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SOCCER

Nothing Routine About U.S. Path to World Cup

November 20, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES

The blueprints were delivered Sunday, and the United States now knows that constructing a road to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea will be anything but easy.

The U.S. team opens the final round of qualifying play against its potentially most difficult opponent, Mexico, on Feb. 27 or 28 at a U.S. location to be determined.

And if the Americans are still in the running by the time their 10th and final match is played on Nov. 10 or 11, they will find themselves in Trinidad and Tobago, playing the same country they defeated in the last qualifying game of 1989, when Galaxy defender Paul Caligiuri's goal put the U.S. in the Italia '90 World Cup.

Sunday was the 11th anniversary of that game, which the U.S. won, 1-0, to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. That feat, in turn, gave rise to a successful World Cup staged in the U.S. in 1994 and to the launch of Major League Soccer in 1996.

The U.S. schedule for 2001 was determined Sunday when the draw for the final round was held in Guatemala City.

Six nations from North and Central America and the Caribbean will be competing for three berths in the 2002 World Cup, with each playing a two-game series against the other five in a round-robin format.

In addition to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. will play home and away against Honduras, Jamaica and either Costa Rica or Guatemala. The latter two teams still face a one-game playoff to determine which will be in the last six.

Officials from FIFA, world soccer's governing body, said Sunday that the playoff will be held at Miami's Orange Bowl between Dec. 16 and Jan. 6.

The dates for the qualifying games were selected to conform with FIFA's harmonized international calendar and are the same as World Cup qualifying dates for European and South American nations.

That will make it less difficult for U.S. Coach Bruce Arena to get the cooperation of European clubs for the release of U.S. players.

MLS, too, will be able to plan its 2001 schedule knowing exactly when the national team will be requiring its players.

Sites for the five U.S. home games have not been announced, but three probable choices are Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio; Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.; and RFK Stadium in Washington. Two other sites mentioned as possibilities are Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., and Civic Stadium in Portland, Ore.

U.S. hopes of reaching the Japan/South Korea World Cup were boosted by the team's first-place finish in the semifinal round of play, when it topped its group, ahead of Costa Rica, Guatemala and Barbados.

"We deserve to be in the next round, and I think we'll have a good chance to get into the World Cup," Arena said after a 4-0 victory over Barbados last week. "I feel very comfortable about that."

The key, as usual, will be how well the U.S. team does in its home games.

"We've got to win our home games," said Joe-Max Moore, the former UCLA and New England Revolution player from Irvine now making his mark with Everton in the English Premier League. "I know we're good enough to qualify, and we will do that."

On paper, and based on results over the last year or so, the three teams that will be favored to qualify are, in alphabetical order, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S., but the task is formidable.

The U.S. could not defeat Costa Rica in two games in the semifinal round, losing on the road and tying at home. Also, it managed only a tie in Guatemala. Jamaica tied the U.S. in Washington in the qualifying run to the France '98 World Cup; Honduras defeated the U.S. in 2000 Olympic qualifying, and Trinidad and Tobago has that score to settle from 1989.

The battle to clinch a place in Japan/South Korea could come down to a harrowing final game.

PAST AND FUTURE

Fans of Blackburn Rovers had a chance to see both the past and the future over the weekend.

Because the English first division club was celebrating its 125th anniversary, the team was allowed to use old-style uniforms for Saturday's home match against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The blue and white jerseys were numbered 1 to 11 by position, rather than with the players' squad numbers, and carried no sponsorship logos.

The fans' glimpse of the future came when U.S. national team and former UCLA goalkeeper Brad Friedel made his Blackburn debut after his acquisition from Liverpool, and shut out Wolves, 1-0.

RAMOS BOWS OUT

Tab Ramos, widely regarded as a the finest midfielder the U.S. has produced, said his decision Friday to retire from the national team was one of the most difficult of his career.

Ramos, 34, had played in the World Cup tournaments of 1990, 1994 and 1998--one of only a handful of Americans to have three to their credit--and in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. He finished with eight goals in 87 international matches.

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