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U.S. Appears in Line for Spot in Title Game

With defending champion Mexico out, Americans, now ranked No. 6 in the world by FIFA, take on Honduras in a semifinal.

July 21, 2005|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When the latest world soccer rankings were issued in Switzerland on Wednesday, the list caught some by surprise. But not Bruce Arena.

The coach of the U.S. national team takes such rankings lightly. So the news that FIFA had ranked the Americans as sixth best -- ahead of England, no less -- was greeted with a shrug.

"I think anywhere between six and 60 is appropriate," Arena said at Giants Stadium, where the U.S. will play Honduras tonight in a semifinal of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

"It happens they picked a lower number this time."

What did take Arena by surprise was the news that Guus Hiddink, who coached South Korea to a remarkable fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, will coach Australia at Germany 2006 if the team qualifies.

The italics are what startled Arena.

"I'd like to have one of those deals," he said. "I'd like to take Brazil if they qualify. Can you work that out for me? That's a great deal."

Joking aside, a Hiddink move could affect the U.S. since the Dutchman currently coaches PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands and PSV is where DaMarcus Beasley is making his name in Europe.

The last thing Arena needs in the months leading up to the World Cup is Beasley to be in turmoil because of a coaching change in Holland.

Beasley and Landon Donovan have been the driving force behind the U.S. bid for a third Gold Cup title. Each has three goals, and they share the tournament scoring lead with Wilmer Velasquez of Honduras and Luis Tejada of Panama, which plays Colombia in tonight's other semifinal. Carlos Ruiz also has three goals, but Guatemala already has been eliminated.

Arena doubted, however, that a Hiddink move would hurt Beasley.

"Does it impact him? I don't think so," he said. "He's a quality player, he's going to be fine."

Beasley was injured at the end of last season, in which he helped PSV win the Dutch championship and reach the semifinals of the European Champions League. He now appears to be regaining top form.

"He struggled physically in our [recent World Cup] qualifying games," Arena said. "We knew that would be the case, coming back from a knee injury. ... Now it's looking like he's putting it all together."

Another Dutch-based player, midfielder John O'Brien, said the U.S. squad watched some videotape of tonight's opponent, Honduras, on Wednesday morning.

"It's a very good passing team, very technical," O'Brien said. "Up top they have four creative players who can make things happen. They like to get in behind you, too, so that's a dangerous thing. It looks as if they defend as a group, so ..."

So winning won't necessarily be easy. The U.S. has reached the semifinals in seven of the Gold Cup's eight editions, failing only in 2000 when it was ousted on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals by Colombia. It lost to Brazil in the 1996 and 2003 semifinals.

"We have kind of pressure to win now, especially with Mexico out," Donovan said.

Mexico was beaten, 2-1, by Colombia in a quarterfinal on Sunday.

Asked if he were disappointed at not getting another shot at Mexico, the defending champion, Arena scoffed.

"I couldn't care less," he said. "If they were here, I would gladly have played them. That's not my responsibility."

Mexico, which defeated the U.S., 2-1, in a World Cup qualifying game in Mexico City on March 27, will play the Americans in another qualifier on Sept. 3 at Columbus, Ohio.

If the U.S. wins tonight, and then beats Colombia or Panama in Sunday afternoon's final, it would come into that game as champion of the North and Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region. It last won the regional championship in 2002 and before that in 1991.

"If we don't win it, it's not the worst thing in the world," Donovan said, "but for quite a few guys [trying to make the World Cup roster], it's a very big deal."

Honduras will not roll over though.

"They're a good team," Arena said. "They won their group. That speaks for itself. They beat a good Colombia team and beat Panama as well in group play and then had a pretty easy win over Costa Rica.

"So I think it's a team that deserves a lot of credit. They belong here."

Whether Donovan belonged at the Home Depot Center on Monday night for the Galaxy's game against Real Madrid is another matter.

"I think if I really, really said I wanted to go, I think Bruce would have thought about it," he said Wednesday, "but I'm glad I didn't. My body doesn't handle that well.

"I would have loved to play in the game, don't get me wrong. But I think it was the right decision."

*

GOLD CUP SEMIFINALS

United States vs. Honduras

3 p.m. PDT, Channel 46

Where -- Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

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