Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying - Second Round Preview (Part 2)

Part one can be found here. One small note, the second leg of Guatemala vs St. Lucia will be played in Los Angeles. That's St. Lucia's home game, so they've also decided to cash in ala Belize. Thanks to "lovingthegreen" on Bigsoccer for the info, as well as compiling the dates and times.

Honduras - Puerto Rico

6/4-Honduras 4:0 Puerto Rico - San Pedro Sula - 9:30 p.m.
6/14-Puerto Rico vs. Honduras - Bayamon - 8 p.m.

PR is probably the most improved team in the entire region. As part of the United States, they should be able to take advantage of that status and get some decent players with Puerto Rican heritage to play for them. Indeed, they've done that this time, capping current and former MLS players like Taylor Graham, Jason Hernandez, Chris Megaloudis, and Josh Saunders. The team beat Bermuda twice away, and drew with Trinidad at home. The wins were their first since 1994, and it's all thanks to new head coach Colin Clarke, formerly of FC Dallas. He's been coaching the Puerto Rico Islanders in the USL-1, and has now taken over the national team in addition to that.

They beat the Dominican Republic in the CONCACAF first round in a one off match at home, former Metrostars and DC United player Petter Villegas converting a penalty in extra time for the 1-0 win. Based on history it was an upset, but based on current form and the site of the match, I don't think so. Graham, Hernandez, and Saunders apparently haven't been called up for the qualifiers.

The improvement of Puerto Rico would be a better story if they drew an easier team that they actually could have a chance at beating. As it stands, the first leg has already been played and they went down 4-0 in San Pedro Sula. The hosts had only scored one goal at the half, but put it away in the second interval thanks to two goals from CONCACAF's top striker, David Suazo. Hard to defend against a guy who plays for Inter Milan. Indeed, Toronto's Marco Velez was sent off before it was over.

Honduras is a team that usually looks better on paper than in reality. Part of that is due to Suazo, whose frequent injuries leave the team minus their top threat. Still, "Los Catrachos" should do very well this time around. They also have the notoriously temperamental Amado Guevara, who retired from international competition a few years ago but has returned to his role as captain. Like Trinidad, they're now coached by a Colombian: Reynaldo Rueda, who coached his home country in the last cycle.

Wigan's Wilson Palacios is a name worth watching. The 23 year old "energetic midfielder" was listed by Soccernet as one of the top ten Premiership buys of the season and one of the main reasons his team avoided relegation. Interestingly, Kenwyne Jones of Trinidad (mentioned in yesterday's post) is also on the list for his $12 million transfer (wow). Anyway, Wigan manager Steve Bruce was apparently so impressed with the player that he's now trying to sign several more Hondurans. Palacios is now rumored to be a target of Manchester United and several other top English clubs.

Honduras should easily hold on to advance. If the margin had only been two goals in the first leg, then maybe the second leg would've held some drama. Not so much now.

Canada - Saint Vincent & the Grenadines

6/15-St. Vincent / Grenadines vs. Canada - Kingstown - 3 p.m.
6/20-Canada vs. St. Vincent / Grenadines - Montreal - 8:30 p.m.

I was pretty surprised to see Canada's roster for the series, and not because for once all their top European stars are going to be in the same place at the same time. No, the surprise is because Colorado Rapids defender Ugo Ihemelu is there. Yes, the same Ihemelu who was capped by the United States against Norway in January 2006. Friendlies apparently don't cap tie players, or else Jeff Cunningham wouldn't have been able to play for the US (he made one appearance in a friendly for Jamaica before becoming a citizen). Interesting quotes from coach Dale Mitchell here.

That article is also notable for mentioning something that I've noticed recently. This time, Canada does have expectations. After reaching the semifinals in last year's Gold Cup, hosting the U-20 World Cup, and the off the field mania over Toronto FC, Canadian soccer is coming alive and results are now expected. Especially after the firepower shown in the recent loss to Brazil, where they showed no fear and should've earned a draw. The tough thing is, they've received a brutal semifinal draw for the second straight cycle and will likely compete with Honduras and Jamaica for second place behind Mexico. But that's in the future; St. Vincent is on the menu now.

"Vincy Heat" no longer features Ezra Hendrickson; he retired from international soccer earlier this year. Wouldn't have mattered, since he's injured anyway. They don't really have any notable players, though many of them play for professional teams all over the world. Definitely not pushovers, but they're not going to get destroyed either. They just lack the game changing players that the top Caribbean teams feature. The warmups have resulted in two away losses: 5-1 in Jamaica and 1-0 in Cuba. They actually haven't won in any of their last 8 matches going back to January of 2007. Canada shouldn't break too much of a sweat. Sorry Wesley John, you're not "that good."

Costa Rica - Grenada

6/14-Grenada vs. Costa Rica - St. George's - 4 p.m.
6/21-Costa Rica vs. Grenada - San Jose - 10 p.m.

This one should be fun. First, there's the fact that the underdogs are hosting the first leg. Second, you have two teams that are going into this matchup with completely opposite momentum. Grenada just defeated Jamaica at home, coming back from a goal down in the second half. Meanwhile, Costa Rica has not won in 13 matches. They will not play any official friendlies in the run up to the match, though they did play two 60 minute scrimmages against Belize (results: 3-1 and 1-2). Fans are fed up with current coach and ex-Ticos star Hernan Medford, who actually seems to be setting up low expectations, saying that a big win is unrealistic.

