In regional World Cup qualifying, don’t overlook Panama


So much of the coverage over the next two days around here will focus on the United States’ contest in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as the final drive for Brazil 2014 begins.

But there are two other matches in the region that deserve our attention.  One is in Panama, where the new kids on the regional qualifier block have a massive opportunity in hosting Costa Rica.

Panama is the one team among six in final stage CONCACAF qualifying that has never been to a World Cup. Even little Honduras (a vastly improved program now doing big things internationally) went to the last World Cup, three years in South Africa.

The Panamanians have tough road ahead – but not an impossible one. The United States and Mexico will be heavily favored to grab two of the three spots available for automatic qualification.

Presumptive as it is, that leaves Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama battling for the final automatic berth. The fourth-place team faces Oceania’s first-place side in a final spot for Brazil 2014.

I like Honduras to grab the third spot, but not by much. (More on why I like Honduras later.) Could Panama sneak in, or perhaps grab that fourth-place spot? Absolutely.

This is the side that crashed into Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup effort two summers back, upsetting the United States in Florida in a match that helped push U.S. Soccer to make a change. Panama has a group that plays within itself, that understands roles and usually doesn’t try to work beyond them. I remember being impressed two years ago by how far the country’s soccer efforts had come, and by how hard the Panamanians worked for each other.

Show me a team with unity, structure, a tough defensive mindset and one motivated, quality striker (Blas Perez, pictured), I’ll show you a team that can be dangerous. More on Panama is here in this piece from Tropigol, including some words from Perez, who gets right to the heard of it:

We work hard, very hard. There’s a union, a harmony in this Panama team. We don’t fight with each other, we’re not greedy, and when we enter the pitch, we do it as one. Our solidarity is our strength.”

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

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Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.