U.S. national team must navigate complicated slate to reach World Cup
Posted: Tuesday November 30, 2004 4:51PM; Updated: Wednesday December 1, 2004 7:08PM
Landon Donovan's new commute from Germany will make playing in World Cup qualifiers a test of travel endurance.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The draw for next year's regional World Cup qualifying tournament took place first thing Tuesday morning. To summarize the highlights, the U.S. will:
open with two road games (the only team to do so) at Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico,
play four of the next five games at home (in which qualification will likely be won or lost), and
finish at home against Panama on Oct. 12.
By mid-morning, I had U.S. boss Bruce Arena on the phone talking about it. "I don't think there are any real positives or negatives," Arena said. "Maybe the positive is at the end you have a home game in Game 10, which is always good. I'm not too troubled by the fact that our first two games are on the road, especially because they're spread out and not two road games in four days.
"Our whole focus over the next two months will be getting our team ready to beat Trinidad. We're not gonna worry about any other stuff."
The top three finishers in the six-team, 10-game Hexagonal will qualify directly for the World Cup from the North, Central American and Caribbean region. The fourth-place CONCACAF team will meet the Asian fifth-place team in a home-and-home playoff for another berth in Germany.
One scheduling issue that will make matters difficult is July's Gold Cup, the biennial regional championship. Just as the South American championship, the Copa América, has been diluted by that region's World Cup qualifying campaign, the same holds true for CONCACAF.
"The Gold Cup is the biggest headache on the schedule," Arena says. "We want to be respectful of the confederation championship and put our best team out there and try to win it. However, our focus has to be on World Cup qualifying. Those 10 games are the most important."
World Cup qualifying schedule for 2005
USA at Trinidad & Tobago
USA at Mexico
Guatemala at USA
Costa Rica at USA
USA at Panama
Trinidad & Tobago at USA
Mexico at USA
USA at Guatemala
USA at Costa Rica
Panama at USA
Arena will hold a training camp between Jan. 3-31 in Los Angeles for MLS-based players, with friendlies that month against South Korea and Sweden. Integrating the U.S.'s European-based players for the Feb. 9 qualifier in the Caribbean will have to be done on the fly.
"The nuance with the U.S. team in qualifying is always, 'How do we blend our domestic- and foreign-based players?" Arena says. "Now it's more complicated because we probably have more players abroad than ever before."
With two road games to kick off the tournament, it seems likely that Arena will follow his own precedent and select a predominantly veteran lineup which has experience in qualifiers in the Caribbean and Central America.
"There's a bunch of factors that go into roster selection and the way you play," he says. "For Feb. 9 it's highly debatable where our domestic players are going to be in terms of fitness for international games. But if you lean toward your European-based players, their travel is a big component, which people don't realize. You travel six hours to get to the U.S. and have five hours to get to Trinidad, and they come in Sunday from Europe to play a game on Wednesday."
In any case, it's time to get serious. The road to Germany in 2006 begins in earnest on Feb. 9 in Port-of-Spain.
DiCicco goes global?
When former U.S. women's coach Tony DiCicco was met by 40 Chinese journalists upon his arrival in Beijing last month, he realized what he was getting himself into. "They do care about women's soccer in China," says DiCicco, who led the U.S. past China in the World Cup '99 final. "Which is why this is such a unique opportunity."
That opportunity -- the chance for DiCicco to become China's first foreign women's coach -- is certainly a fascinating one. With the Chinese preparing to host both the '07 Women's World Cup and the '08 Olympic tournament, DiCicco spent a week there meeting with Chinese federation officials along with former coach Ma Yuanan and several Chinese players.
With China unable to beat Tony DiCicco in the '99 Women's World Cup, the country is poised to join the former U.S. coach on its women's national team.
Craig Jones/Getty Images
DiCicco plans to make his decision in the immediate future, he says. The rewards could be big: a guaranteed four-year deal and a lucrative salary (though not as much, DiCicco says, as the $300,000 annually that's been tossed around in the Chinese media). "I like the challenge of it, but this has to work for my family," says DiCicco, 56, who still has two sons living at home in Weathersfield, Conn., with him and his wife, Diane. "That's why I left the U.S. team in the first place."
China's women's program has fallen on hard times since it came a Kristine Lilly goalline-header away from winning the '99 World Cup. The Steel Roses were booted out of the '03 World Cup in the quarterfinals by Canada, and they were one of just two teams not to reach the quarterfinals in last summer's Olympics (which included an 8-0 drubbing to Germany).
