Saturday, March 24, 2012
OLYMPICS: Ailing Tri look to avoid U.S.
By Scott French
CARSON -- Luis Fernando Tena fêted Mexico's one-sided victory in its Olympic qualifying opener by surveying his squad to see who might be available for game two.
Four Mexicans limped off with injuries during a 7-1 dismantling of Trinidad & Tobago in a Group B opener Friday night, and that's not going to help in Sunday afternoon's showdown with Honduras at Home Depot Center.
The Hondurans also won their opener and have a team, Tena noted before the tournament kicked off, that's capable of winning the group and claiming one of CONCACAF's two berths in the men's soccer event at this summer's London Olympics.
“The team played well,” Tena acknowledged after El Tri's under-23 national team, filled with Primera Division standouts, dominated every phase of the match with T&T, opening up huge advantages in shots (35-7), shots on goal (15-2), corner kicks (14-2) and, most important, goals, behind Guadalajara star Marco Fabian de la Mora's hat trick. “We had good possession, a good situation. A lot of times we were unable to finish, but we attacked well.”
Unfortunately, Mexico also dominated in players injured. T&T goalkeeper Andre Marchan, without whom the scoreline might have been 15-1, suffered a mild concussion when Toluca's Nestor Calderon, frantically chasing a ball with a 5-0 lead, leapt high in the air and kicked him in the head.
Calderon, perhaps justly, was hurt when he landed, although Tena did not identify the injury nor its extent. Three other midfielders -- Pumas UNAM's David Cabrera and Javier Cortes and Cruz Azul's Javier Aquino -- also “suffered knocks,” as Tena put it, and their statuses also are unknown.
“Unfortunately, we did have a lot of knocks,” Tena said. “That's going to make us wait until the last minute to see who we can count on [Sunday]. Honduras is obviously the toughest opponent in the group. The game will be very different from today's.”
Tena admitted the injuries “make us worry and leave us with a bitter taste.”
Sunday's showdown could be the pivotal match of the tournament. Mexico and the U.S., which was upset Saturday by Canada in Group A play in Nashville, are clearly the class of the field and the overwhelming favorites to win an Olympic Games berth. Honduras seems to be the only team capable of maneuvering past one of them. The winner in Sunday's 4 p.m. matchup -- or Mexico if it's a draw -- will likely face the U.S. in a March 29 semifinal in Kansas City, Kan., if the Americans can beat El Salvador on Monday.
The semifinal winners go to London.
The U.S. were worthy winners in a Feb. 29 friendly against Mexico in Frisco, Texas.
Tena wouldn't say avoiding a semifinal clash with the Americans is pivotal -- “we have to measure them, see which team [in Group A] is stronger; in theory, I think it's the U.S.,” he said -- but he knows it is. Mexico has failed to qualify for two of the past three Olympics, failed to get out of group four years ago, and that's disastrous for the region's oldest soccer power.
DIFFERENT PATHS: Mexico's mastery of space and of ball movement, its interchange in midfield, how it expanded the field and opened huge space to attack, and the energy with which it went after Trinidad & Tobago was stunning. As Tena noted: “Everyone performed well.”
Honduras, not so much. They lacked intensity in the first half of a 3-1 win over Panama, but came out sharper after halftime and pulled out a game not nearly as close as the score suggests.
“What I really like about this team is it's proactive, not reactive,” said Luis Fernando Suarez, Honduras' Colombian coach. “It's a team that likes to fix its own problems. They propose solutions and they figure out how to fix it.”
The victory over Panama ought to have sent the Catrachos to the final four -- the winner figured to join Mexico, the U.S. and either Canada or El Salvador in K.C. -- but Suarez said his team was “not even talking about being classified [for the semifinals] after one game. It's just one game. It's only the first step. There's two more to go. We know it will get tougher, but I think the team has shown that they have what it takes.”
WORTH NOTING: Mexico's delegation had one demand when it arrived at Home Depot Center: It would not accept the locker room it used four years ago, when El Tri finished third in its group, a result that cost national team coach Hugo Sanchez his job. CONCACAF had already made arrangements for the Mexicans to use a different locker room. … T&T coach Angus Eve said he “fully believes [Mexico] will beat everybody in the group, based on tonight.” … Panama manager Julio Dely Valdes knows the loss to Honduras has greatly damaged his team's hopes to qualify, but “there are six points left and we're still alive. Out objective is to win the next two. We know the third game [Tuesday night against Mexico] will decide whether we classify [for the semifinals].