CONCACAF: The best eleven

Mexico and the United States, whose rise in the last five years has secured them places among the Top 20 teams on the world scene, are the heavy favorites to take two of the three CONCACAF spots at the 2002 finals.

For the first time in history, every member of The Football Confederation has entered World Cup qualifying.

Does every country have a shot? Hardly.

Realistically, only 11 of the 35 teams have a chance at qualifying for the 2002 World Cup Korea/Japan.

Mexico and the United States are heavy favorites, leaving nine teams to fight it out for the third spot.

Here's a look at the 11 contenders:

MEXICO. The expectations on the Tricolores are unlike those of any other CONCACAF team. They went unbeaten in 10 games in the final round of qualifying for France '98, extending their record of never having lost at home in qualifying, yet their performance was deemed so poor that Coach Bora Milutinovic was fired.

Given how far Mexico has come in the last two years under Coach Manuel Lapuente - it reached the second round in France and won the Confederations Cup this summer - it should have no problem reaching the World Cup for the 12th time.

UNITED STATES. The Americans' goal is a more modest seventh appearance in the finals.

On the surface, qualifying should be no problem - the United States has joined Mexico as a legitimate top 20 team on the world scene - but it has a history of struggling in qualifying.

Paul Caligiuri saved the United States 10 years ago, and the campaign for France '98 proved much harder than it should have been.

Bruce Arena will have the advantage of having much greater depth than Steve Sampson had, but most of Arena's players are untested in World Cup play.

Areas of concern: (1) an aging backline, (2) the absence of a midfielder (besides Claudio Reyna) who can break down the defense and (3) no consistent goalscorer (will Landon Donovan be ready in time?).

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO. Since coming within one game of reaching the '90 World Cup, T&T has disappointed outside the Caribbean.

This time there will be no excuses.

Jack Warner, the president of CONCACAF since 1990, says he has a $4 million war chest to get T&T through qualifying.

T&T certainly has the talent. Dwight Yorke, the Manchester United striker, is the first TFC player ever to be a finalist for the European Player of the Year award. Young Stern John, who first made a name for himself three years ago with a hat trick in early qualifying for France '98, could one day be every bit as good as Yorke.

Shaka Hislop, the former Howard star, has finally given up hope of playing for England and is now the T&T keeper.

COSTA RICA. The Ticos, who, along with the United States, Mexico and Jamaica have a free pass into the 2002 qualifying semifinals, are the perfect example of how not to run a national team program.

Pacho Maturana, who built Colombia into a South American power in the late '80s and early '90s, was brought in with much fanfare last year at this time, but he was gone by the end of the summer.

That was par for the course. Even when Costa Rica reached the World Cup finals for the only time in 1990, it went through three coaches in qualifying and picked a fourth, Milutinovic, to take the Ticos to Italy.

Last time, everything was going fine until Brazilian Badu Vieira fell out with the Costa Rican federation over money.

Marvin Rodriguez will coach the Ticos at the Gold Cup, but don't look for him to be around after that.

The potential is certainly there. Costa Rica has a dozen players in Mexico, Guatemala and the United States, not to mention young Paulo Cesar Wanchope at West Ham in England. With just two exiles, the Ticos recently dismantled Slovakia, 4-0, in Alajuela.

Can Boys survive without Simoes?

JAMAICA. The big surprise in World Cup '98 qualifying, the Reggae Boyz figured only to get better.

A half a dozen English-based players were drafted into national team service, supplementing a core of young locals.

The mastermind of the Reggae Boyz's rise was Brazilian Rene Simoes. Unfortunately, he has been seriously ill, leaving his future with the team in doubt.

Without him, Jamaica may struggle, as evidenced by the senior team's 9-0 loss to Costa Rica when he was tied up with Jamaica's U-17s in CONCACAF qualifying for New Zealand '99.

HONDURAS. The Catrachos have had a very good year, certainly their best since 1991, when they lost to the United States on penalties in the final of the first Gold Cup.

Honduras (6-1-1 with friendlies against Zambia and Costa Rica scheduled before the end of the year) beat host Costa Rica twice in the UNCAF Cup, losing the Central American title when it was upset by Guatemala on the final day of the tournament.

Working against Honduras and its coach, Ramon "Primitivo" ("Caveman") Maradiaga, are its limited financial resources and lack of depth.

Osieck has made small strides

CANADA. It's been almost 15 years since the Canadians beat the United States. Before that, they had eliminated the Americans from World Cup qualifying three times in a row.

German Holger Osieck, hired last fall, has made small strides, though almost all his best players are in Europe, limiting his work with the senior team.

Canada has a dozen players in the top two divisions in England and Scotland - A-League stars Pat Onstad and Niall Thompson both signed with Scottish clubs this fall - but its best player is the elusive Tomasz Radzinski, the Polish-born striker who has rarely played for Canada since making it big in Belgium.

GUATEMALA. The Bicolor is the opposite of its Central American rivals. It has decent organization and limited talent.

Guatemalan Benjamin Monterreso, firmly in charge as national team boss after a run of Argentine coaches, will take it on a three-week tour of South America to prepare for the Gold Cup.

As for players, about the best remain MLS alums Martin Machon and Jorge Rodas.

CUBA. A regional power in the pre-Castro days, Cuba has shown signs of life.

It gave the United States a scare before falling, 3-0, in the '98 Gold Cup, and it finished second to Trinidad & Tobago at the '99 Copa Caribe, losing on a golden goal by John in 118th minute, after upsetting Jamaica in the semifinals.

Coach William Bennett is ruing the missed opportunity of returning to the Gold Cup finals. Cuba finished third in the Gold Cup 2000 playoffs behind Canada and Haiti.

EL SALVADOR. Finalist in 1970 and 1982, El Salvador is the only Central American team to reach the World Cup twice, but it has fallen behind its Central American rivals.

It's not for a lack of talent. MLS stars Mauricio Cienfuegos (currently suspended), Raul Diaz Arce, Jorge Rodriguez and Ronald Cerritos form a solid nucleus.

The root of the problem is mismanagement at the federation level.

El Salvador has had six coaches in three years.

Brazilian Marinho was supposed to turn things around, but El Salvador finished last in both the UNCAF Cup final four and Gold Cup 2000 playoff.

HAITI. The Haitians were a regional power 20 years ago, eliminating the United States from the 1970 World Cup and qualifying themselves four years later.

Emmanuel Sanon, the star of the '74 team, is back as coach, sharing responsibilities with French adviser Bernard Souillier.

They have led Haiti into next year's Gold Cup finals, a first for the Caribbean nation.

by Soccer America managing editor Paul Kennedy

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