Several members of China's Golden Generation -- Sun Wen, Gao Hong, Liu Ailing and Bai Jie -- are no longer with the team, and player development has not gone as smoothly as planned. "There's really two challenges," DiCicco says. "One, to bring the national team back to elite status in time for '07 and '08. And two, to restructure their player-development scheme. They're kind of a vanilla team right now."
DiCicco was first approached by the Chinese soon after the '03 World Cup. "They had about a 30 percent interest in me and 70 percent in hiring from within," he says. "That flip-flopped after the Olympics." DiCicco now has more time to devote to coaching -- he's currently working with a Connecticut youth team, FSA Soccer Plus -- after recently relinquishing his duties as the driving force behind the potential revival of the WUSA in '06. (That effort is now being run by a new leader, former Yahoo executive Tonya Antonucci, and Julie Foudy.)
If DiCicco takes the China job, it will be intriguing to watch. How will he handle the pressures from China's hyper-competitive sports media and impatient federation bosses? How will his American-style training ideas go over in China's regimented, military-style sports environment? And how will he respond to competing against the U.S.?
This could get very interesting.
Eddie Johnson has shown Man Utd a little of what has made him one of Major League Soccer's most prolific scorers.
Mike Petke/Getty Images
Red-hot Yank Eddie Johnson scored a goal in a Manchester United reserves practice game last Saturday. The 20-year-old FC Dallas striker, who tied for the MLS lead with 12 goals last season, will finish his training stint with Man U later this week.
Real Salt Lake, one of two MLS expansion franchises due to begin play next year, now plans to spend part of its preseason in (where else?) Madrid.
If Santa Clara can win the women's NCAA soccer title this week, it would be a remarkable achievement for Jerry Smith's Broncos. Seeded way too low (16th) by the inept NCAA tournament committee, Santa Clara merely beat North Carolina on the road in the third round, ending UNC's run of 23 consecutive trips to the final four. (Santa Clara's Bend It Like Beckham recruits must finally be realizing their potential. Remember the movie?)
Opening the mailbag ...
Got plenty of mail after last week's column hailing Landon Donovan on his move to Bayer Leverkusen.
I may be a minority of one, but Landon Donovan's move from MLS can only be a bad thing for MLS. From this point on, the league will enjoy no benefits from the recall, however small, and furthermore suffers by furthering the Euro-centric notion that the U.S. domestic league will never be at the top of any player's career. I have no problem with it being "the way it's supposed to work," but that's not an argument for anyone, myself included, to like it. -- Roehl Sybing, Yokohama, Japan
I appreciate where you're coming from as an MLS fan, Roehl. Maybe I should have written, "That's the way it's supposed to work ... until MLS gets its stadiums built." Once MLS builds its own facilities in all of its markets (and starts turning a profit), it'll be able to keep the American stars it produces much longer and provide a better competitive environment for them. Even now, remember that it was Donovan's desire to give Germany a try -- not money -- that was his main reason for leaving. (MLS never made an offer to purchase his contract from Leverkusen, despite the fact that commissioner Don Garber told associates Donovan would have pulled down "twice as much" as the $500,000 salary of Freddy Adu after the league had coughed up the $5 million or so necessary to buy out his BL contract.)
What makes Donovan's departure so difficult for MLS fans is this: Unlike the players who (understandably) wanted to get to Europe as quickly as possible (see: DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey), Donovan always seemed more interested in how he could grow the sport here through his role in MLS (even, potentially, to the detriment of his own growth). For better or for worse, Donovan at least entertained the idea of spending his entire career in the U.S. league. That he has chosen not to should not reflect poorly on him.
I agree with you: I think it's a great sign that European teams are signing talent like Landon Donovan. MLS is serving as an incubator for American talent. You cannot begin to compare the quality of the U.S. starting XI now compared to the glorified collegians (with a handful of pros) who suited up in the '90 and '94 World Cups. -- Steve Adams, New Hope, Minn.
That's the other aspect of Donovan's decision, of course. What's good for the U.S. national team is not always good for MLS. Fan reactions to Donovan's move have generally been positive among those whose loyalties are weighted toward the national team -- and more circumspect among those whose focus lies in MLS (especially, say, San Jose).
