when we last left off, our intrepid men of the pitch had rebounded from a disheartening 2-1 loss to MExico to dispatch Guatemala by 2-0. like most other things around here, the two matches played in the past week did not get my full attention - i saw maybe 30 minutes of the two games combined. fortunately for the US team's chances, my presence in the television audience falls somewhere below a solid attack and Kasey Keller's brilliance on the scale of deciding factors.
first came a 3-0 victory over the Ticos of Costa Rica led by Landon Donovan's two goals (his first tallies in this final qualifying round) and polished off by Brian McBride's late goal to ice it. i caught the first goal, which came nicely off of a loose ball and also saw an equalizing goal that was waved off for offsides. Keller reportedly had a brilliant stretch to preserve the lead in the first half, and after witnessing more of his heroics in Wednesday night's 3-0 triumph at Panama, i can easily believe it. with the US up 1-0 early in the Panama match, he made a series of 3 saves in 5 seconds that were among the most inspired i've ever seen. and they inspired the American side as well, as they went on to score two more goals in the first half to avenge the ugly almost-loss from last year when they needed a very late goal in the rain to salvage a point from the Panamanians. now, with two months off before a match against Trinidad & Tobago in Connecticut, the team has all but clinched a spot in Germany 2006.
elsewhere, the field is starting to take shape. a quick rundown by continent:
South America (4.5 spots) - Argentina, Brazil, blah blah blah. the real excitement here is the battle for the other two qualifying places, currently occupied by Ecuador and Paraguay. Colombia and Chile are lurking but face tough games in September @ Uruguay anf @ Brazil repsectively. if Uruguay can win, they would put themselves into 5th place and in line to take on the Oceania winner for the right to go to Germany.
Asia (4.5 spots) - Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are all in while Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Bahrain are still alive for a playoff with a North American team. North Korea is eliminated, to which the world can only say "thank you" given the political climate there as well as the rioting that took place during a loss to Iran that forced the recent match with Japan to be played in an empty stadium in Thailand.
Africa (5 spots) - group leaders include the usual suspects of Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa as well as moderate surprise Ivory Coast who are currently in ahead of Cameroon and Egypt. other potential surprises lurking beghind the leaders are Togo (a personal favorite), Zambia, Tunisia and Angola. the series of games next weekend will help shake things out a bit.
Europe (13 spots + host) - virtually no surprises here whatsoever, with the exceptions of Ukraine who are on the verge of clinching a spot in their group over Turkey, Greece (the 2004 European champion) and Denmark and France, the 1998 World Cup champions who currently sit 4th in their group (behind Israel!). battles between Poland and England, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, Spain and Serbia, Ireland and Switzerland and Croatia and Sweden are mildly compelling but the real action here won't take flight until some teams other than Andorra and Liechtenstein start getting near elimination.
Oceania (0.5 spots) - this region has been quiet for over a year awaiting this September's 2-game playoff between Australia and the Solomon Islands for the right to play a South American team for possible entry into the World Cup. Solomon Islands qualified for the playoff after tying the Aussies in the final game of the previous round, leaving them 1 point ahead of New Zealand who had a loss to Vanuatu to blame for their downfall. and yes these are real places, and yes i had to look them up to find out where they were. at any rate, this is Australia's last hurrah as the big fish in the little pond as they join the Asian Football Confederation next time around.
in: Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran, South Korea
virtually in: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ukraine, United States
open spots: 22