A quintet of outstanding strikers lead their respective national teams against the United States in the final round of World Cup 2006 qualifying.
By Paul Kennedy
(From the Feb. 14/21 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)
The troubled 'Cuau'
CUAUHTEMOC BLANCO (Mexico)
Club:Club America (Mexico). Age: 32. Ht.:5-foot-10. Wt.: 155 pounds.
He incited a riot at the end a 2003 Libertadores Cup game at Azteca Stadium, earning a one-year international ban.
He allegedly punched an autograph-seeker last year during a stay in Houston, prompting a civil suit that kept prevented him from traveling to the United States.
He's lashed out at reporters, opponents and referees. When Virginia Tovar became the first woman to referee a Mexican First Division match, Blanco spoiled the moment, remarking, "Get back to washing dishes, you b****."
Blanco's call-up for the Hexagonal opener against Costa Rica was the subject of more controversy.
At first, Blanco wasn't picked. Then Coach Ricardo Lavolpe did a u-turn and announced the next day he was selecting Blanco.
All this following another outburst by Blanco, this time criticizing Tri teammates.
"Personally, I don't like some of the players, one or two," Blanco said.
Keeping Blanco off the Tri is hard to do. He's been a big factor in Mexico's international success, helping it reach the second round at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and win the 1999 Confederations Cup.
He's best known for the trick he introduced at France '98 -- the "cuauteminha," where he jumps over tackles with the ball trapped between his own feet.
The lanky Jared Borgetti remains a first choice in the Mexico attack. The rising star Francisco "el Kikin" Fonseca, transferred from champion UNAM to Cruz Azul in December. Midfielder Jimmy Lozano scored both goals in Mexico's 2-1 opening win at Costa Rica.
The feisty 'Little Fish'
CARLOS RUIZ (Guatemala)
Club: Los Angeles Galaxy (USA). Age: 25. Ht.: 5-foot-9. Wt.:170 pounds.
For three seasons, Carlos Ruiz has been the best striker in MLS.
"El Pescadito" ('the Little Fish") is one of the few Guatemalan players to make it big abroad, earning the honor of the 2002 Personality of the Year award back home for his success in his first season with the Galaxy -- 24 goals in the regular season, eight in the playoffs and an MLS title.
Ruiz joined Municipal's youth program at 12 and played his first pro game at 16. He spent seven years at Municipal, interrupted only by a six-month stay in Greece in 2000.
Then-Los Angeles Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid first saw Ruiz playing for Guatemala at the 2000 Olympic qualifying tournament in Hershey, Pa., and followed him for two years before signing him as a discovery player.
The feisty Ruiz's ability in the box is what first caught Schmid's attention, and it's made him one of the most feared strikers in CONCACAF.
His two goals against Canada on the road got Guatemala off to a winning start in the semifinal round of qualifying. His game-winner against Honduras clinched a berth in the Hexagonal for Guatemala, the only major soccer-playing country in Central America to never play in the World Cup.
At 6-foot-2, the much-traveled Dwight Pezzarossi (back with Comunicaciones after stints in Chile, Argentina and England) is the perfect complement to Ruiz. Juan Carlos Plata, 34, is a threat coming off the bench.
The unemployed 'Bomber'
ROBERTO BROWN (Panama).
Club: no club. Age: 27. Ht.: 6-foot-1. Wt.:170 pounds.
After playing on eight teams in six countries in the past eight years, Roberto Brown could use a break.
"El Bombardero" ("the Bomber") finds himself unemployed after being released by his Austrian club last fall, but he'll be plenty busy.
Brown leads the Canaleros in their bid to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
Brown was sensational in the semifinal round, scoring in four of Panama's six games. All four goals gave Panama leads, including the second-half goal in Panama City, where the United States escaped with a 1-1 tie.
Brown's early years were spent traveling across Central America: one year apiece in Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador before moving back home to Panama, where he played for three teams in two seasons.
Brown's break, if you could call it that, came in 2001 when he moved to Moldova. Romanian coach Mihail Stoichita, who had worked in Panama, recommended Brown to Sheriff Tiraspol, which he was coaching.
He won three league titles in Moldova and earned a spot at Salzburg. But with only one goal in nine games and frequent trips back home for qualifying, Salzburg had enough and released him.
With the retirement of the Dely Valdes twins, Julio Cesar and Jorge, after the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, Brown's partner will probably be 22-year-old Jose Luis Garces, "El Pistolero," who recently joined Colombian club Independiente Medellin. Other options are Luis Tejada and Blas Perez.
The mercurial 'Chope'
PAULO WANCHOPE (Costa Rica). Club: Malaga (Spain). Age: 28. Ht.: 6-foot-4. Wt.: 150 pounds.
Paulo Wanchope may be the most gifted soccer player to ever come out of Central America, but in Calexico, Calif., where he attended high school on an exchange program, he's remembered for his basketball talents.
He averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds in 1994 for Vincent Memorial High School and attracted the interest of Division I college programs.
Within three years of graduation from high school, he was sold by Herediano to English club Derby County.
He was an instant hit in England, dazzling fans with his fancy dribbling. He later moved to West Ham and then Manchester City, scoring a hat trick in his home debut for City.
Knee problems have slowed him down in recent years -- he almost missed the 2002 World Cup -- and he moved to Spanish club Malaga last summer. After a fast start, he's scored once goal in his next 11 games.
He returned to the Ticos last fall and helped them recover from a horrendous start -- losses to Honduras and Guatemala -- to win CONCACAF's Group B.
He scored five goals, giving him 18 career goals in World Cup qualifying, a Costa Rican record.
With the Chicago Fire's Andy Herron out with a knee injury suffered in a friendly against Haiti in January, the other choices are veterans Rolando Fonseca and Ronald Gomez. Also available are Oscar Rojas, who plays for Mexico's Dorados, and former MLS player William Sunsing, who now plays in the Czech Republic.
The unlucky 'Postman'
STERN JOHN (Trinidad & Tobago)
Club:Coventry City (England). Age: 28. Ht.: 6-foot-1. Wt.: 165 pounds.
Stern John gives hope to all players beginning out at the lowest rungs of American soccer.
John came to the United States in 1995 to attend JC power Mercer County Community College and moved to the A-League in 1997. He was a bust at the Carolina Dynamo, failing to score in five games, but he caught fire after being traded to the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers.
He scored 52 goals (regular season and playoffs) in two seasons with MLS's Columbus Crew, drawing a record MLS transfer fee in excess of $3 million when he was sold to England's Nottingham Forest in late 1999.
Hard luck followed him to England. He earned the nickname "the Postman" for a string of shots off the post. A knee injury suffered in 2000 set John back, and Forest sold him in 2002 to Birmingham, where he was the Blues' top scorer in his first season. But his playing time dropped in 2003-04, and last summer Birmingham sold him to Coventry City of the League Championship for only $360,000.
John has six goals in eight World Cup 2006 qualifiers.
Former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke, who had "retired" in 2001, returned for T&T's 2-1 opening loss to the USA. Stern John had usually teamed with Lebanese-based giant Errol McFarlane in the semifinal round of qualifying. Other options are youngsters Cornell Glen (traded from the MetroStars to FC Dallas), Scott Sealy (Kansas City Wizards draft pick out of Wake Forest) and Kenwyne Jones (Southampton)