31
Oct

Five points: Mexico vs. Finland friendly

Mexico interim boss Miguel Herrera entered his only friendly prior to the World Cup playoff with New Zealand in search of evidence.

Herrera declared himself relatively pleased in the wake of the 4-2 triumph over Finland in San Diego, but the totality of the knowledge gained will give him plenty of room for pause. The switch to a 5-3-2 setup and the turnover in personnel inspired the expected uptick in certain areas without erasing all of the lingering problems exposed over the course of the past year.

In the buildup to the two-legged tie next month, Herrera must ponder a few crucial points from this match as he prepares El Tri for an unorthodox test:

1. The most important shift occurred on the ball in the attacking half: Mexico often bogs down when the opposition sets out its stall. The work in possession is tidy enough, but it often lacks the necessary creativity and thrust to break down an organized defense from the run of play. Herrera addressed the concern by directing his players to move more swiftly toward goal. The extra impetus – combined with decent width from the wingbacks – inspired more incisiveness in the final third. It is a tactic Mexico should embrace in the short term, given New Zealand’s willingness to pack numbers behind the ball.

2. No player benefited from the adjustments more than Carlos Peña: The industrious midfielder storms through midfield time and time again for Club León. His driving runs against the Finns – including the work to prompt and score Mexico’s second – provided the spark required to make this new setup hum.

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3. The search for a creative influence continues: Luis Montes featured from the start in a role previously earmarked for Lucas Lobos (withdrew due to family matters) and Rubens Sambueza (ruled ineligible by FIFA). Montes influenced the game in the early stages with his work in the buildup to the first two goals, but he faded out of it after that point. Sinha replaced him during the second half and struggled to conjure up chances. Herrera must locate a creative force to aid the efforts to break down New Zealand. Otherwise, Mexico may labor to knock down the door yet again.

4. Javier Hernández remains a key figure up front: Herrera continues to foreshadow rather limited involvement for his European-based players against New Zealand, but he should include Chicharito in his plans. The predatory striker presents more consistent danger in and around the penalty area than his chief competitor, Raúl Jiménez. The combination of Hernández on the prowl early with Oribe Peralta (a mandatory inclusion at this point) and Jiménez over the top late looks like Mexico’s best option up front at the moment.

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5. Rickety defense needs reinforcements: The introduction of a third center back did not shore up the persistent issues in defense. There were issues with spacing and stepping all night against a rather impotent Finland side. Both concerns present significant danger given the dearth of pace in the trio of Rafa Márquez, Maza Rodríguez and Juan Carlos Valenzuela. Herrera ruled out Diego Reyes – a good fit given his familiarity with the system – as a potential savior after the match. If Reyes isn’t coming, then El Tri must opt for Héctor Moreno and search for other alternatives to strengthen a defensive unit that cannot afford to give the All Whites a foothold in Mexico City.

(Images courtesy: Getty Images)

21
Oct

Assessing Miguel Herrera’s first squad selection for El Tri

imageMexico interim boss Miguel Herrera possesses exactly one friendly to build a cohesive unit and install his preferred 5-3-2 formation prior to the World Cup playoff with New Zealand next month.

His best idea to further both of those goals: lean on the players he knows to help espouse the principles he wants to implement.

Herrera named 10 América players in his 22-man squad for the match against Finland on Oct. 30. Those established players will offer guidance to the remaining 12 – including a mix of some veterans and some fresh faces pluck from throughout Liga MX – as Herrera attempts to assess his options now and construct his squad for the opening leg against the All Whites on Nov. 13 later.

Goalkeepers: Jesús Corona (Cruz Azul), Moisés Muñoz (América)

Consider this choice as a litmus test for the extent of América’s influence in the side. Corona probably deserves the first glance here based upon his displays for José Manuel de la Torre earlier in the year, but Muñoz possesses the faith and the trust of the manager at club level.

