Previously on the International Breakdown we prepared for the March matches. The US steadied their ship. Loons took the field in Costa Rica, Trinidad, and Finland. Plus, local Gambian and Vietnamese fans cheered on valuable points. What lies ahead at the start of a busy summer schedule? Read on…
Now firmly in the hunt for a qualification spot, the US can grab prime position with a win against the Soca Warriors. The two have faced twice already in this edition of World Cup qualifying, though both teams have changed managers since then. The US attack has been more potent since the introduction of the Higgs boson particle in human form: Christian Pulisic. Meanwhile Trinidad has scuffled since the Hex kicked off. Beyond recent form, there’s also the fact that Trinidad hasn’t taken a point home from the mainland in World Cup Qualifiers since 1989.
Though Trinidad is just a point behind the US, they’re unlikely to move up without an offensive spark. Kevin Molino remains the stalwart organizer in the midfield, but Kenwyne Jones still seems in need of a breakthrough. Meanwhile, Mekeil Williams leads a stingy defense (whose worst showing came when Williams wasn’t in the lineup). Better still, Williams will be playing on the same turf he trods most weekends with the Colorado Rapids.
The first match represents the Americans’ best chance to take 3 points. After all, they have a scant two points to show from their eight qualifying journeys in the ominous Azteca. El Tri has gone undefeated so far in this final round of qualifying. They have not allowed a goal since Bobby Wood’s equalizer in November last year. (That’s 311 minutes for those counting at home.) Both Wood and Pulisic will be making debut appearances in Mexico, but exactly who they will face is unclear. Mexico’s coach Juan Carlos Osorio has made his plans clear. The Varsity crew will cover the Qualifiers before jetting off to the Confederations Cup this month. Meanwhile the JV side will train and prep for July’s Gold Cup.
Ideally, this system would help Mexico clinch a World Cup berth this week. Then get a dry run at life in Russia, while simultaneously identifying the best young talent to push entrenched veterans. In particular, something must be done about Rafa Marquez. El Tri’s talisman has only just returned from injury, as an integral part of Osorio’s preferred 3-4-3 formation. But with Marquez’s health uncertain, exactly who makes which team and how they play is uncertain.
All this sets some context for the US to capitalize on a distracted and uncertain Mexico. El Tri may be torn between besting their rival and packing for scenic Kazan and Sochi. If so, Arena’s youth movement could capture a paradigm shifting win.
Once again, Minnesota United midfield cog Kevin Molino will be leading the charge for the Soca Warriors attack. He was integral to the team getting their only three points of the round so far (in a win against Panama back in March). Trinidad will need to walk away with a minimum of 2 points this week to keep their flickering hopes for Russia alive. Unfortunately both matches are away from the protections of Port of Spain. In addition to facing the US in Denver, they will also have to face Costa Rica in notoriously combative San Jose. To get the needed points, Molino will likely have to go through a few familiar faces…
Los Ticos have again called up two Loons to fortify their attack. While Johan Venegas’ minimal minutes may keep him confined to the bench at first, Francisco Calvo‘s strong showings could help him get a spot in the defensive line. Calvo’s excellent league form will be balanced against a poor showing against Mexico back in March. After being caught out for both of El Tri’s goals, he was demoted to a bench role for the next match. Local fans who saw Calvo’s rampaging run out of the back during Minnesota’s match against Orlando may have witnessed his last ditch audition. It was out of character for the Loons, but it’s exactly what Costa Rican coach Oscar Ramirez has enjoyed about Calvo’s game. A marauding defender breaks up the Borges/Campbell show and startles opponents, for example…
Other Minne-Nota-ble Matches
Ethiopia returns to the pitch in a Nations’ Cup qualifier against the Black Stars of Ghana. They will field a mostly domestic side with only Egypt-based striker Oumed Oukri making new manager Ashenafi Bekele’s side. The Ish Jome-less Gambian side will also be on the road, this time in Benin where they will field an inverse squad to the Ethiopians (only three players play in the Gambian domestic league). The Scorpions’ attack feels blunted by the inexperienced attacking crew (9 caps among 6 strikers); if only there was someone getting a lot of minutes in an attacking role….(#JomeForGambia)
Finally for a special note on Liberia. As previously reported on FiftyFive.One, Martin Browne seemed prepared to make his debut with the Liberian national team during this break. Initial roster reports had the Lone Stars looking for some new contributions from the Liberian diaspora. However, controversy followed the squad with local websites questioning its accuracy, as well as some claims that players were invited without Debbah’s knowledge. The Lone Stars’ poor recent form certainly provided a reason to give a chance to untried players like Browne and other foreign-based Liberians (like Staebek’s Alex Nimley and Moroccan champion William Jebor). However, an opening friendly win against Sierra Leone was built on domestic players. It appears that coach James Debbah will play his preferred lineup. How this affects the team’s trip to Harare for a Nations’ Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe is anybody’s guess.
