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John Haydon: USA tries to punch ticket to France. Canada tries to play role of spoiler.

(Saturday, November 8, 1997) -- The United States can qualify for its third consecutive World Cup tomorrow if it beats Canada and El Salvador and Costa Rica tie or lose their respective games.

A victory seems unrealistic for the Americans, but stranger things have happened in soccer. So U.S. coach Steve Sampson says he would settle for a tie or a light loss.

A tie with Canada, coupled with losses by El Salvador (at home against Jamaica) and Costa Rica (at Mexico) tomorrow, also would result is a berth in France 98. If the U.S. ties and El Salvador loses, the only way for El Salvador to qualify would be to beat the U.S. by a large margin when the two teams meet in the last game of qualifying at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium on Nov. 16.

The U.S. is third in its qualifying group with 11 points, behind Mexico (16) and Jamaica (12). El Salvador has nine points, Costa Rica has eight and Canada, clinging to faint hope, has six points.

"I've told the players the World Cup is Sunday. It's not next June, it's this weekend," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said.

Despite its last-place standing and 1-4-3 record, Canada has not lost at home in the semifinal or final round of qualifying. Canada tied Mexico, 2-2, in its most recent home game.

"We must beat Canada, or at least get a tie, to go into the El Salvador match," said Sampson, who was especially pleased with his team's 0-0 tie at Mexico on Sunday. "We would also like to finish second in the group."

Sampson says he doesn't want any fancy soccer from his players, just hard work. "We haven't learned to play as favorites yet. We are a blue-collar team, not a white-collar team," he said. "A blue-collar team has to work hard, but every now and then we start thinking we can play like Brazil, and when we do that we get in trouble."

Sampson stressed that Canada was the "ultimate blue-collar team . . . I think Canada would like to play the spoiler and defeat the Americans. They want to prove they are better than American players."

Canada will be without a number of its top stars who have decided to play with their European clubs rather than represent their country. Among the missing will be striker Paul Peschisolido who plays with Fulham in England's Second Division, midfielder Tomasz Radzinski, who plays in Belgium, and goalkeeper Craig Forrest of West Ham United in England's Premier League.

The U.S. will also be without a number of starters. Midfielder and captain John Harkes (two yellow cards) and defender Jeff Agoos (red card against Mexicio) are both out because of suspension, while star midfielder Tab Ramos is out indefinitely with a torn knee ligament. Midfielder Ernie Stewart and goalie Kasey Keller, both of whom are injured, are doubtful for the game.

The good news for the Americans is that creative midfielder Claudio Reyna is back after a suspension for two yellow cards.

Canada "is a difficult team to beat, which they demonstrated against Mexico," Reyna said. "They are professionals and will be fighting for everything . . . It'll be a test for all of us. The crowds will not be as loud, but we have to play with the same attitude as we did in Mexico."

Tomorrow's match will be a far cry from the Mexico game, when the U.S. played in front of over 114,000. The stadium just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, holds only 8,000, and 1,000 tickets have been sold to American fans.

"Whenever you play your neighbor it's always a big game," said American midfielder Chris Henderson, who came off the bench against Mexico. "If that's my role -- to come off the bench and provide a spark -- then I'm happy to contribute."

Henderson is getting married today in Denver. After the wedding, he and his bride, Dee Archuleta, will fly back tonight and join the U.S. team in Vancouver.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and may be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

Final qualifying round

  Team W L T Pts GF GA
  Mexico 4 0 3 15 20 4
  Jamaica 3 2 3 12 5 10
  United States 2 1 4 10 10 7
  El Salvador 2 3 3 9 7 10
  Costa Rica 2 4 2 8 7 8
  Canada 1 4 3 6 4 14

** Clinched berth in the 1998 World Cup.

Recent result

Sunday, November 2, 1997
United States 0, Mexico 0 (in Mexico City)

Remaining schedule

Sunday, November 9, 1997
United States at Canada in Vancouver
Costa Rica at Mexico in Mexico City
Jamaica at El Salvador in San Salvador

Sunday, November 16, 1997
El Salvador at United States in Foxborough, Mass.
Mexico at Jamaica in Kingston
Canada at Costa Rica in San Jose

Articles and opinions expressed by other columnists are not necessarily the opinion of SoccerTimes.