Gregory Sica
Wednesday November 18th, 2009

A step away from reaching the 2010 World Cup, two-time champion Uruguay has the opportunity to return to the elite of world soccer. After beating Costa Rica 1-0 in San José in the first leg of their playoff last Saturday, la Celeste knows it's more than capable of getting the job done when the teams meet again in the return leg in Montevideo on Wednesday.

Uruguay needs only a draw to reach the World Cup, which it barely missed in 2006, and looks determined to return. A partisan crowd of 70,000 at the Centenario stadium -- the venue of the 1930 final -- also should help the Uruguayans get there.

Coach Óscar Tabárez, who led Uruguay to the round of 16 at the '90 World Cup in Italy, has assembled a formidable unit that, on its best day, can beat the top teams in the world. The Uruguayans' main problem is that they often let the big occasion get to them, such as last month when they were edged out for a direct CONMEBOL berth for South Africa by neighbor Argentina.

But this marks the third consecutive qualification campaign in which Uruguay has reached the inter-confederational playoff as the fifth-place finisher in South America. La Celeste believes it now knows exactly what it takes to confront such important matches. It has the coach and the players to be one of the 32 teams in South Africa, and could be one of the spoilers of the tournament.

The next few days are crucial for the future of Uruguayan soccer. Not only will the national team be in the spotlight, but so will Montevideo club River Plate. Though not one of the more popular Uruguayan teams, River has the unprecedented opportunity to make a name for itself on the international stage. River takes a 2-1 advantage into the return leg of the semifinals of the Copa Sudamericana against Liga de Quito of Ecuador, and could become the first Uruguayan team to reach the final of a major club competition since Nacional won the Copa Libertadores in 1988.

Uruguay has been starved of glory in recent years, but leans on a rich history: two World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals and a record 14 Copa América titles. The emergence of several world-class players in the past few years has given the nation hope of rediscovering its past success.

While Atlético Madrid star and two-time European Golden Boot winner Diego Forlán is by far Uruguay's most valuable asset, it also has other Europe-based players such as Diego Lugano, Diego Godín, Martín Cáceres and Sebastián Eguren, as well as Luis Suárez and Fernando Muslera, two incredibly talented youngsters who recently have been targeted by Manchester United. The majority of the Uruguayan national team plays its club soccer in the top leagues of Europe and, back home, the program continues to uncover talent in its domestic league.

One player who looks destined for stardom is Nacional attacking midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro. The 20-year-old just made his national-team debut against Costa Rica on Saturday, but is expected to be a key member of the squad for many years to come. Lodeiro has earned comparisons with Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, and reportedly could join the Argentine in Spain next season.

With a population of around 3.4 million, it's astonishing that Uruguay produces such talent. Because of the nation's ever-worsening economy, the only way out for many youngsters is to concentrate on playing soccer from a young age, hoping to attract a lucrative contract from one of Uruguay's top clubs.

Financially, Uruguayan clubs can't compete with the richer Brazilian and Argentine clubs. But the quality of young players coming through the pipeline has contributed to an upswing in the fortunes of Uruguayan clubs, who are beginning to show signs of a return to glory in South America.

Three-time Libertadores champion Nacional reached the semifinals of this past year's tournament, where it was eliminated by eventual champion Estudiantes de La Plata. More impressive is the progression of Uruguay's smaller clubs. Defensor Sporting, for example, has reached the late stages of both Libertadores and Sudamericana in recent years. But Montevideo rival River Plate could go a step further, with a good chance of becoming the first Uruguayan club outside Nacional and Peñarol to lift an international title.

River has been the revelation club of the current edition of the Copa Sudamericana. That it claimed a justified victory over '08 Libertadores champ LDU at home last week and has yet to lose on the road in the competition speaks well of its chances of progressing to the decider ahead of the return leg in Ecuador on Thursday. (River will have to make do without its captain and star player Jorge "Japo" Rodríguez, who will play for Uruguay against Costa Rica on Wednesday.)

For a cash-strapped club that averages fewer than 1,000 fans for its league games, River's campaign has been nothing less than extraordinary. The club hasn't won a single title of any kind in its entire 77-year history, and has come into all of its Sudamericana matchups as the clear underdog. But no matter the opposition, los Darseneros have stuck to their game plan and have prevailed.

Much of River's success comes down to the influence of head coach Juan Ramón Carrasco. During a 28-year career in which he played for 14 different clubs, Carrasco mastered the art of offensive soccer. As a coach, he has River playing the ''tiqui-tiqui'' -- an explosive style of one-touch soccer that emphasizes the attack and pays little attention to defense.

Carrasco's controversial methods (he once went to the extreme of using five attackers simultaneously) earned praise all over South America, but those tactics haven't always worked out for him. As head coach of the national team, he guided Uruguay to an emphatic 5-0 victory over Bolivia in its opening qualifier for the '06 World Cup, his first game in charge. Bolstered by that result, he didn't feel the need to strengthen the team's defense for the next game, and his squad was crushed 4-1 at Paraguay. Carrasco continued to field extremely attack-minded formations in Uruguay's next few qualifiers, and was sacked immediately after a devastating 3-0 home defeat to Venezuela.

Since then, thankfully, Carrasco has made his game more comprehensive. Even though he continues to pay particular attention to the attack, he also understands the importance of a strong, solid defense. River is widely considered the most exciting team still left in the Copa Sudamericana, and if justice is done, it will ensure Uruguay of its first international club title in 21 years.

If the national team, much like Carrasco, has learned its lessons from the past, the next few days could be very telling for the future of Uruguayan soccer. For a proud nation that has leaned heavily on its footballing past, nothing could be more exciting.

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