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Honduras Is First Test for U.S.

Soccer: American men enter the six-nation tournament seeking one of two berths to the Sydney Olympics.

April 21, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clive Charles doesn't really know what type of team the United States will face in Hershey, Pa., tonight in its first of three games as it seeks a berth in the Sydney Olympics.

The U.S. coach knows the opponent is Honduras, but what sort of mood the Central American players will be in is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, they went on strike, refusing to travel to the U.S. from Tegucigalpa unless their federation paid them the $1,500-per-player bonuses they had been promised for reaching the final, six-nation qualifying stage.

"We depend on that money to support our families," a statement signed by the players said.

On Thursday, they flew to Pennsylvania anyway, apparently having either been paid or again promised payment. No answer was immediately forthcoming.

Tonight at HersheyPark Stadium, they will line up against an American team intent on going to Australia. All that stands in the U.S. squad's way are Honduras tonight, Canada on Tuesday and, if it gets past those hurdles, a must-win semifinal game Thursday against either Guatemala, Mexico, or Panama.

Only the two semifinal winners will qualify for the Olympics.

"Obviously with only two games [in the first round], the first game is going to be huge for us," Charles said. "We'll really put ourselves in a hole if we don't win. It means everything, really."

Charles said the Honduran team has first-class strikers in Luis Ramirez and David Suazo, and an excellent playmaking midfielder, though he didn't know his name.

"They are a very solid team, they work very hard," he said. "Their front two are very good, very strong, powerful. Their No. 10, their playmaking midfielder, is a very good player. They're the three players that I feel are their strength.

"They like to get the ball up front to the front two early. They're strong and good in the air, they're quick and very skillful. They will be a handful for us. Obviously, if we deny service to them, it will be a big help for us, but after saying that, I think the most important thing for us is to do the things that we do well."

Charles lost a key player earlier this week when he sent home midfielder Sasha Victorine of the Galaxy because of a groin injury.

"Sasha's a good player, he's a quality player," Charles said. "He plays in central midfield. He's shown recently he can also play up front, and his versatility is what we lose.

"Brian Winters [of the Columbus Crew] will come in to replace him. Brian's more of a defensive, ball-winning center midfielder. We basically lose Sasha's versatility, but then again, Brian is probably a little bit better defensively, so what you lose in one area you gain in another."

The winner of each three-nation group will play the runner-up in the other group in the semifinals. The U.S. and Mexico are favored, but should they meet in the semifinals, one will be denied a place in the Olympics.

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