Aug. 15: The U.S. national team beats Mexico in Mexico for the first time! Wow! Watershed moment! Bust a piñata! Jurgen Klinsmann is really turning things around.
Sept. 7: Jamaica stuns the United States 2-1 in Kingston and takes over the top spot in their World Cup qualifying group. Oh, no! Gasp! Major step backward. Maybe Klinsmann isn’t all that wonderful, after all.
Sept. 11: Klinsmann makes five lineup changes, they all pay off, the United States dominates and beats Jamaica 1-0 in front of a spirited crowd in Columbus, Ohio. The United States reclaims the top spot in the group. Maybe this Klinsmann guy does know what he’s doing.
Yes, U.S. soccer fans can be a fickle bunch, and they have been on a roller coaster of late.
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This time last week, many American fans were disappointed and panicking after the loss to Jamaica. Granted, veteran leaders Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley are injured and didn’t play, but still, the star-spangled fans don’t expect their team — a team that has qualified for the past six World Cups — to be sitting behind Jamaica and neck-and-neck with the likes of Guatemala.
Only two of the four teams in the group advance to the six-team hexagonal qualifying round next year, and the United States could not afford another loss.
He put captain Carlos Bocanegra back in central defense, which provided a calming influence on the back line. He put heady, steady Steve Cherundolo at right back, which kept Jamaica’s speedy wingers at bay and also provided the perfect partner for new U.S. winger Graham Zusi, a native of Longwood who plays for Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City. Zusi made some great runs and had a shot rejected by the crossbar.
He played Danny Williams at defensive midfield, and he played his best game in a U.S. jersey. Williams did a good job holding the ball, made some pinpoint passes and was rarely caught out of position. He also nearly scored on a 30-foot rocket that bounced off the frame. He filled in nicely for Bradley and might have earned himself a spot alongside Bradley when the veteran returns.
Klinsmann also decided to play Zusi and Jose Torres at the wings. Torres wasn’t as effective as Zusi, but both played well, particularly in the first half. Despite Jozy Altidore’s recent club success at AZ Alkmaar, Klinsmann chose to keep Herculez Gomez up front with Clint Dempsey. Gomez has a terrific work rate, battled hard and provided the game’s lone goal, a curling free kick in the 55th minute.
So, the United States, Guatemala and Jamaica each have seven points with two games to go in this round, with the United States and Guatemala ahead because of goals scored. Up next for Klinsmann’s team: a road game at group minnow Antigua and a home game against Guatemala in Kansas City. Jamaica plays in Guatemala City, so odds are, the United States will advance, along with the winner of the Jamaica-Guatemala game.
In South America, the surprise team has been Colombia. After not qualifying for the 2002, ’06 or ’10 World Cups, the Colombians are in second place, one point behind leader Argentina. Ecuador is third. Uruguay and Chile are fourth and fifth, with 12 points, and Venezuela is sixth with 11.
Only three points separate first place from sixth at the midway point, an indication of how intense and close World Cup qualifying is in CONMEBOL.
For the past decade, Colombia has been the underachiever of South America. But phenomenal striker Radamel Falcao has almost single-handedly (footedly?) turned the team around. It beat Uruguay 4-0 on Sept. 7 and Chile 3-1 on Tuesday.
Falcao, who plays for Atletico Madrid, scored in both games. Over his past four club and national team games, he has scored eight goals.
He had a hat trick against defending Champions League winner Chelsea, three goals in two La Liga games for Atletico Madrid and then scored against Uruguay and Chile. Colombian midfielders had struggled to deliver the ball to Falcao in the past, but now he is getting help from James Rodriguez, Aldo Ramirez and Macnelly Torres. Coach Jose Pekerman, formerly the coach of Argentina, also deserves much credit for finding the right players and style to best utilize Falcao.
Fabio Capello, who managed AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus and England, compared Falcao with Lionel Messi.
“Throughout my entire career, there has been only one player who impressed me as much as Messi when I first saw him against my Juventus at the Joan Gamper trophy, and that is Radamel Falcao,” Capello told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He is a fantastic striker, without a doubt the best around at the moment.”
Falcao scored 72 goals in 87 games for Porto and 42 goals in 53 games so far for Atletico Madrid.
Not since the days of fluffy-haired Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama has Colombian soccer been so exciting.
The new South American underperformer is Paraguay. After making four consecutive World Cups and reaching the quarterfinals in 2010 in South Africa, the aging Paraguayans sit in last place and tied with Bolivia with nine games to go. The top four teams advance to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the fifth place team enters a playoff against the fifth-place Asian team. Paraguay’s World Cup streak is in serious jeopardy.