Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Reggae Boyz provide good playoff gauge

Jamaica's Troy Smith vies for the ball with Kosta Barbarouses of the All Whites. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Jamaica's Troy Smith vies for the ball with Kosta Barbarouses of the All Whites. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The All Whites match against Jamaica this week heralded the start of the Road to Brazil, as Ricki Herbert's side attempt to qualify for the 2014 Fifa World Cup. Should they navigate their way out of Oceania, they will face a two-legged playoff in late 2013 against the fourth-placed Concacaf side, which based on current rankings is the Reggae Boyz, writes Michael Burgess.

FIVE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM:

1. Young guns

As demonstrated on Wednesday night in the 3-2 defeat, there is a core of young players who should only improve over the next two seasons. Seven of New Zealand's starting XI last week were aged under 25 and should be coming into their prime in late 2013. Combinations will get better with time and coach Ricki Herbert can count on that priceless mix of fearlessness and experience.

2. Flair and options

For the first time since perhaps the mid-1980s, when New Zealand had the likes of Wynton Rufer, Michael McGarry and Steve Woodin, there is genuine flair in the All Whites. Players such as Marco Rojas, Kosta Barbarouses and Michael McGlinchey can create havoc with their pace and guile, and if they continue to develop, it should mean the All Whites become a genuine attacking threat, able to hurt rather than just hold more established football nations.

3. Stand for the brand

It was a common conversation around many water coolers last Thursday.

"My wife went to the All Whites match." "Jamaica?" "No, she went because she wants to, and she's a real fan of Marco Rojas."

Say it quietly, but the All Whites are cool now and a genuine brand. To drag more than 15,000 notoriously apathetic Aucklanders to Mt Smart Stadium on a rainy Wednesday night showed their potential pulling power, while the growing base of sponsors and corporate support allows New Zealand Football to operate on a more professional footing.

The first leg of the World Cup qualification playoff in Bahrain in 2009 attracted a New Zealand media contingent of two; one imagines there will be at least five times that for an equivalent match in 18 months.

4. Prolonged build-up

The All Whites could play up to 22 matches over the next two years, as new NZF chief executive Grant McKavanagh has made a commitment to bringing the team together as often as possible. The players have expressed a commitment to be involved in each stage of the upcoming campaign, perhaps partly due to the unprecedented competition for places.

5. The reinvigoration of Ryan

With his move to Spurs and the influx of youth around him in the national team, Ryan Nelsen seems a man invigorated. Since the end of the South African campaign, he has been understandably circumspect about the future but there seems a real desire to be involved once again. Additionally, remaining at White Hart Lane (with their large squad) could mean less of a physical workload than the weekly grind at Ewood Park. If he departs England, a role in the MLS should also complement All White duties nicely.

FIVE REASONS TO BE WORRIED

1. The Reggae Boyz rock

If Jamaica are the opponents in a 2014 World Cup playoff, there are several reasons to be concerned. Their team on Wednesday was far from full strength, with many more players based in Europe and the United States available to coach Theodore Whitmore for future games.

Like the All Whites, they have a youthful edge - none of their three goal scorers had scored at international level before.

Coach Whitmore, who scored both goals in their 2-1 win over Japan at the 1998 World Cup, is known as a man who has the golden touch, that intangible quality that sees certain coaches enjoy success.

The intimidation factor will also be huge. Jamaica enjoyed a 50-match unbeaten run at their national stadium (nicknamed The Office) between 1995 and 2001, a massive contrast to Bahrain.

2. The fullback conundrum

Herbert hinted after the match that he would like to use a back four in the future, generally seen as more secure and favoured by most international teams. But the question remains; who would play fullback? Jeremy Brockie has been mooted as an option but is playing right wing for the Newcastle Jets, while Tony Lochhead remains unconvincing against top opposition. Tommy Smith appeals as a possible option on the left and showed some attacking prowess on Wednesday.

3. No fear of set piece

The All Whites have traditionally relied on their set piece as a route to glory but Jamaica dealt with the aerial threat that came (until Chris Killen's late consolation goal). Their two central defenders had not played together in more than two years but had the physical presence and athletic abilities to cope. Other likely playoff opponents - Honduras or Costa Rica - will be similar and quite a different proposition from the Asian sides in the last campaign.

4. Midfield's a minefield

Though he gets better with age, it is unlikely Simon Elliott (who turns 38 in June) will be a contender come November 2013. Michael McGlinchey had some promising moments, was always willing to show for the ball and brings a dose of invention. Tim Brown has been a great servant for club and country but in the biggest matches, he has a tendency to go backwards or sideways in possession, stalling any attacking momentum and too often meaning a long ball from the back being the only option. Against Concacaf opposition - who are experts at holding possession - the All Whites will need genuine ball players in midfield.

5. Need for Nelsen

Though the team will continue to evolve, it is hard to imagine success against the best opposition sans Nelsen. Not only does he marshal the defence superbly and anticipate danger better than anyone, he also brings composure that permeates through the team, allowing others to do their individual jobs better. He also, as demonstrated at the 2010 World Cup, brings belief off the pitch.

- Herald on Sunday

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