Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shooting From the Hip: AFC Second Round

You don't get far in this world playing it cautiously. It's as much a part of the Montana spirit as speed-limit free highways and sales-tax-free beef jerky.

So when it comes to predictions, I'll shoot from the hip. Take a chance when I'm not exactly sure. Be blunt and direct and optimistic when I can be.

The second round of Asian qualifying was announced on Tuesday, and while it won't start for another month and won't end for another year, I figured it was best to make predictions within 48 hours.

The nearly-year long second round, 8 groups of 5 will play home and away. The winners, and the top four runners up, will move on to the final round. (That's where your odds as one team in 2 groups of 6 get a heck of a lot better.)

So who will reach those lofty heights?

Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia
Winner: The Saudis have the higher profile and the richer pedigree, but the United Arab Emirates has had the better run of form lately. With probably the softest competition around them, I'd guess Zayed's Sons have the best chance.

Dark Horse: Set aside the geopolitical turmoil and the fact that their leaders seem hell bent on getting Israel kicked out of FIFA, but Palestine likely offers the best chance at an upset. A squad built on non-local players will never coalesce perfectly, but their familiarity with top flight squads (as seen in a trip to the the AFC Cup in January) will serve them well.
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Winner: This isn't quite a tap-in for The Socceroos but it's close. One of the dominant sides in Asia will have no trouble handling the rivals, the only real match to watch will be against Jordan.
A Socceroo tap in
Dark Horse: Speaking of Jordan, "The Chivalrous" have a strong case to make as one of the top sides in West Asia. They've had great fortune against the lesser sides of Asia (which definitely includes the Bangladeshis, Tajiks and Kyrgyzseseses--okay the Kyrgyz no offense meant), and by cutting their teeth in an endless series of friendlies against higher profile foes they'll keep that strength, take their lumps against Australia and move along.
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Winner: Loathe as I am to give them any credit, Qatar has put just about everything they have into developing a team that will match their stadia by 2022. And in case you're wondering, yes that does include pressuring foreigners into service (including Frenchman Dame Traore, Ghanaian Mohammad Muntari and Brazilian Luiz Junior). A strong 2014 was undercut by a truly underwhelming performance in the Asian Cup, but I think they'll be under pressure to get close this cycle--so they don't become the first team since Italy in 1934--the second cup ever--to host a world cup without having played in one before.

Dark Horse: I'm absolutely drinking Bhutan's Kool-Aid, but I don't care. The low profile, lack of film, high altitude home matches and general "do you believe in miracles vibe" makes the land of the Thunder Dragon an easy squad to root for. In the end they'd need to take points at home against both China and Qatar and sweep all matches against Maldives and Hong Kong, but hey, crazier things have happened.
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Winner: With or without the recently departed Carlos Quieroz, Iran's got too much talent to miss out in this group. A debacle during a penalty shoot out at the Asian Cup this January shouldn't distract from the fact that they were easy front runners at the tournament and should be for this one as well. If they put their minds to it, I'm sure that young striking talents like Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarfarid could find some salient suggestions for the nuclear deal too.
Go Go Guam!
Dark Horse: Much as I love plumping for India (where I lived and worked for a few years), the baffling dark horse to root for is Guam. The rare American protectorate that actually IS an underdog, Guam garnered big headlines when they drew at higher profile Singapore. A squad filled with American college kids and MLS developmental talents might not do much against even average Asian sides like a dangerous Omani crew. But they are the ultimate dark horse.
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Winner: It will take a lot for any of these teams to meaningfully challenge Japan. The Blue Samurai got an excellent draw despite a lackluster World Cup and Asian Cup. Still, they're at the top of the Asian standings and even if they don't consistently bring back European based players they should be able to handle these qualification rivals.

Dark Horse: If one of the other four sides can put together a consistent run against the other three they could pull a surprise especially with other second-tier teams (and Japan) playing so inconsistently. At a guess, I'd put money on Singapore which boasts a young squad with some internationally based players and more who work together at Lions XII bringing cohesion and confidence into the mix (not to mention avoiding the ...but when you lose to whole confidence is undermined.
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Winner: Credit where it's due, Iraq consistently makes the best of an unusual and often trying situation. They've played the top teams in Asia very closely and make a habit of taking lower-ranked rivals seriously. A few foreign based players (including the Columbus Crew's Justin Meram) show continued promise and growth.