Rasmus Schüller’s injury has deprived him of a chance to go home for a very winnable game against Lichtenstein. (However it might save him from a headache defending against Ukraine.) At the same time, the Bashkim Kadrii-less Denmark will have their sights set on a trip to Almaty. Not for the Acension Cathedral, but for an extremely winnable 3 points against Kazakhstan. That would put them back in the hunt for a World Cup bid.
Cambodia hosts Indonesia in a friendly (rather nice of them given that Indonesia has been declared ineligible for FIFA tournaments until 2022) and a vital Asian Cup qualifier against Afghanistan. (Remember, Afghanistan’s Hassan Amin delivered the thunderbolt to tie Vietnam back in March.) Speaking of the Golden Stars, they’ll be looking for their own home cooking against Jordan. The Jordanians crushed the Kouprey Blue 7-0 back in March. So even a point against Jordan could put Vietnam in a strong position for Continental Qualification. Add to this golden opportunity the influx of several players fresh from tough competition at the U-20 World Cup (particularly Hà Đức Chinh, a striker who played all 270 minutes in Korea). Suddenly it can seem like Vietnam may be on the verge of a revolution on the national team.
Finally, for local expatriates, Thailand will start playing out their string at home against the UAE. Already eliminated from World Cup Consideration, the War Elephants’ new skipper, Serbian Milovan Rajevac, will start to assess his side before the South Asian Suzuki Cup next January. The Thais will be poised for a three-peat, but their poor showing in this round of qualifiers has cast doubt on their seeming dominance of the region.
For fans of Los Amarillos of Ecuador there are two Friendly matches being played in the US. Sadly both are on the east coast rather than in our own backyard. Still, there are some valuable storylines to watch, as well-known players like Alexander Dominguez, Antonio Valencia, Walter Ayovi, and Felipe Caicedo, stay home. Coach Gustavo Quinteros will try out defenders Pedro Velasco and Marcos Lopez as well as Universidad Catolica forward Jhon Cifuentes. The untried players will have to show they can support the team to crack the well organized and largely veteran side.
It’s never a friendly with Norway and Sweden get together (June 13th at 12:45 Central). Whether it’s meatball recipes, sweater styles, of forms of emotional repression, there are few battles as likely to divide Minnesotan allegiances. Both sides will be coming off of Cup Qualifiers that set them as decided underdogs’ underdog status. (Sweden hosts France on the 9th while Norway hosts the Czech Republic on the 10th). The Swedes certainly have been on better form and own a hefty lead in the general series (60-22-24). Still, the recent retirements of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kim Källström have left a hole in the attack. With Norway netting a meager two goals in the past calendar year, this would be a great time for new number 10, Emil Forsberg, to get comfortable.
–Arturo Olivarez and Anthony Bunay, members of Hiawatha Collegiate High School’s “Intro to Sports Journalism” class, contributed to this report.
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