Rock-solid U.S. slam door to take crown
With a 2-0 win over Cuba in the final on Saturday, the United States claimed the 2004 CONCACAF futsal championship for the first time since 1996. Both finalists will join up with the rest of the world's best five-a-side squads in Chinese Taipei this November as proud representatives of New World futsal.
The crowd for the final match at the Palacio de los Deportes in Heredia, Costa Rica was subdued to say the least. A shock 4-0 manhandling by the Americans in the semi-final saw the beloved host Ticos settle for third and miss out on a second consecutive trip to the FIFA Futsal World Championship. For the nation that became the first Central American representative at a futsal world finals back in 1992, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
The final between contentious neighbours Cuba and the U.S. proved a predictably tense one from the offing. The Americans came out aggressively with a vengeful point to prove against the side that knocked them out at the semi-final stage four years earlier, denying the U.S. a spot at Guatemala 2000. Also adding to the drama, the two sides had met just three days before, playing to a tense 1-1 group B stalemate.
The two American goals came from set pieces from Greg Howes and Don D'Ambra. But as had been the case throughout the course of the one-week tournament, defence proved the crucial element to the winning American formula.
Repelling 23 shots on goal, the U.S. rearguard and stand-in goalkeeper Scott Hileman were in stifling form. They even managed to neutralise Player of the Tournament Juan Carlos Portal.
"I thought our defence was stellar, and that's how we were always going to win this tournament," American boss Keith Tozer remarked after the final. "To earn a shutout against Costa Rica in the semis and then against Cuba in the final is just a remarkable story. And now we move on to the world championship."
|Cuba will feature in the world finals|
|Courtesy of concacaf.com|
While Cuba were struggling against attack-minded Mexico in their semi-final (5-4), the U.S. were making surprisingly easy meat of hosts and hot favourites Costa Rica. The four goal stomping was proof positive of the States' ability at both ends of the arena. Keeper Brett Phillips was in sparkling form as he turned away 41 shots on a busy night.
The two consecutive clean sheets saw the United Stated become the first-ever side to post shutouts in both the semi-final and final of a CONCACAF futsal championship. And added to their 6-0 drubbing of Guyana in the group stages, the States also became the only nation to record three shutouts in one instalment of the continental showdown.
Not surprisingly, regular U.S. number-one Phillips was named best goal-keeper of the tournament. Allowing only three goals in the entire competition in 2-2 and 1-1 respective results against Panama and Cuba in the first round.
"Obviously the most important thing is the team winning the gold and going to Taipei," the humble keeper said. "Anything on top of that as far as personal accomplishments are just icing on the cake."
Slow start sparks doubt
Though the Americans will surely be thrilled with their achievement, they started their campaign less than confidently. A 2-2 draw with consummate upstarts Panama must have had Tozer, captain Sean Bowers and the rest of the men scratching their heads and wondering what more was in store.
The 6-0 hammering of lowly Guyana settled nerves a bit, but the 1-1 draw with Cuba in the final group match saw the Red, White and Blue just sneak into the semi-finals in second place by a one-point margin over Panama.
Lee Tschantret summed up the celebratory feeling in the U.S. camp best.
"We are going to a World Cup," he said. "We are going to Taipei and it feels great."
The United States and runners-up Cuba join the 16-team field at the FIFA Futsal World Championship in Chinese Taipei from 21 November to 5 December. It will be the U.S.' fourth appearance at the indoor game's global showpiece, while Cuba will be back for a third consecutive world finals.
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