From Left to Right: Chanathip Songkrasin and Kroekrit Thawikan
Dark Horse: The biggest challenge for Iraq will be the frequent long-distance hauls to South East Asia. So the question for a dark horse will be any team who can boast a difficult home environment (to steal a win against the favorites) and real sway over regional rivals. By that standard Thailand is your most likely nominee (just winning the South East Asia Suzuki Cup, boasting a young and growing squad, consistent at home), but that's not anything I'd wager heavily on.
Group G: Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Winner: Korea is still one of the preeminent powers in Asian football, perpetual status as bridesmaid's not withstanding. Their growing influence in Europe doesn't hurt matters, world cup qualification is now expected and the rivals here won't slow that down.

Dark Horse: Right now the hottest team for fans of Asian underdogs is Bhutan, but Lebanon was pulling the Cinderella story during the 2014 cycle. They're back again against two teams they beat on the road during the last set of qualifiers, higher regarded Kuwait and Korea. Though it ended with whimper in the final round of qualifying, the Cedars stood tall, and while Kuwait's a more likely runner-up/qualifier. Lebanon is still where my loyalty lies.
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, DPR Korea, Yemen
Winner: The Uzbeks have long been a favorite of this blog. After all there's a strong corps of players being augmented by solid youth talents from a growing domestic league. They were in the hunt for a World Cup Spot until the final weeks of the last cycle, and they played well in the Asian Cup this January. Sure their president might be a nut job who made his daughters pop stars, ambassadors, corporate honchos, heirs apparent to the presidency, and then (at least in one case) political prisoners. But still, how 'bout that team, eh?

At least he didn't name them manager
Dark Horse: Maybe it's that they're the only reasonable country in the group. Maybe it's that their nickname is "the Street Dogs". Maybe it's that I'm afraid of Manny Pacquiao. But I feel like the Philippines might be poised for a surprising finish. Bahrain and Korea are both on the slide and Yemen is in turmoil while the Philippines has seen steady results and, in goal keeper Neil Ethridge, boast the only Chelsea trainee in the whole group.

12 Teams advancing to third Round (** signifies Top 4 runner up)
South Korea
**The Philippines

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy Trails: 209-196(ish)

I'm rather fond of giving a little glimpse into the minnows and would-be-Cinderellas of the World Cup Qualifying campaigns, and I don't even feel like it's a pattern that should be limited to those who win (or are likely to win).

That's where this "Happy Trails" feature comes in. At the end of any month that features World Cup qualifiers I try to take a peek and see who has ridden off into the sunset of international futbol irrelevance for the next few years.

As this is the first time every member of FIFA is set to compete in qualifying, we have a lot of people to say goodbye to, long before we even smell the borsht in Russia three years from now. With that, let's raise a pint (or, given FIFA's sponsorship deals: Let's raise AN ICE COLD BUDWEISER BROUGHT TO YOU BY COCA COLA, OFFICIAL SPONSOR OF HYUNDAI'S SPONSORSHIP OF THE WORLD CUP) to the gone, and soon to be forgotten eliminated squads of the World Cup

(Note, each entry bases the ranking on games played, goal difference and finally chronological order. Entries begin with goodbye in a local language, a recap of previous performance, and change in position from one world cup cycle to the next)

209-ish*Lesali Sesihamba, Zimbabwe (2014 Finish #115; -94 spots)
Why They Lost: Well, technically they haven't lost yet, they haven't even played a game yet. But FIFA has "expelled" Zimbabwe from the World Cup because they failed to pay former coach Jose Georgini after firing him. And while Zimbabwe's totally going to fight this, FIFA's not exactly known for changes of heart.

It's worth noting that Zimbabwe was allowed to participate in the 2014 qualifiers, despite the fact that their previous head of the FA (ZIFA) was fired when she sent a fake national team to lose in South Asia and couldn't explain what happened to a $103,000 loan from the government. So, you know, undermine the legitimacy of the international system, no biggie, fail to pay a coach and hold your horses! Her replacement Dr. Cuthbert Dubet (who some accuse of organizing the charges against her despite his awesome name) makes $6.4 Million a year, so at least graft shouldn't be an issue for him.

So long story short, if Dr. Dubet fixes it we'll drop the others on this list down a spot each, if Zimbabwe stays eliminated let's just say it's because of total systemic corruption...
What We'll Miss: Lots of sure fire Robert Mugabe zingers. "Robert Mugabe's so paranoid, he thinks the Western forces driving him out of power are being driven out of power by other Western forces"; "Robert Mugabe's got so many delusions of grandeur even Kanye West thinks he needs to settle down." I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY MUGABE!!

