow because the ball pretty much stops where it lands, which makes play hazardous. But in this case, the ball glided easily over the snow and the refs let the game play on, even though buckets of snow were falling and the pitch was already covered in it.

As an American soccer fan, I think there is room for a rivalry with Canada. I don't think you'll ever see Canadian soccer very close to the level of American or Mexican soccer, but I'm not one of these guys who roots for my rivals to do well in order to set up epic matches against my team, as some do. I'd rather see them lose and perpetually have their tails between their legs.

Estonia is a pretty bad team. In Euro 2008 qualifying, they managed one point in their 10 games against teams other than the micro-nation Andorra. They are over 65 places below Canada in the FIFA rankings.

So when they beat Canada 2-0, It doubled their goal output of their last twelve non-Andorran competitive games.

Still, is it fair to rag on Canada on this loss? Homefield advantage is exponentially increased in bad weather, and this was the worst weather. And Canada wasn't merely playing a road game, but traveling almost halfway around the world. And while it's easy to say Canadians should be used to the snow, I'm sure they don't play much soccer on it.

No, the reason that Canada is fair game for being pointed and laughed at for this result is, while almost every Estonian player was wearing leggings under their shorts, all the Canadians save the keeper was bare-legged. 'Cause they're so tough and rugged, those Canucks. And losers again.

United States vs. Poland — The Americans also travelled to travelled behind the old Iron Curtain for a match against Poland. It was also cold in Krakow and the pitch seemed frozen, but no snow. The 3-4 best unfulfilled chances to score in the game belonged to the Americans. Fortunately, the three best successful scoring chances also belonged to the U.S., and they thrashed the Poles, 3-0.

It was really the most satisfying effort and result I've seen from the Americans in a long time. Only their Gold Cup victory over Mexico comes close. And they did it without Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, who were resting from assuring the Americans Olympic spot.

The Americans quite simply dominated, and against a team that won their Euro 2008 qualifying group and, at 24th, are placed four spots ahead of the Americans in the FIFA rankings.

In the soccer-centric message boards, I tire quickly of defending American coach Bill Bradley against the haters who clearly will never give him a chance. He started off as the dreaded "interim" coach while the U.S. Soccer Federation tried to land a sexy name (namely, former German coach Jurgen Klinsmann). I feel vindicated now. But there's no time for America to rest on the laurels. Their next game, in two months, will be in London, against England.

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