Mexico, the USA and one… or is it?

CONCACAF’s qualifying process is, not surprisingly, viewed as a formality for the USA and Mexico these days with a third spot up for grabs. Even with Mexico sitting in fourth place halfway through I don’t see it any other way and here’s why: big teams struggle at times but in the end we remember the final result. Brazil struggled in 2002 qualifying. Final result? They qualified, as always.

So I expect Mexico, the USA and one more will qualify and I expect the fourth placed team to have a good shot in the playoff. So, that’s it right? Recap over? Well, no, after all we’re halfway through and Mexico sit in fourth place, let’s wait till the Hexagonal is over before we overlook all the details. The good news for Mexico is that they have 3 home games remaining and their toughest home game is behind them. The bad news is they just fired a bad coach only to watch the new coach implode at the Gold Cup, suggesting their problems are contagious and not easily resolved. Their next game is against their greatest rival and while the US has had no previous success in Mexico if they change that now Mexico will on the outside looking in.

This seems like one of those cases where the problems have been building over a long period of time and qualifying will only hide those problems, not solve them. The storyline is still being written and August 12th will be the turning point, for better or worse. I find it particularly funny that both my country and my adopted country have upcoming games with their biggest rivals and a chance to further their opponents’ struggles, maybe even effectively knock them out of the World Cup.

On to the USA though. They’re in good shape but not in good form when it comes to qualifying. The Confederations Cup run though has brought them out of their slump and if they bring that form to remaining qualifiers they shouldn’t have any more scares like early goals given up at home (Honduras) or drubbings away (Costa Rica). If they’re sensible they won’t invest too much in the Mexico game expectation-wise but go in with an “everything to gain, nothing to lose” attitude”. They should see 8-9 points in the 4 remaining games and qualify in second place with first available if Costa Rica loses any home points.

I’ll take the gamble and expect Mexico to qualify third and ignore the larger problems. Honduras will take fourth in this scenario. Once again though I can’t wait to be wrong. I’m looking forward to Mexico x USA perhaps even more than I am Argentina x Brazil.

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July 15, 2009 at 12:06 am Leave a comment

The CONMEBOL Rollercoaster

CONMEBOL switched to a single-table qualifying system after the 1994 World Cup and has retained the format since.  With the World Cup winner no longer being granted automatic qualification we will always see a 10 team, 18-game qualifier.  The last two editions have kicked off in the year immediately following the World Cup, resulting in a 3-year marathon wrapped around a Copa America.

I like the format.  For one I like single-table formats – I think they work best for determining the best team.  I also like it because throughout the 90s and even today South American teams struggle to get together for qualifiers and friendlies due to the travel required.  Spreading the games out over three years eases the problems associated with calling up players based in Europe.  Finally, it helps give each and every team a better chance to develop depth than they would have in a short tournament a year ahead of the Cup.

I don’t like every single thing about it of course, but I prefer it to the constantly changing mini-tournaments of the past.  If CONMEBOL can settle on a 4-year interval for Copa America I’ll like it even better.

This qualifying cycle began with Brazil’s coach as stand-out storyline.  Dunga replaced Parreira despite having never coached a professional team before.  Some would predict a repeat of 2002 – during qualifying Brazil lost 6 games and ended in third all of 13 points behind Argentina.  Late in the process Scolari was hired; he went on to win World Cup 2002.  I certainly feared, yet at the same time hoped, this might happen again.  These days there is little talk of a miraculous recovery because it turns out none is needed.  Though heavily criticized at times for his style, Dunga has Brazil on top of the table with four games to go.

At times Brazil was as low as fourth, but unlike the 2002 cycle noone is running away with this one.  The difference between the top four has been and remains tiny.  The difference between the first and fifth place team only recently expanded to more than two games.  No team has clinched yet.  Argentina, as expected, have led at times but they now sit 5 points back of first and only 2 points out of the playoff spot (and a further 2 away from sixth place).  Their coach?  Since 2008 it has been Maradona, just as inexperienced a coach as Dunga and certainly more controversial.

I expect Argentina will qualify, along with Brazil.  Paraguay, unsurprisingly consistent for those who follow CONMEBOL, will also make it through.  I’ll add that I expect Chile to qualify as they have an easy (overall) last four matches while Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador all face each other and will be fighting for their playoff lives.  Of those three, Ecuador has the easiest final game and it may be against a qualified, uninterested Chile.