Defenders: Paul Aguilar (América), Adrián Aldrete (América), Edwin Hernández (León), Miguel Herrera (Pachuca), Miguel Layún (América), Rafael Márquez (León), Hiram Mier (Monterrey), Francisco Rodríguez (América), Rodrigo Salinas (Morelia), Juan Carlos Valenzuela (América)

Herrera named five centerback specialists to comprise the three-man bedrock of his back line. Seasoned operators Márquez (in the middle, for now) and Rodríguez (on the right side of the three) likely hold the inside track to two of those spots. It simply doesn’t make sense to include them in the setup if they aren’t expected to play. Their potential inclusion places a premium on pace to complete the central defensive trio. Aldrete (the interloper) and Valenzuela (the regular choice and the potential favorite to plug this spot until Héctor Moreno is included) split time in the remaining vacancy on the left side of the three for América. Miguel Herrera and Mier present right-sided alternatives.


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21
Oct

You can only choose one: Cristiano or Zlatan?

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Early Monday morning, the European draw for the World Cup qualification playoffs dealt soccer fans the worst possible news. With Portugal drawing Sweden, it means either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be absent from next year’s party in Brazil.

There was always bound to be one tie pitting two heavyweights against each other, but did it have to be this one?

If Ronaldo’s Portugal advance to Brazil, then what in the world is Zlatan going to do next summer? The thought of a World Cup without the coolest man in football makes my insides hurt. Brazil needs Zlatan. We need Zlatan. You know it’s true.

So, what if he does end up making it, but at the expense of Ronaldo’s Portugal? Can you really have a World Cup without the world’s best second-best player? Fans would feel thoroughly cheated, like Ronaldo at a Ballon d’Or ceremony. World Cup sponsors would freak out like Nic Cage around bees, and we’re pretty sure Ronaldo would lock himself up in his Cryotherapy chamber all summer long, possibly weeping, refusing to come out and show off his abs. And nobody wants that.

Clearly, this is a lose-lose situation, but of the two, who would you rather see? On Twitter, we’re seeing the beginnings of a new “Twilight situation”: #TeamRonaldo vs #TeamZlatan.

As you can see, fans are having a lot of trouble dealing with this impossible choice, but who can blame them?

We need both, but we can only have one. That is a crying shame, and no matter who wins, we all lose.

For a full reaction to the draw and a playoff preview, check out Jonathan Wilson’s analysis.

15
Oct

US soccer saves Mexico from World Cup elimination, takes shots at El Tri on Twitter

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On a night that will go down as one of the most remarkable and entertaining in CONCACAF history, Mexico found themselves on the brink of World Cup elimination before getting bailed out by their biggest rivals, the United States. Twice.

And US Soccer’s official Twitter account couldn’t help but rub it in.

Mexico entered Tuesday night, the final night of World Cup qualifying, needing a win or draw against Costa Rica to stave off elimination and secure at least fourth place, good enough for a playoff against New Zealand and a shot at earning a World Cup berth the long way. A Mexico loss and Panama win over the United States would have eliminated Mexico. And after Panama took an early lead against the United States, the pressure was on El Tri.
Midway through the second half, Costa Rica broke a 1-1 tie, pushing Mexico closer to being shut out of World Cup contention. But mere seconds earlier, just one country down the Central American isthmus, the USA drew level in Panama to keep Mexico in fourth place. In the 84th minute Panama took a second lead over the US, once again putting Mexico on the brink, this time with under ten minutes to go. Costa Rica’s lead held to the end, Mexico were defeated. The players trudged off the pitch with hanging heads, thinking their World Cup hopes had crashed and burned.

They didn’t know that, once again, the USA had just scored — not once, but twice, both in the final minutes of stoppage time — to seal a stunning comeback win that rescued their bitter rivals and send them into a home-and-home playoff tie against New Zealand.

This ironic twist of fate inspired the US twitter account to take some shots at El Tri:

Whether or not Mexicans will take these tweets personally, it’s not like they can have legitimate beef. The simple truth is, without the United States’ help, Mexico would be sitting at home during a World Cup for the first time since 1990, when they were banned by FIFA.

15
Oct

Bosnians celebrate first-ever World Cup appearance

Bosnia-Herzegovina wasn’t even in existence until 1992, but just two decades after its national team played their first match (a year later, in 1993) the small Balkan nation has clinched its first-ever World Cup appearance after a 1-0 win at Lithuania on Tuesday.

The historic moment unleashed a large-scale celebration in the streets of Sarajevo, the nation’s capital. It wasn’t the only milestone on Tuesday.