As usual, the Costa Rican roster is anchored by Saprissa players (10/25). Chicago's Gonzalo Segares is there, as well as LA reject Michael Umana. Mostly domestic roster as usual.

Grenada, of course, will feature two of the best players on the field in Shalrie Joseph (New England) and Jason Roberts (Blackburn). Both players scored in the win over Jamaica. The rest of the team are mostly local non-professional players. Not too great, but they didn't get killed by the USA four years ago and should make things interesting this weekend. A result in the first leg is a must, then they can try to hold on for dear life on the 21st.

Guyana - Suriname

6/14-Suriname vs. Guyana - Paramaribo - 3 p.m.
6/22-Guyana vs. Suriname - Georgetown - 4:30 p.m.

First of all, Guyana being seeded is absolutely ridiculous, as I've detailed before. They lost 8-1 to Grenada on aggregate in 2006 qualifying. They have played well recently, though. Top players include attackers Randolph Jerome, who plays for the Cleveland City Stars in the USL-2; and Nigel Codrington, who also played for Cleveland last year and now appears to be in Trinidad. A lot of their team plays in Trinidad, actually. Randolph Jermome currently Midfielder Sean Cameron of Miami FC has also been capped. Trinidadian head coach Jamaal Shabbazz (nice name) is openly talking about starting four strikers, which should be something to see (if we could actually see it).

You also have to wonder at the convenience of the draw, which pits these two South American neighbors and rivals against one another. Suriname lost to Guyana 5-0 two years ago on neutral ground, and are underdogs here. The easy first round win over Montserrat won't tell you much, but the fact that they will be unable to tap into any of their foreign talent doesn't inspire much hope. Suriname actually has a long history in the sport; they've been a FIFA member for 80 years and many talented Dutch players trace their roots there (Davids, Gullit, Kluivert, Rijkaard, Seedorf, etc).

I first thought that this would probably be the best chance for a seeded team to get upset, but then I realize that Suriname won't be using any Dutch lower league players like they have in the past. This is still a pretty even matchup, though. Guyana has clearly improved, but they are only slight favorites here.

Panama - El Salvador

6/15-Panama vs. El Salvador - Panama City - 5 p.m.
6/22-El Salvador vs. Panama - San Salvador - 8 p.m.

The best and most unfair matchup of the second round. El Salvador may not be the team they once were, but they are way, way better than Guyana and deserved to be a seeded team. They then had the bad luck of drawing one of the top teams, Panama, who are improving as steadily as El Salvador is declining. By no means is this a foregone conclusion, though. The teams were grouped together in the 2006 qualifying semifinal round and each won their home fixture.

El Salvador had the formality of dispatching Anguilla in the first round (16-0 aggregate). They recently drew with Guatemala 0-0 here in the states, though it looks like they were lucky not to concede in the latter. Head coach is Mexican 1986 World Cup player Carlos de los Cobos. The team is made up of all or virtually all domestic players; Ronald Cerritos (now with Real Maryland) will not be there.

Panama is lead by 2002 & 2006 Costa Rican national team coach Alexandre GuimarĂ£es (also from Costa Rica). Unlike their opponents, they have a lot of foreign players in their squad. Jaime Penedo plays for Municipal in Guatemala; he was named the top goalkeeper of the 2005 Gold Cup. Felipe Baloy, the captain and Monterrey defender. And star goalscorer Blas Perez, now with Tigres. They also have former MLS players Roberto Brown, Luis Gallardo, and Luis Tejada.

Recent results have been very good. They beat the team that El Salvador drew with (Guatemala) 1-0 while tying Canada 2-2 and Chile 0-0 (in Chile). Jose Luis Garces, of Sofia in Bulgaria, scored in the first two matches and seems to be the hot man up top. Despite the strength of El Salvador (well, for a lower seeded team), it would be a decent upset if Panama were to lose.

Haiti - Netherlands Antilles

6/15-Haiti vs. Netherlands Antilles - Port-au-Prince - 6 p.m.
6/22-Netherlands Antilles vs. Haiti - Willemstad - 6 p.m.

The Antilles had a relatively easy time with Nicaragua (3-0 aggregate) in round one, and only lost to Venezuela 1-0 in a recent friendly. That's one goal better than Brazil did. And what's more, they also beat Suriname last month. So they certainly have some strength. Maybe I was confusing them with the Surinamese, because they have an awful lot of foreign players from Dutch teams. This FIFA article has a nice breakdown of some of their talent, and a list of Venezuela starters is here. Really, with the players they have, they might even be favorites here. And before you say lower league European players are not too impressive, just think what Guadeloupe did in the Gold Cup.

This may be the last time the Antilles ever take part in qualifying, at least in their current form. The islands will be "dissolved as a unified political entity" sometime in the next year or two, which could lead to several more CONCACAF members like Curacao.

Haiti, along with Cuba, finally caught a break by being seeded and now look to move on to the next round. They disappointed in the Gold Cup last year after receiving a bit of hype (they were Caribbean champions). Unfortunately, Peguero Jean Philippe is injured (what's new). Former MLSers Alexandre Boucicaut and Fabrice Noel should be in the squad. They lost to Honduras 3-1 away to warm up for the series.

Haiti may have more international experience, but they live in a really poor country. The coach himself says that "...any gap in pedigree between the two sides (could) easily be negated by our inadequate preparation facilities." At least they're playing at home and not Miami this time.

Should be a very close and exciting series, and the one of the biggest chances for a second round upset.

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