Let me reiterate that I expect Argentina to qualify, however, if Brazil were to win in Argentina in the next round expect a panic of historic proportions as Argentina still have to face Paraguay away and Uruguay away and would desperately need points from those matches to keep them safe from last minute elimination.

I’ll end with a little more focus on Brazil.  We’ve learned that Dunga is a limited coach, but one who has improved.  whether he can win the World Cup depends on how much he has learned on two fronts: handling stifling defense and motivating his stars for certain games.  Handling open teams has not been a problem, nor has motivating his team for big rivalries.  Brazil will likely win the qualifiers and go on to the World Cup having won every competition they entered since their 2006 WC exit.  To win the World Cup after such a successful stretch is yet another challenge.

July 10, 2009 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

A brief content preview

Tonight I’ll post a brief, personal, CONMEBOL round up.  This weekend a CONCACAF round-up and next week posts for Europe and the remaining regions.  Once all those are up I’ll get in a post dedicated to Brazil’s current team and players and go a little more in depth into the Brazil subjects hinted at in the CONMEBOL post.

Come August and USA x Mexico I’ll be able to tackle individual games more closely and I’ll do so for the USA and Brazil as often as possible while still looking at the overall picture.

July 10, 2009 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

Another Brazilian title

I had a couple of ideas for funny titles today:

Tim Howard’s no Tony Meola

We had it all along

Who needs left-backs?

Prelude to Citizenship (I’m Brazilian in the process of becoming a US citizen)

To be fair some of those titles are a semi-final and final twofer.

On to serious business though.  The USA were up 2×0 against Brazil in a final.  Brazil came back and won 3×2.  Either team would have been a deserving winner.  Both coaches were under pressure before the tournament and remain somewhat unpopular but have produced solid results.

Dunga has won both tournaments Brazil has played since he took over (Copa America 2007, Confederations Cup 2009) and has Brazil in first place in qualifying with 4 games to go.  He has also seen Brazil struggle to score in some entirely unacceptable situations (at home vs. Bolivia for example) but seen Brazil always score against big opposition and recently seen Brazil score even against tough defenses.

More importantly, he’s done well to introduce new midfielders this year and that has helped tremendously.  The big question remains: with Gilberto Silva clearly the weak link in midfield game in and game out, will Dunga drop the veteran before the World Cup?  I’ll offer a summary of which positions are still open and what might or should happen if Ronaldinho is called up in a separate post.

For now, the USA deserves some attention here.  They came out well and attacked effectively early in the game.  Spector puts in some brilliant crosses and in this particular game he found Dempsey for an early goal.  The couterattack for the second goal was a thing of beauty and the 2×0 lead was deserved and well-earned.  Donovan, Howard and DeMerit were again huge today.  It’s hard to measure the second half performance though.  The first Brazil goal came so quickly it’s hard to know how they were planning on coming out and whether they managed to stick to their plan.  They had moments of possession but they needed more in order to win.  Their substitutions did not keep possession and that’s enough to conclude that they were the wrong choices.

It’s strange seeing your second team beating your first team.  No, I wouldn’t be happy with Brazil losing and yes, I was happy that we won, but there was still an emotional negative from this game.  Not much of a negative to be sure considering the USA played so well and made its fans, including myself – the Brazilian-soon-to-be-American-who-will-always-follow-the-USA-but-always-keep-Brazil-first, made its fans proud.

June 29, 2009 at 6:09 am Leave a comment

Brazil x USA preview, Confederations Cup final

I hate making predictions.  I love saying my team will win by this or that much but any score I try to settle on is inevitably too hopeful or too insincere.  It’s Brazil, it’s a final, we’ll win is all I can allow myself to think.

On to how we’ll win and what could possibly go wrong.

South Africa offered a solid blueprint for the US to follow in trying to stifle Brazil.  In order to put in a better performance Sunday than they did Thursday Brazil will need to see its midfield step up and create spaces and offer passing lanes for Kaka and Robinho to work with.  Whoever starts at right back will also need to provide the support that was missing from a tired Maicon against South Africa.

The line-up will likely be the same but hopefully substitutions will come earlier regardless of the scoreline.  If the unchanged line-up shows signs of fatigue and is unable to help the offensive trio find space to work in the US will eventually gain the upper hand for some time as they did against Spain for short periods.

In the end I expect Brazil to dominate possession and I expect the US to have little trouble closing down the middle against a tired Brazil but I hope that, unlike Thursday, we’ll be able to spread the field and find space to play on the ground and that if we don’t we’ll see Daniel Alves and Julio Baptista early in the second half to solve that problem.

