Steve Sampson insists he is not looking beyond today's game against El Salvador at Foxboro Stadium, but the U.S. national team coach's mind is surely focused more on Marseilles than Massachusetts.
Having secured a place in next summer's World Cup in France, the U.S. team has nothing at stake this afternoon other than improving its 6-1-7 all-time record against the Central Americans.
But for El Salvador, the match means everything. If it wins and Mexico defeats Jamaica in Kingston in another of today's final World Cup qualifying games, it will qualify for its second World Cup. It previously qualified for Spain '82.
But if the results go any other way, Jamaica will qualify for its first World Cup.
And as far as Major League Soccer is concerned, it would be just fine if the Caribbean islanders make it to France.
That's because MLS would lose Washington D.C. United's Raul Diaz Arce, the Galaxy's Mauricio Cienfuegos and the San Jose Clash's Ronald Cerritos for a significant portion of next season. All three play for El Salvador.
Wolde Harris of the Colorado Rapids is the only Jamaican national team player in MLS. That might change before the 1998 season, however, because New England Revolution Coach Thomas Rongen scouted Jamaica's recent game in San Salvador with an eye on a couple of Jamaican players.
Not that MLS should worry. Sampson insists the United States will not be taking it easy today, even though several starters are missing and no fewer than 12 players are sitting on a yellow card.
"We're playing to win," Sampson said. "We're going to play with the best team that we possibly can as a tribute to the people of Boston [the game is near to being a 57,000-seat sellout]."
Players who already have a yellow card and who receive another caution today could be suspended for the first game of the World Cup.
Sampson's future as national coach has been in doubt a couple of times during the yearlong qualifying process, and a loss to El Salvador would not help his cause. Still, he believes the first game next June is more important than the last game this November.
As a result, today's U.S. starting lineup might look a bit experimental.
"The big picture is the main thing, even at the expense of my own career," Sampson said. "I hope [U.S. Soccer] Federation officials understand exactly what I'm doing."
DRAW IS IN REACH
Today's game marks the end of the season for the U.S. team, which has an underwhelming 4-6-7 record for 1997.
The next big date on Sampson's calendar is Dec. 4, which is when the World Cup '98 Draw will be held in Marseilles, France. At the ceremony, the 32 teams will learn who their first-round opponents are to be next June.
The draw will be accompanied by a Europe vs. Rest of the World match, featuring players from the World Cup '98 participating countries.
Franz Beckenbauer, who led Germany to World Cup triumphs as captain in 1974 and as coach in 1990, will take charge of the Europe team.
The Rest of the World will be coached by Brazil's victorious 1994 World Cup coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, now coach of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
The match will be played at Marseilles' Velodrome, one of the nine 1998 World Cup venues.
For the draw, which will take place in the stadium, the 32 nations will be divided into eight groups of four, from which the first- and second-place teams will advance to the second round.
So far, 28 countries have qualified: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Paraguay, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, the United States and Yugoslavia.
The remaining four will be either Chile or Bolivia; El Salvador or Jamaica; Iran or Japan; and Australia or the Iran-Japan loser.
Chances are, as a third-seeded team, the United States will have to play at least one European team, probably an African team, and possibly an Asian or South American team.
In 1994, under then-coach Bora Milutinovic, the U.S. advanced to the second round by tying Switzerland, defeating Colombia and losing to Romania.
TAKING THE HEAT
Jamaica's coach, Rene Simoes, cannot rely on the United States defeating El Salvador today. On the other hand, he will find Mexico in no mood to roll over, either.
The Mexican team has been severely criticized in the media for its 0-0 tie against the United States two weeks ago and its 3-3 tie against Costa Rica last week.
The last thing Bora wants is another poor result. His job is hanging by a thread, as it is.
Sampson, who served as Bora's assistant in '94, believes the criticism is "insulting."
"I hope he's getting compensated for it," Sampson said, "because that would be the only saving grace. To qualify a team for the World Cup and then be treated that way is, I think, insulting.