#208 Buh Bye, Bahamas (2014 Finish: #176;  -32)
Why They Lost: After their unfortunate dismissal due to infrastructure problems four years ago, The Bahamas were utterly smoked by Bermuda in both legs of their matches, losing five-nil AT HOME and three-nil in Bermuda. Sloppy defending and frequent fouls seem to be the most common problem for Bahamian Slayersz (seriously, according to Wikipedia that's their nickname). With disarray on set pieces, failures to clear, cynical challenges and even captain Happy Hall earning a red card.

What We'll Miss: Hard to top a player named Happy Hall, even if he didn't look remotely Happy during the drubbing 

#207 Fare thee well, Anguilla (2014 Finish: #195; -12)
Why They Lost: The worst team to enter CONCAF Qualifying had to feel unlucky drawing the best team in the first round. There were long odds against Nicaragua from the off, and those long odds got longer when they lost five-nil in the first leg. The Three Dolphins may have bitten off more than they could chew, but there's always four years from now.
What We'll Miss: Ryan Liddie may not sound like a great keeper, but from the Nicaraguan match report, it was pretty clear that he was the only thing standing between Anguilla and a brutal drubbing.

#206 Ta-Ta, Turks and Caicos (2014 Finish #196; -10)
Why They Lost: Four years after getting pummeled by the Bahamanians, Turks and Caicos clearly found a way to get in to goal. They even grabbed a lead during the away leg thanks to Defender Widlin Calixte's brace in the first five minutes. However, all the new fire power made little difference when they were repeatedly picked apart by St. Kitts' even more potent attack (including Leicester City's Harrison Panayiotou and his hat trick).
What We'll Miss: As a Montanan living in Minnesota, the chance to bask in Cup Qualifying glory of the rival San Antonio Scorpions 'twin Turk/Caicos combo, Billy Forbes and Marc Fenelus (though since Fenelus is only 17 there's still time.)

#205 Bayarti, Mongolia (2014 Finish #198; -7)
Shirt badge/Association crestWhy They Lost: The Blue Wolves couldn't repeat the 2011 feat of taking a win in qualifying against this cycle's opponent, Timor-Leste and while a 4-1 defeat left a lot of work to do on the return leg. But a stultifying one-nil loss in Ulan Bator where nothing but cards flew after the 9th minute, showed that the young Mongolians still have a long way to go. 
What We'll Miss: Forward Soyol-Erdene Gal-Erdene has a lot of weight on his shoulders as a part of Tottenham Hotspur's youth program, but the real focus should be on Murun Altankhuyag, the midfield playmaker who will need to partner with Gal-Erdene for future matches. Hopefully a move to Serbia will boost those odds.

#204 Jongin, Macau (2014 Finish: #207; +3)
Why They Lost: Four years on from a 13 goal drubbing by Vietnam, Macau was actually much improved against Cambodia including a 1-1 draw to draw a point in the home leg of the match. But the 3-0 defeat in Phnom Penh under cut that.
What We'll Miss: Easy access to book makers and Macau's world famous gambling paradise. What's that? International accusations of match fixing? Uh...I'm sure there are other things to miss in Macau...

#203 So Long, US Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: #160; -43)
The Dashing Eagles must leave the pitch
in 20 minutes so 7th graders can
run the mile.
Why They Lost: The Dashing Eagles have a lot of youth and optimism around their team. With a host of teenagers, a confident captain in Dusty Goode (the old man of the team at 28), and an inspirational coach in Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed (of Mogadishu). But they do not have Wigan Athletic captain Emmerson Boyce. Barbados did. So despite a 1-0 win in Barbados, a 4-0 loss at home (where Boyce's addition seems to have made the difference) saw them out of the contest
What We'll Miss: The Virgin Islanders hosted a match at a Junior High School Field. That's the kind of home field advantage for young players that would be beautiful to see (especially if Mexico had to come to town)

Shirt badge/Association crest#202 Namaste, Nepal (2014 Finish #190; -12)
Why They Lost: In the last cycle we were plumping for young Rohit Chand, while he's still young, and still Nepal's best hope, he seemed out gunned, if you believe scouting reports that put him in charge of stopping India's top striker: Sunil Chhetri...only to have Chhetri's brace be the difference in qualification. But it's also worth noting that vaunted youth striker Bimal Magar, (currently trying out with Belgium's KRC Genk), was a total non-factor.
What We'll Miss: The charming Nepalese badge, like a double corner kick over Mount Everest.