June 28, 2009 at 7:34 am Leave a comment

Brazil x South Africa recap

A horrible game for any Brazilian fan ended with a brilliant free-kick goal that spared us from overtime and (greater) potential fatigue in the final.

South Africa was effective in defense while Maicon, Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo and Ramires were all ineffective in supporting the offensive trio.  As a result Brazil tried too often to break through the middle with only one or two players at a time showing any movement.  Eventually South Africa began to turn the tide on possession and push forward.  South Africa had chances on set pieces and shots from outside the box.  Most did not challenge Julio Cesar but one in particular during the second half required an amazing save.

South Africa’s domination occurred in the second half as well under similar circumstances.  Once again they stifled Brazil easily and pushed forward into a surprisingly spacious offensive half.  On a few occassions Luis Fabiano and Kaka had a chance to do something but either hit the keeper or missed by varying degrees.

Full credit to South Africa because even if the Brazilian midfield had played one of its better games they would have been outnumbered and forced to work hard to spread South Africa out.  The USA will want to keep that in mind and will likely have a good shot at repeating South Africa’s succesful defense if DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra and Clark can be compact and close down the middle.  Brazil will have to hope Maicon is refreshed or Daniel Alves starts in order to keep Bocanegra wide and open up space to invite the midfield into.  If they do and the midfield finds that space, expect Brazil to retain possession more effectively than against South Africa and create better chances.

So how did Brazil win?  As Brazil often has under Dunga they counted on a bit of luck and a bit of individual brilliance.  Julio Cesar made a save where many keepers would simply watch the deflected shot go in.  Ramires in one of his only forays forward earned a foul just outside the box.  Daniel Alves, the right-back who subbed in for a left-back, took the free-kick brilliantly putting Brazil ahead with only three minutes left.  Luis Fabiano did miss an easy goal a minute later but it would have been undeserved.

Brazil must now figure out whether they need to make one or two changes to the line-up to offer a more rested midfield a chance to shine or whether they simply need to regroup with this line-up if they believe it has what it takes to create chances and that this game was a fluke.  Based on past performances and recent trneds I wouldn’t mind seeing two changes – one at right-back and one in the middle – to provide some energy.  Either way, Dunga will also need to substitute earlier if today’s story repeats itself.

June 25, 2009 at 11:20 pm Leave a comment

Brazil x South Africa preview, US x Spain recap

So the US beat Spain.  What to say that hasn’t been said on bigsoccer?  To be entirely honest I don’t know if there’s anything new left to say, so I’ll simply evaluate those thoughts I had ahead of the game and what this means for each team

The US played an exceptional game overall.  They sacrificed on the defensive end, putting in the kind of effort that makes any fan proud.  They made, more often than not, good decision in the final third even if they spent a long stretch from the end of the first through much of the second not seeing good possession.  Both of these are what I wanted to see from the US and they contributed mightily to the win.

If Brazil face the US on Sunday it will likely be a much different match than the group game.  Regardless of the result in the final though the US needs to find a way to perform as well as they did today in their remaining CONCACAF qualifiers.  If they do that they’ll qualify easily, relieve the immense pressure they have been under since the second set of Hexagonal games and enter the World Cup with justified optimism.

For Spain, this game simply reminds them that the Euro 2008 does not cure all ills – they will enter the World Cup as a perennial underachiever in World Cups.  Whether they use their Euro experience to defeat that attitude or their US loss to let it get to them might be the big question.  At full strength, I expect they will go far having learned from both competitions.

Brazil of course are favorites against South Africa today but the hosts are coached by a Brazilian and that leads one to wonder whether he’ll have something up his sleeve.  In the end though Brazil have begun to string solid performances together – coincidentally since the inclusion of Felipe Melo, a better midfielder than Josué who started far too many games last year.  The question will be whether these good performances continue against a team likely to defend with all they have.  If South Africa attack, as they promise, I expect Robinho, Kaká and Luís Fabiano to have a first half similar to the game versus Italy.

The longer the game remains scoreless, the better it will be for the hosts who will be fueled by the crowd to spring an upset.  If they come out too quickly and too soon and don’t get a lucky goal with an offensive strategy, they will be allowing Brazil to do what they have always done best, not simply now under Dunga: to counter attack into open spaces.

It’s late and this new blog deserved an earlier post, maybe while I watched the US x Spain replay.  So tomorrow, following Brazil x South Africa, expect something a little more timely.

June 25, 2009 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

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