Though Iceland didn’t qualify directly, the small Nordic island nation did make the playoff round for the first time ever, which was cause for celebration in its own right. After earning a draw at Norway — coupled with Slovenia’s loss at Switzerland — Iceland has a chance to become the smallest-ever nation to make the World Cup finals if it navigates through the playoff round held in November.

Close to 3,000 Iceland fan traveled to Norway to see the country’s biggest game ever (to date), which is almost one percent of Iceland’s entire population. Below is some fan footage of the exact moment when Iceland knew they clinched a playoff spot:

Congratulations to both nations for their terrific accomplishments!

15
Oct

Costa Ricans welcome El Tri with custom casket

Clearly, Costa Ricans love hosting World Cup qualifiers.

A month after welcoming the United States with a hostile reception at the airport, fans of Los Ticos gave Mexico a similarly friendly greeting.

Mocking El Tri for their grave position in World Cup qualifying with one match to go — if they are to lose to Costa Rica on Tuesday night coupled with a Panamia victory against the United States over two goals, Mexico will most likely be eliminated — a small group of fans rolled up to the airport with a coffin draped in Mexico’s colors propped up on a pickup truck. Inside the coffin: a skeleton wearing a Mexico kit.

The message is pretty easy to decipher: 

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For more on Mexico’s do-or-die match against Costa Rica, read Kyle McCarthy’s preview and key points to the match.

15
Oct

Five key points: Costa Rica vs Mexico

A tortured Hexagonal road comes down to this one match for Mexico: a point or better in Costa Rica tonight guarantees the quest for a berth at next summer’s World Cup to continue for at least a few more weeks.

Mexico will expect to claim the draw required to secure a playoff with New Zealand next month and perhaps even snatch the victory necessary to apply pressure on Honduras, who travel to Jamaica. El Tri enjoys a fine record in Costa Rica (three consecutive victories in World Cup qualifiers), while the hosts possess little incentive to perform with their place in Brazil already booked.

Costa Rica will still attempt to spoil Mexico’s fun, though. It is a threat the visitors must take seriously. At this stage of the proceedings, there isn’t any room for error. El Tri must heed these fundamental tenets in order to avoid the ultimate failure by the end of Tuesday night.

1. Weigh any personnel changes carefully: Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich tailors his tactics to fit the situation at hand. He chose a 4-4-2 formation for the 2-1 victory against Panama on Friday, but he could opt for another setup – perhaps by dropping a striker and inserting a central midfielder to counter the Ticos’ usual 5-3-2 alignment – to reinforce the defensive structure away from home. The tinkering comes with a caveat, though: any potential alterations – even the prospect of keeping the 4-4-2 and replacing Javier Hernández with Raúl Jiménez in a nod to popular sentiment – could disrupt the fragile progress made during the early stages of the new regime.

2. Focus on the task at hand: Mexico controls its destiny: a draw in Costa Rica clinches a two-legged tie against the All Whites next month. Nothing else – not the United States’ visit to Panama and the help it could lend, nor the Honduras-Jamaica game and the potential bounty it could reap – matters. Any distractions from the instant duties within their direct purview could prove very, very costly indeed.

3. Remember the circumstances: Composure and concentration represent the pillars of a successful performance in these fraught conditions. Even a momentary drop can lead to chaos, particularly with Costa Rica’s ability to pose problems on the break and from set pieces. Mexico must maintain the proper application for the duration of the affair – again, a lingering problem for this group that almost dashed any hopes of a World Cup place on Friday – to avoid disaster.

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Ticos fans are relishing the chance to ruin Mexico’s World Cup hopes.


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14
Oct

Seven nations still in the mix for final World Cup berths in CONCACAF & CONMEBOL

The single table formats in North and South America create a more straightforward final day of World Cup qualifying. There are some permutations to ponder and some weird scenarios — but the final standings reveal the pecking order rather quickly.

Most of the uncertainty surrounds the final berths in both confederations. Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay will fight it out for the two remaining confirmed berths and the playoff place in South America; Honduras, Mexico and Panama must sort out the last direct spot and the sole playoff berth in North America.

Here is a look at the circumstances on both continents heading into the final day:

CONMEBOL

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Qualified: Argentina, Colombia

Assured of a playoff place or better: Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay

Eliminated: Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela

 
Chile and Ecuador enter the final day with the inside track to secure the two remaining direct berths into the World Cup. A draw between the two sides in Santiago will send both of them through to Brazil. Uruguay must defeat Argentina in Montevideo and hope either Chile or Ecuador prevails comprehensively in order to climb into the top four. Otherwise, a playoff with Jordan beckons next month.

