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U.S., Syria Salvage Late Qualifying Draws

September 5th, 2017 · No Comments · Fifa, Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

The United States and Syria and their national soccer teams. Concepts never before found in the same paragraph, on this blog.

Each hoped today for a victory. Each would be crushed by a defeat.

Each will settle for draws, late in the making, draws that keep each team on a road to the Russia 2018 World Cup, if nowhere near safely arrived.

First, the Yanks.

Things got scary when the Americans lost 2-0 to Costa Rica in New Jersey last week. That home defeat was not expected, even if Costa Rica, a Brazil 2014 quarterfinalist, is have a fine qualifying campaign.

And it shifted the pressure onto a road game, and not an easy one — and nearly none in Concacaf are easy: Away to Honduras at steamy San Pedro Sula. (Temperature 91 Fahrenheit, “feels like” temp 107.)

It became clear U.S. coach Bruce Arena was feeling the pressure, ahead of the match, already raising points that he apparently thought would mitigate the abuse he might take in the case of a defeat.

He managed to remind reporters that the team had zero points from two matches, when he took over from Jurgen Klinsmann — though the odds would be good that history would remember it as “Bruce Arena’s team not qualifying.”

Then he made an odd remark about current U.S. immigration policies making it “harder” to play on the road in the region. As if teams from Mexico and the whole of Central America did not already consider a victory over Uncle Sam to be one of life’s finest pleasures.

So. Arena prepared for the game by changing, from the Costa Rica match, seven of the 11 starters — including in goal, where Brad Guzan got the first start of his career in a match for which Tim Howard was available.

Honduras took a lead in the 27th minute, via Romell Quioto, which reinforced how much of an internecine struggle the USA versus Anyone Not Mexico can be when each team throws out its Major League Soccer stars out there. (Quioto plays for the Houston Dynamo; nine of the 11 U.S. starters play in MLS, too.)

Then the place turned into the sort of sound machine the Americans have been finding in regions south of the border for the past forever and the minutes slipped away.

In the 74th minute, Arena sent on Bobby Wood for Darlington Nagby, and in the 85th, Wood scored.

As you can see on the video, it was not a thing of beauty. Kellyn Acosta’s free kick from 30 yards was pretty good, banging off the bar. Two touches later the ball appeared on Woods chest, in front of the goal, and the Hamburg forward got it down and poked it in. It ended 1-1.

And that sigh of relief was U.S. Soccer’s relief, from Sunil Gulati on down, at not having to explain to the nation, for the next four years, how it couldn’t finish in the top three of the world’s weakest major soccer region.

Importantly, it leaves the Yanks in control of their destiny, if some way from a good side, as they go for their eighth successive World Cup berth. The key moment will come on October 6, in Orlando, when they play Panama with third place (and direct qualifying) at stake.

(And here is where we wonder why in hell that match is being played in Florida, where the weather should be quite familiar to the Panamanians, and where thousands of their fans will be in the stands. U.S. Soccer Federation arrogance, we have to think, figuring this would be wrapped up by now, because that match should be somewhere Panama fans would struggle to find, like Columbus, Ohio; or where the climate would make them uncomfortable, and I think Denver or Salt Lake City would work.)

The U.S. ends with a match at hexagon bottom-feeders Trinidad & Tobago on October 10. Honduras has Costa Rica away and Mexico at home; Panama ends with Costa Rica at home. Any side that can dredge up six points will advance, even if via fourth place and the inter-confederation playoffs.

And Syria. Versus Iran in Tehran. A 2-2 draw.


A day before, I suggested this game called for watching as a situation where political issues might overwhelm those of pure (such as it is) football.

I am not sure what happened, but Iran did not roll over so its greatest ally could gain a regime-lifting victory. But neither did Iran round off home qualifying with a fifth consecutive victory. And Iran certainly did not complete qualifying with 10 unscored-upon matches.

In this one, Syria led early, Iran came back with a goal before halftime and one early in the second 45, both scored by Sardar Azmoun after the keeper deflected headers and at 2-1 the 62,000 locals had to figure this was sewed up. But with three minutes of added time winding down, it got weird.

The first three goals, all restarts poorly defended. Ball spills off the keeper, someone tucks it in. Maybe Syria allows that to happen, but Iran should not be that sloppy. It is not what Carlos Quieroz’s team is about. Look at their previous nine qualifying matches.

The only run-of-play goal came in the 93rd minute, and it is worth examination.

It sent millions of Syrians into paroxysms of ecstasy and, bless ’em, they are due for some happy thoughts. But the goal.

Again, Iran is the king of defense. The country has been starved for strikers pretty much since Ali Daei, so it defends with energy and precision and is good at it.

Here is video of the goals but if you want to straight to the final one, pick it up at the 5:10 mark.

Some questions of the final goal:

–What is Iran doing pushing forward in extra time? It has only three defenders in its own end as the ball is given away. One headed ball by Syria and the visitors are off to the races with a 3-on-3 break.

–The defenders fan out so that one is associated with each of the attackers, but near the edge of the box the guy tracking the Syria player wide right — described earlier in the day by a Syrian as the greatest forward in Asia — turns his back on him to give the player carrying the ball double attention. That’s a horrible idea.

–The ball is tapped over to that now-open guy on the right, Asia’s greatest forward, etc., and his first touch is a shot from a good angle, fairly well hit. It goes through the keeper’s legs as he comes out … and into the goal.

Cue weeping-for-joy Syrians.

The one point for a draw allowed them to finish third in Group A of Asian qualifying, and puts them in a playoff with the No. 3 team from Group B — which is Australia.

The winner of that home-and-away series, next month, advances to meet the fourth-place team out of the Concacaf hexagonal for another home-and-away — one of the two inter-confederation playoffs which determine the last teams into Russia 2018.

Which means a chance exists that Syria could play the United States with a World Cup berth at stake. (See how we did that?)

That’s not the way to bet. Not that a sensible person would ever bet on soccer. But it still seems a bit more likely that the U.S. finishes third and Panama or Honduras finish fourth and goes to the inter-confederation playoff, against Australia. But who knows, now that Spanish speakers in Concacaf really don’t like the Yankees?

Very curious stuff. So much of it, too, that sometimes it is hard to keep up with it all. But endlessly fascinating.


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