#201 Khuda Hafiz, Pakistan (2014 Finish: 201; No Change)
Why They Lost: I've got to say, I don't think Pakistan is at all to blame here, I mean. They played Yemen twice in the gulf due to security concerns in both Yemen and Lahore. Delays, confusion, all of that left the Pak Shaheens unfortunately discomfited for their ties against a similarly confused but more highly regarded Yemeni squad. 
What We'll Miss: Muhammad Hamza's tweeting and writing is a great sample of passionate and proud futbol journalism from a country that few might focus on otherwise.

#200 Poittu Varen, Sri Lanka (2014 Finish: 202; +2)
Why They Lost: Overconfidence? Underestimation? Apathetic fans? Whatever the case, Sri Lanka crashed out to Bhutan. They had the better run of form, more professionals who played in a better league, a more experienced and worldly coach, a higher FIFA ranking and none of that mattered an inch. But on the plus side, they are responsible for what may become my new mantra while talking about underdogs. Whatever skills and talents the favorites have..."So Did Sri Lanka"
What We'll Miss: The chance for a nice nap...

Here's the fans when Bhutan won at home
And here's the best shot of the fans I could find from Colombo. 
Tiny Thimpu turned out 15,000 for a match, Colombo only rounded up 3,500 (many of those were Bhutanese University students)...despite the fact that Thimpu's metro population of 115,000 is about 2% of Colombo's 5 Million. Sure Bhutan's story is great for football, but sports writers need to sleep as much as the next guy/girl.

Uh, oh...he heard me.
#199 Selamaat Tiggal, Brunei (2014 Finish: Did Not Enter; +11)
Why They Lost: Brunei seemed to suffer from a classic case of scoring too early. The down side of doing that in a two-legged match is that you leave all manner of time for your opponents to get you back. Adi Said's strike in the 36th minute in Tapei gave "The Wasps" a big lead...a lead they squandered at home, conceding a goal on either side of their orange slices, to leave the wealthy sultanate wondering what went wrong...and why they didn't get a better half-time snack than orange slices, I mean...come on you're Brunei! You're supposedly the fifth richest ruler in the world!
What We'll Miss: Sassing the Sultan of Brunei: he's a man rich enough to afford a different medal for every hour of the day. But clearly he missed the oligarchical football management class from Roman Abromovic

#198 Bye, British Virgin Islands (2014 Finish: 193; -5)
Why They Lost: The British Virgin Islands didn't get the benefit of a home leg against Dominica due to construction on their best pitch (a combination cricket/soccer pitch...more proof that multipurpose stadiums just don't work! If only an owner could threaten to move the national team...). So despite young talents playing the game in the lower levels of the British professional system and various American colleges, they couldn't put it all together against Dominica.
What We'll Miss: For a team called "The Nature Boyz" this would have been a tremendous opportunity to double down on Ric Flair References. Sadly, we'll save the stylin' and profilin' for Christiano Ronaldo.

#197 Ta, Ta, Montserrat (2014 Finish: 193; -4)
Why They Lost: A team made up almost entirely of English citizens with Monserratian parentage (since a volcanic eruption 20 years ago sent a lot of the population to the less volatile English countryside) had a fair way to go just to compete, and minimal time to train. Also, they faced a Curaco squad coached by Dutch striking legend Patrick Kluivert...who can even get this match on to the sports pages of the vaunted Idaho Statesman.
Shirt badge/Association crestWhat We'll Miss: Lyle Taylor is clearly the main attraction and focus for the Emerald Boys, his potential has allowed him to bounce around a bit, with his greatest successes coming in Scotland first with Falkirk and now on loan to Partick Thistle. Still just 25, he may be able to boost the islanders to new heights in four years.

#196 Catch ya later, Cayman Islands (2014 Finish: 156; -40)
Why They Lost: The Away Goals Rule. A surprisingly game Cayman squad managed a pair of draws against a better Belize team (though Belize was without Atlanta Silverbacks Striker "Dangerous" Deon McCaulay who knotted 11 goals in the last cycle), but since they drew 1-1 in the Cayman city of George Town, Belize moved on.
What We'll Miss: The Cayman Island badge is a nice subtle nod to their English heritage, but with a slightly smilier Lion. He's your pal!