Monday, July 13, 2009

USA Finds Late Equalizer Against Haiti

After keeping a clean sheet for the first two games of the Gold Cup against Grenada and Honduras, the United States threw out a "B" version of an already "B" squad. In case this wasn't clear to the viewers by the mostly unrecognizable names on the pitch (at least by USMNT standards), the FSC announcers were describing early in the telecast how Jay Heaps had turned himself into a "serviceable" defender. It was supposed to be a compliment, if not a particularly glowing one. This description proved to be a bad omen for the United States backline in general and Heaps in particular.

The United States opened the scoring in the sixth minute when Stuart Holden played Davy Arnaud in; Arnaud deftly slid the ball past the keeper. Holden's contributions were far from finished. He was confident on the ball all day and crisp in his distribution, although he occasionally needed to pick up the pace of his play in order to avert pressure. Holden also foreshadowed future events by cracking a shot from distance that was barely touched by the keeper. It was unclear whether that touch kept the ball out, but in any case the ball ricocheted off the crossbar and landed on the wrong side of the goal line.

From then on, reserve goalkeeper Luis Robles and Heaps stole the show, and not in a good way. Robles nearly turned a first half strike, which was directly at him but up, into a goal by trying to catch it and nearly batting it into his own net. Only with an awkward dive back toward his own line did he knock the ball out for a corner. At the start of the second half, Heaps was isolated Haitian forward Leonel Saint-Preux in the right corner, and Saint-Preux made a move towards goal. Heaps did a full 360 and ended up nowhere near the ball nor his man, and looked closer to a Dancing with the Stars audition than a competent defender. Saint-Preux's cross then went directly over Robles three yards off the line, instead finding Vaniel Sirin for an inexcusably uncontested header. Two minutes later, Saint-Preux again gained some space on the right side and tried to play the ball through to himself toward goal. This time Robles and Heaps failed to communicate, and Heaps attempted to clear despite Robles sliding to the ground to collect the ball. Heaps' clearance was poor, and the result was a wonderfully taken side volley by Mones Chery into the back of the net before Robles got back in position.

After unexpectedly finding the lead, Haiti did their best "Chelsea at Camp Nou" and attemped to pack everyone back behind the ball and hold the result. However, they only succeded in doing so until extra time, when a ball stripped from substitute Brian Ching came right to Holden. The resulting strike was cracked from 25 yards and found not woodwork but net. Still, Haiti went through to the quarterfinals with a draw and will no doubt be pleased anyway.

Having completed the group stage, the United States draw Panama in the Gold Cup quarters on Saturday in Philadelphia. Panama has had very little success in their international football history. They did make the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for Germany 2006, but finished with a dreadful 2 points in ten matches. They did not qualify for the final stage of World Cup qualifying this year. Probably their most successful international tournament ever was the 2005 Gold Cup, in which they shocked Colombia and played a 0-0 draw with the United States in the final, only to lose on penalties. Obviously the USA are significant favorites to progress.

If the United States does move on, they will face the winner of the Honduras-Canada match. Canada actually won Group A over Costa Rica, and will likely not be pleased to draw a very capable Honduran side as a reward. Costa Rica and Mexico are on the other side of the draw. If all the favorites advance, the Honduras-USA and Mexico-Costa Rica semifinals should make for good viewing.

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