Wednesday, December 01, 2004

 

Forza USA!

The 2006 World Cup will be held in Germany, and the US Men's National Team will start the final round of qualifying on Feb. 9, 2005, in Trinidad.

As exciting as the World Cup itself is, there's little more thrilling than the qualifying process. The USA competes in the CONCACAF region of FIFA, encompassing North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Since the debacle of France 1998, under the brilliant coaching of Bruce Arena, the USA has become a regional power, capped, of course, by the spectacular 2-0 defeat of rivals Mexico in the second round game at Japan/South Korea 2002. CONCACAF gets 3 guaranteed places in the finals, with the chance of a fourth; it is considered all but automatic that the USA will, from now on, always qualify for the finals.

The USA had a fairly easy time getting through the first round of qualifying this year, with last-minute draws in both Jamaica and Panama, easy wins at home, a stirring win in El Salvador, and a final draw at home with the Reggae Boyz. We, along with Panama, advanced to the so-called "Hexagonal," along with Mexico (of course), Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, and Costa Rica. All will be tough on the road.

The axiom in qualifying is, win your home games and get draws on the road. And we start off with 2 road games, in Trinidad Feb. 9, 2005, and then in Mexico (where the USA has never won; and, in fact, has managed only 1 draw, the stirring "punto de oro" game in 1997 when we had to play the final 60+ minutes down a man after Jeff Agoos's foolish red card) on March 26 or 27.

The rest of the schedule is oddly compressed. At home against Guatemala on March 30 (only 3 or 4 days after the trip to the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, fighting the enormous, hostile crowd, the altitude and pollution). Then skip 9 weeks, and it's home against Costa Rica on June 4 or 5, then at Panama June 8 (again, only 3 or 4 days later). Skip two more months, then home against Trinidad on Aug. 17, and home against Mexico Sept. 3 or 4. At Guatemala Sept. 7, then to Costa Rica Oct. 8 or 9, and finally home against Panama on Oct. 12.

It will be a very tough schedule, probably tougher than we faced in 2001. Three out of the first 5 games on the road, then three out of the last five at home. No venues have been chosen for the US games. US Soccer has, in the past, played home games at RFK in DC (not sure if it will be available, given that the Expos-turned-Nationals will be playing baseball there next year), Foxboro (Mass.), Columbus (Ohio), and several locations on the West Coast. Very unlikely that anything will be played in Giants Stadium, near me, but they might use Lincoln Financial Field in Philly (they played some Women's World Cup games there last year).

The World Cup is the world's second-greatest sporting event, after only the Olympics. It probably surpasses the Olympics for actual spectator interest, as soccer is the single most popular sport on the planet. Since the finals are always held in a single country (or, as in 2002, for the first time, in two nearby countries), and most of the tickets end up going to locals, it is actually during the qualifying process that most of the excitement takes place. Thirty-two teams qualify, with only the hosts automatically included. (The USA hosted in 1994, which was a glorious event.) FIFA has more members than the United Nations, over 200, which means most countries' fans will end up watching someone else compete for the trophy.

In the US, qualifying is always fascinating because each CONCACAF country has large numbers of expatriates living here. A US-Mexico game can seem like a journey south of the border. US Soccer has to be very careful where it schedules the games. You don't want to play El Salvador in RFK, you don't want to play Mexico in California (in 2001, we played them in Columbus in February - bitterly cold out, and the US won 2-0).

In an attempt to counter the tendency of fans of foreign teams to support them more than American fans cheer for the USA, there's a group called Sam's Army that stands and cheers all game long for the Red White & Blue. I've proudly stood with them at many a US match and hope to get to some qualifiers next year (I wasn't able to make any this year). In 2001 there was actually a small handful of "Sammers" who attended all ten games of the "Hex", and I have no doubt there will be more such stalwarts next year. (What it must be like to cheer for the USA in Azteca I can barely imagine.)

Americans who don't like soccer call it boring. It's true that goals are scarce, but that just makes each one more valuable and exciting when it does come along. And World Cup qualifying is like nothing else in all of world sport. The fans wearing team and national colors, the face painting, the flags, the tailgating, the mixture of cultures, the music, the songs, the noise, the chants, the cheering, the trumpets and drums, the barbecues and beer, the kickarounds, the little kids running everywhere - it's a carnival before you even get into the stadium.

I expect the US to make it through, but it's going to be quite a fight. I never say about anything that I can't wait, because I obviously can, but I'm really looking forward to it.
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