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A Carnival Atmosphere Awaits U.S.

American soccer squad opens final round of World Cup qualifying against a Trinidad and Tobago team that is feeling as confident as ever.

February 09, 2005|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad — It was a loud and raucous festival of the unclad and the uninhibited wandering the streets at all hours. The Carnival was in full swing.

There was no time, however, for coaches and players on the U.S. national soccer team to take in the scene Tuesday.

Bizarrely costumed islanders of all shapes and ages parading through the streets? Virtually unnoticed. A man walking along the coast road balancing a stalk of bananas on his head? Unseen.

Calypso monarch Hollis Liverpool, better known as "The Mighty Chalkdust," performing "I in Town Too Long"? Unheard.

The condition of the playing field at the Queen's Park Oval, where the U.S. will play Trinidad and Tobago today to open the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup? Very much seen and commented on.

"It's hard. It's like playing in a parking lot," was U.S. Coach Bruce Arena's verdict after the Americans had put in one last training session at the 109-year-old cricket ground.

Hasely Crawford Stadium, the usual soccer venue, was being used for the Carnival, so today's World Cup qualifier was shifted to a site accustomed to square legs, silly mid-offs and wicketkeepers.

No matter. The game will be a sellout. The weather will be hot and humid. The atmosphere will be electric.

The match offers Trinidad and Tobago the chance to gain a measure of revenge for 1989, when the Soca Warriors needed only a tie in the last qualifying game to reach Italia '90 but instead lost, 1-0, on a Paul Caligiuri goal that enabled the U.S. to advance to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

The memory of that defeat lingers. "All along we have been saying that we in this country have a sort of lackadaisical approach to serious business, but I believe this team will prove a lot of the critics wrong," Trinidad and Tobago Coach Bertille St. Clair was quoted as saying in Tuesday's edition of the Daily Express newspaper.

"Some have been saying that we are struggling as a team, but ... I remain with the feeling that we will pull through this time."

One reason why is the return from a four-year self-imposed retirement from international soccer of Dwight Yorke, the country's most famous player.

Yorke once was good enough to be a starting forward for Manchester United. He still plays in England, but now with far-less-glamorous Birmingham City. Still, he's here.

"I'm looking forward to this return," Yorke said last week. "Not only because I think we have a good chance of getting to the World Cup, but because I have decided that I must come and make a contribution."

Yorke, 33, was on the 1989 team that suffered that most painful loss. It was the closest the Soca Warriors had come to reaching a World Cup.

St. Claire said he thinks Yorke can help set things right.

"It's a chance for him to make a worthwhile contribution again," he said, "because I believe he has a lot to offer us."

The U.S. is favored. It is 10-1-3 against Trinidad and Tobago, including a 6-0-2 mark in World Cup qualifying.

A physical game is being predicted, with a headline in the Daily Express Tuesday calling for "Less Soca, More Warrior."

If things go awry for the U.S., the excuses are ready:

* January's strike/lockout cost the national team three weeks of preparation time, as well as warm-up games against South Korea and Sweden.

* Major League Soccer players have not had a competitive game since November.

* Under FIFA rules, Arena could not call upon his European-based players, who are in season and are fit, until only two days before this afternoon's match.

* Carnival is in full swing, bikini-clad women and all.

That last excuse can be ignored. Asked Tuesday if it had been a distraction, Galaxy and U.S. defender Chris Albright shook his head.

"I think the guys are pretty well focused on the job at hand," he said.

*

World Cup Qualifying

What -- Start of the CONCACAF region final qualifying round for the Germany 2006 World Cup.

* Who -- United States at Trinidad and Tobago.

* Where -- Queen's Park Oval, Trinidad.

* When -- 11:30 a.m. PST.

* TV -- ESPN2.

* Also Today -- The four other teams in the six-team group also play, with Mexico at Costa Rica in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Guatemala at Panama in Panama City.

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