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After solid qualifying start with victory over Mexico, Arena still has some decisions to make.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, March 15, 2001) -- The United States is obviously off to a good start on CONCACAFís final round of World Cup qualifying. Still, with nine matches left between now and November, there is a long way to go.
Some early conclusions can be drawn from these first matches, and some interesting questions can be asked.
The U.S. was able to defeat Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, because of the heads-up play of substitute forward Josh Wolff, and the fine play of reserve midfielder Clint Mathis. In my mind what happened in Columbus raises several questions. Foremost, had Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride not been hurt, had Wolff and Mathis stayed on the bench or not come in until the late going, what would the final result have been?
Itís unfair to say that the U.S. looked catastrophically disorganized during the first half. Reyna was clearly hobbled and moving gingerly with a groin pull that continues to sideline him back with Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, making him questionable for the qualifier in Honduras March 28. However, once Mathis settled down in the second half, with Earnie Stewart pushing forward and with Wolffís speed, the U.S. presented quite a different dynamic.
So the obvious question: did Wolff and Mathis earn themselves starting positions as a result of their play in Columbus? If so, in place of whom? One could argue that McBride provides more versatility up front and that Wolff should start in place of Joe-Max Moore, but would U.S. coach Bruce Arena bench Moore just because he was not overly effective against the Mexicans?
Is there a way to play both Mathis and Reyna together in the midfield, perhaps by allowing Reyna to play essentially the same position he plays with Rangers, wide on the right side, attacking or defending depending on the game situation? But then where would Stewart, one of the more effective Americans play?
The U.S. defense played well against Mexico, but watching the job Carlos Llamosa did against Brazilís Romario in a friendly three days later in the Rose Bowl, a case could be made that the Americansí best man marker shouldnít start on the bench, as was the case in Columbus.
Then, who plays in goal against Honduras? Brad Friedel did all that could be asked against Mexico. Arena has said Keller is his top keeper. Does he start Keller from now on, or alternate him with Friedel, or does Friedel keep the job as long as he plays well? Arena has an interesting decision to make.
How impressive the U.S. victory was must be judged later. If Mexicoís returns to its traditional role as the top power of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, the American triumph becomes that more impressive. But if Mexico, 0-5-2 in its last seven matches and demeaned daily by national media, continues in decline, the U.S. accomplishment loses some luster.
Some very interesting observations can be made looking at the other two matches on February 28.
Jamaica did not show much offensively in a 1-0 victory over visiting Trinidad & Tobago. Miami Fusion midfielder Tyrone Marshall opportunistically pounced on a loose ball and placed it in a corner. Other than that, Jamaica showed little.
What Jamaica did demonstrate was that Trinidad is absolutely dependent on a single player, Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke who was well handled and worn out by defender Ian Goodison in Kingston's heat. Trinidadís best chance came from former Columbus Crew striker Stern John, but when Yorke is neutralized, T&Tís chances of success are greatly reduced.
After a 2-2 draw in Costa Rica, both the home side and Honduras showed they too are each dependent on one star player, both who were sidelined with injuries. Costa Rica, without Paulo Wanchope, still recovering from knee surgery, looked disorganized especially on the offensive end of the field. Honduras clearly missed its top striker, Carlos Pavon.
Neither team looked particularly strong during the first 45 minutes. The second half was played with a lot of emotion, but not much skill. Honduras looked more fluid on offense and defense, but Costa Rica, despite struggling, managed the tie.
One thing that remains unchanged in CONCACAF is the wild inconsistency of its officiating crews.
In Jamaica, the match neared its climax with the home side clinging to a 1-0 lead and Trinidad attacking furiously During the second half two players had been carried off on stretchers and three yellow cards issued, followed by long arguments each time. Still, Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres added only a little more than a minute of extra time helping Jamaica survive the siege.
In Costa Rica, visiting Honduras was also desperately clinging to a one-goal lead as time was running out. Here, despite the fact that there were no unusual stoppages in the second half, referee Ali Mohammed Bujsaim added more that four minutes of injury time. Costa Ricaís equalizer came late in the 93rd minute.
In Columbus, the El Salvadorian officiating crew had a strangely inconsistent night. Assistant referee Raul Cardona made an outstanding non-call, keeping his flag down when Wolff got behind three Mexican defenders on the play that resulted in the first U.S. goal. Replays later showed that when Mathis played the ball through to Wolff, the attacker was a stride on the American side of the half line and thus not offside. Cardona did not have the benefit of slow-motion replay and many linesmen would have raised the flag in an almost natural reaction.
A few minutes earlier, however, Cardona didnít even flinch when Mexican defender Rafael Marquez leveled Wolff with an elbow to the head less than three feet in front of him. Referee Rodolfo Sibrian did not see the play and looked to Cardona who said nothing. Several minutes later, Sibrian carded Marquez for another hit and then carded Wolff for retaliating against Marquez.
Get used to this kind of officiating. Itís not going to improve between now and November.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com..