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U.S. does just enough to beat Trinidad and Tobago

SOCCER

Ricardo Clark's second half goal on Landon Donovan's assist gives the Americans a 1-0 victory to keep it in line for South Africa 2010, but the team's overall performance left something to be desired.

September 10, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

Ricardo Clark, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rudi Corrales.

Those were the names that echoed around North and Central America and the Caribbean on Wednesday night.

Those were the players who scored the goals that gave the U.S., Mexico and El Salvador 1-0 victories in crucial qualifying games for soccer's 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

So while England, Spain and Paraguay celebrated reaching next year's quadrennial world championship, and while Argentina bemoaned yet another loss that could spell the end for Coach Diego Maradona, it was Clark, Blanco and Corrales who walked tallest in this part of the soccer world.

Clark, the Houston Dynamo midfielder, fired in a fierce shot from 25 yards or more in the 62nd minute as the U.S. overcame Trinidad and Tobago at Hasley Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The win sent the Americans to the top of the six-nation regional qualifying group with 16 points. It also eliminated the Soca Warriors, who made it to Germany 2006 but fell far short this time.

Blanco, the Chicago Fire playmaker, banged in a 75th-minute penalty kick for Mexico at rain-soaked Azteca Stadium to send the Mexico City crowd into raptures and earn El Tri the three points against a game but outclassed Honduras.

The win sent the Mexicans to second place in the group with 15 points. Honduras, in first place when Wednesday dawned, dropped to third with 13 points.

Corrales, the CD Aguila striker, achieved the most improbable of the day's results. His last-minute injury-time goal at Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador not only kept El Salvador mathematically alive, albeit barely, but also consigned plummeting Costa Rica to its third consecutive shutout loss.

The Ticos, once in first place, are now fourth with 12 points and facing the very real possibility of being forced into a playoff against the fifth-place South American finisher.

That team could be two-time world champion Argentina, which was beaten, 1-0, by Paraguay in Asuncion on Wednesday and whose hold on that position is a precarious one. Maradona's team is only one point ahead of Uruguay and Venezuela and only two points ahead of Colombia.

El Salvador, incidentally, has eight points. It can achieve a maximum of only 14 and plays away to Mexico next. Say goodnight, Rudi.

There were 35 qualifying games played on Wednesday and the 32-team World Cup field is now one-third filled, with host South Africa and 10 others having booked their spots in the June 11-July 11 tournament.

England crashed the party by thumping Croatia, 5-1, at Wembley Stadium, with the Galaxy's David Beckham making a 10-minute cameo appearance for the winners.

European champion Spain clinched its place with a 3-0 win over Estonia in Merida, Spain, after which Estonia Coach Tarmo Ruutli offered the Spanish a reality check.

"We tried to do what we could, but Spain was a lot better and that's the reality," Ruutli said. "It will be a different story, of course, in South Africa. There will be a lot of strong teams wanting to win, and the World Cup is always a little bit about luck."

There was nothing lucky about the goals by Clark, Blanco and Corrales.

The U.S., whose overall performance was worth no more than a generous C-plus, had Landon Donovan to thank for its goal. An out-of-sorts Clint Dempsey sent a pass out to Donovan on the left flank, the Galaxy player ran across the corner of the Trinidad and Tobago penalty area and then, in a heads-up play, cut the ball back to a wide-open Clark.

Clark's wickedly swerving shot gave goalkeeper Clayton Ince no chance at all of making a save.

"I just let it rip, and I hit it on frame and it went in," said Clark, whose Trinidad-born father was watching from the stands.

Later in the evening, at Azteca Stadium, Mexico turned the Honduran penalty area into a shooting gallery, peppering goalkeeper Noel Valladares with shots, but the Central Americans' defense held firm.

With only 15 minutes to play, however, a foul against lively Giovanni dos Santos, who was shoved down from behind, allowed Blanco the chance to set things straight with a well-taken penalty kick. A couple of first-class saves by alert goalkeeper Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa preserved the win.

The final two rounds of World Cup qualifying will be played in October, after which there will be a few playoffs.

Two teams that are clinging to the cliff face managed to survive on Wednesday, with Portugal eking out a 1-0 win over Hungary in Budapest to keep alive FIFA world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo's hope of reaching South Africa.

In Belgrade, 1998 world champion France was reduced to 10 men by an early red card but held on to achieve a 1-1 tie with Serbia, thanks to a Thierry Henry goal.

Meanwhile, Argentina, sunk by Nelson Valdez's goal for Paraguay, is still feeling feisty. "As long as I have a drop of blood left, I will fight to get Argentina qualified," Maradona said.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

Jones reported from Los Angeles.

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