Now that Donovan is gone, do we here in San Jose have a chance of keeping our team? Why is AEG so ready to spend more and lose more in New York than in the Bay Area? -- Brad Shafer, San Jose, Calif.
Good question, Brad. The Quakes without Donovan suddenly become a less-desirable purchase for prospective owners, don't they? Combine that with the current lack of local ownership interest, and you're left with two big reasons why San Jose's stability is more tenuous than ever. As for your second question, I can't speak for AEG, but I would take the wild guess that the company sees more potential in the New York market than it does in San Jose.
Which foreign players is Real Salt Lake interested in signing, and what is the Clint Mathis situation? -- Sean Anguiano, Salt Lake City, Utah
The only player currently counting toward RSL's limit of four senior international players is Dipsy Selolwane, the Botswana forward who was acquired in a trade with Chicago this week. (Selolwane, who had two goals and five starts for the Fire last season, surprisingly is tied for the goal-scoring lead in African World Cup qualifying with five.) Other RSL players such as Costa Ricans Pablo Brenes and Erick Scott (youth internationals) and Jamaican Andy Williams (green card) don't count against the league's four-foreigner limit. My sources in Salt Lake tell me that their remaining international signings will likely have a CONCACAF flavor, though there's a chance they might go for an eastern European player in the tradition of expansion Chicago signing Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Roman Kosecki in 1998.
RSL's pursuit of Mathis is still up in the air. Mathis' German rep met with Bundesliga teams this week to discuss a possible transfer from his current club, Hannover 96, but it's still possible that the talented American will return to MLS. If he does (and I'd say the chances are 50/50), expect him to go to Salt Lake, not to San Jose as the allocation for Donovan. RSL clearly wants Mathis (and has one of the first two allocation picks along with Chivas), so the only way the Quakes would get him is through a trade.
How do you think the two new expansion teams will do next year, on the field and off, and do you see their level of success determining whether the MLS will expand again in '06 or '07? -- Larry Watson, Tallahassee, Fla.
I'd be surprised if Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake do any better than finishing in the middle of the pack. Then again, with eight of 12 teams making the playoffs, reaching the postseason is a distinct possibility. That should be both teams' goal. Off the field, both sides appear to be creating some excitement in their respective locales, especially Chivas. Whether that buzz will continue if Chivas struggles on the field is another story entirely.
It seems like the U.S. plays a much more entertaining and offensive-minded game with Pablo Mastroeni in the defensive midfield position. I like Chris Armas, but Pablo's distribution from the back gives the U.S. a quicker counter-attack. Your thoughts? -- Pete, Garner, N.C.
Well, Mastroeni himself told me that he had his most offensive-minded game as a Yank in the recent tie against Jamaica. (His through-ball on Eddie Johnson's goal was a thing of beauty.) That said, I don't think we should take one game as a sign of something larger. Let's see how Mastroeni does in the U.S.'s upcoming camps and friendlies before we give him a clear advantage over Armas in this department.
So the Red Sox beat the U.S. to the punch in reaching the top of the championship mountain (re: the Ted Danson-Michael Eliot bet mentioned in your Nov. 23 column). But how do the prospects of Project 2010 look these days considering the U.S. could have a 28-year-old Landon Donovan captaining a 21-year-old Freddy Adu along with seasoned vets such as Eddie Johnson, Jonathan Spector, DaMarcus Beasley for our side in World Cup '10? I get a bit of a rush thinking of the possibilities with those studs stepping on the pitch for the stars and stripes. -- Darrell Parsons, Sacramento, Calif.
If the goal of Project 2010 is to be a serious contender for the World Cup in 2010, then that's going to be an awfully tall order, even if we're bullish about the growth of American soccer. In my mind, it will be a major achievement if the U.S. is considered a darkhorse for the title by then -- in the way that say, Portugal was in 2002. (Portugal also happened to have a World Player of the Year on its roster, which would be another tough thing for the U.S. to match.) I should do an entire column sometime asking soccer figures when they think the U.S. might win a World Cup. Players such Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley think it could happen in 2006 -- but they're players, after all -- while I suspect Bruce Arena might say it's decades away. (He'd probably also cite the fact that Holland and Spain have still never won a World Cup.)
That's all for this week. Now that college hoops is in full swing, this column will go back to appearing once monthly. Until then...
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl keeps you up to date with the world of U.S. soccer at SI.com.