 
CONCACAF

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Qualified: Costa Rica, United States

Assured of a playoff place or better: Honduras

Eliminated: Jamaica


Honduras can guarantee the final confirmed ticket to next summer’s World Cup with a point against already-eliminated Jamaica in Kingston. Mexico stands to benefit if Honduras fails to secure the desired result at the Office. El Tri can climb into the top three with a Honduran setback and a two-goal victory over the Ticos, but a point will suffice to arrange a playoff with New Zealand next month. Panama must defeat the United States in Panama City and pray for a Costa Rica win in San Jose in order to grab the playoff berth and knock out the Mexicans.

14
Oct

Four direct berths, playoff spots in balance as UEFA WCQ comes to a close

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Expect plenty of drama and turmoil to unfold as Europe concludes the group phase of its World Cup qualifying efforts on Tuesday.

Most of the heavy hitters have either locked up a place in Brazil or situated themselves properly to claim one ahead of the last round of fixtures. Several prominent sides – including England and Spain – still need a result to guarantee a direct berth, while other countries – ranging from the usual suspects in France and Portugal to potential first-timers Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iceland – must obtain results to either finish in top spot or seal a place in the playoffs next month.

Here is a look at the state of play heading into a decisive day across the continent:

Qualified: Belgium (Group A), Italy (Group B), Germany (Group C), Netherlands (Group D), Switzerland (Group E)

Into the playoffs: Croatia (Group A), Sweden (Group C)

Assured of a direct berth or a playoff spot, depending on results: Bosnia-Herzegovina (Group G), France (Group I), England (Group H), Greece (Group G), Portugal (Group F), Russia (Group F), Spain (Group I)

Group A: Nothing to see here with Belgium (qualified) and Croatia (playoffs) already confirmed as the top two.

Group B: Italy has already booked its place in Brazil. Bulgaria (13 points, +6 GD), Denmark (13 points, -1 GD), Czech Republic (12 points, +3 GD) and Armenia (12 points, -1 GD) remain in contention for second place, but the low point haul and the smattering of the results here and elsewhere means not one of the four sides is likely to qualify for the playoff as one of the top-eight finishers (only the results against the top five teams in the group count in that convoluted table).

Bulgaria hosts the Czechs (already eliminated from playoff contention based on results) in Sofia with a chance to claim second place. If the Bulgarians falter, then Denmark will almost certainly top them given their task at home to bottom side Malta. Armenia must win in Italy and then hope for some help along the way.
 

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11
Oct

USA supporters steal the show at Sporting Park

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Sporting Park began to fill up an hour before the match started. Just before kickoff, hundreds of American flags were held up, waving magnificently in the breeze as the supporters chanted their admiration for the USA.

The national anthem was a thing to behold. More than 18,000 fans in the stands belted it out at the top of their lungs, holding their scarves in the air, setting a stunning scene for their boys in red, white and blue.

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USA fans before the match. (Image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images)

While the United States had already qualified for the 2014 World Cup, and their final two qualifiers are essentially meaningless, it didn’t feel that way on Friday night at Sporting Park when they took on Jamaica.

The atmosphere was electric from the get-go. Even before the match began, the American Outlaws and many other fans filled the stadium, chanting and getting hyped.

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Despite a pretty dull game for the first 80 minutes or so, the fans kept bringing the noise despite a lack of any interesting action on the pitch.

When hometown hero Graham Zusi finally broke the deadlock, the crowd at Sporting Park went absolutely bonkers. Not long after, Jozy Altidore kept the party going to score the USA’s second. The USA would go on to win 2-0, clinching first place in the Hex.

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Fans at Sporting Park. (Image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images)

After the match, most of the crowd stuck around as Jurgen Klinsmann and the team thanked them for making them feel at home. His players gave Klinsmann a nice cold Gatorade bath, following by the German pumping his fists in the air to Macklemore. It was a moment of pure joy that these fans shared with their team.

The thunderous roars, the chants, jumping up and down, and the sea of stars and stripes in Kansas City won’t soon be forgotten.