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World Cup qualifying

United States effort to make 2002 Cup starts with two games in July.

By Robert Wagman

The United States’ effort to qualify for the 2002 World Cup will require six semifinal round group matches between July 12 and November 15, then 10 more should the Americans advance to the final group of six.

Playing in CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Carribean, the Americans’ semifinal group opponents will be Costa Rica, and probably Guatemala and Cuba, playing each opponent home and away. The top two teams of each of three four-nation semifinal groups will advance to the final round, a six-country round robin of which the top three finishers advance to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

Advancing to the final round will be difficult, but what U.S. coach Bruce Arena called "doable."

"Our group and Mexico's is more difficult that Jamaica's," he said. "We should be OK. Our problem is we start with our two most difficult road matches. If we come away from the first two with say four points (a win and a draw) we should be fine. But we'll need to get off to a good start."

The U.S. is the seeded team in Group E, and will open with two games on the road. The Americans’ semifinal group will include Costa Rica plus (1) the winner of a home-and-home series between heavily favored Cuba and Barbados, and (2) the loser of a two-match series that will be held between the loser of a competition now underway between St. Vincent and Antigua, and the runnerup of an ongoing three-way competition between El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize.

El Salvador is well ahead in this competition and only bizarre circumstances would keep Guatemala from finishing second and then advancing to be heavily-favored to defeat St. Vincent or Antigua.

Thus, the U.S.'s three road matches in the semifinal round likely will be in Guatemala City; San Jose, Costa Rica; and a politically-charged date in Havana.

The final round of six start play next February.

All competitions will be award three points for a win, one for a tie and nothing for a loss with no overtime or penalty kicks. The usual set of tiebreakers used by world governing body FIFA apply, starting with goal differential.

The groups and the schedule were arrived at in a blind draw at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Friday. The schedule of matches was pretty much dictated by the FIFA world calendar. Originally CONCACAF wanted to play these first round matches later in the year so as not to overwhelmingly conflict with either MLS or the fall Mexican league schedule.

The preliminary semifinal schedule had called for the first match in September, two in late October, two in November and one in December. Now, two must be played in July when the European and South American leagues are off, and the round has to be completed by November, because under the new FIFA regulations, December is a month off internationally.

Semifinal round schedule, with anticipated U.S. games:

First game: July 12-16 (U.S. in Guatemala City, Guatemala)
Second game: July 22-26 (U.S. in San Jose, Costa Rica)
Third game: August 15-16 (U.S. home against Cuba)
Fourth game: September 2-3 (U.S. home against Guatemala)
Fifth game: October 7-11 (U.S. home against Costa Rica)
Sixth game: November 14-15 (U.S. in Havana)

"We have a half dozen venues under consideration for these first round group matches," U.S. Soccer Federation chief operating officer Tom King said. "Now that we know who we are likely playing and when, we can narrow down our choices."

A source within U.S. Soccer said the venues under consideration are Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Birmingham, Ala.; Foxborough, Mass.; and Washington, D.C. "If the dates can be cleared I would not be surprised to see us play Guatemala in either Columbus or Portland, Costa Rica in Birmingham and Cuba at RFK (Stadium) in Washington," the source said. "The latter would make the most political sense. Maybe Janet Reno could throw out the first ball."

The other two CONCACAF semifinal groups:

Group C
Winner of Honduras-Panama
Winner Trinidad & Tobago-Haiti
Winner of Canada vs. loser of Cuba/Barbuda

Group D
Winner of El Salvador vs. winner of Guatemala-Belize
Winner of St. Vincent-Gernadines vs. winner of Antigua-Barbuda
Winner of loser of Trinidad & Tobago-Haiti vs. loser of Honduras-Panama

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com..

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