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World Cup qualifying begins with trip to remote part of Guatemala.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Friday, July 14, 2000) -- For the United States men, and their coach Bruce Arena, the road to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan begins Sunday morning, local time, in a small stadium in the hot coastal plain of Guatemala.

Bruce Arena
Bruce Arena
Arena's team will play the first match that really counts since he took over the reins of the national-team program late in 1998 when the U.S. opens the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying in the 10,000 seat stadium in Mazatenango.

The team that Arena has picked for this first match, and the following Sunday’s match in Costa Rica, is a mixture of Major League Soccer players and European-based players. It is basically a team of veterans. Because of injuries, it is probably not the absolutely best 11 Arena could have assembled, or might have wanted, but it is pretty close.

Although, as is his normal procedure, Arena will not officially name his starting side until the team meeting the night before the match, it is likely the starters will be goalkeeper Kasey Keller (Rayo Vallecano, Spain), defenders David Regis (France), Robin Fraser (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Eddie Pope (D.C. United, MLS) and Tony Sanneh (Hertha Berlin, Germany); midfielders Chris Armas (Chicago Fire, MLS), Claudio Reyna (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland), Eddie Lewis (Fulham, England) and Earnie Stewart (NAC Breda, Netherlands); and forwards Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Ante Razov (Chicago Fire, MLS).

Had they been available, Joe-Max Moore of Everton in England or Brian McBride of the Columbus Crew would likely have been the choice over Razov at forward. D.C. United's Jeff Agoos would likely have started in the back four, as might have Steve Cherundolo, who plays in Germany. But the overall quality of this team is as good, if not better, than any Arena has started.

The host team is trying to make this visit as difficult as possible. Rather than playing in the national stadium in Guatemala City, it is making the Americans travel to a small venue some three hours from the capital by bus.

The soccer fans in Mazatenango are known as the most rabid in Guatemala. It will not be an easy match.

Right now Guatemala is pretty much an unknown quantity on the field. The team is working on its third coach of the year. It has had some success in recent weeks in warm-up matches, but it has been against extremely weak opponents.

Obviously the hosts are hoping the atmosphere will inspire the home side and upset the visitors.

Earlier this week from training camp in Florida, Arena put the trip into perspective. "For Central American countries these games are big, not only for their players but also for the whole country," he said. "They have great pressure on them, so they rise to the occasion, both on the field and in the stands. That makes it more difficult for the visitors."

"The excitement in the stands is just like the atmosphere at games in South America and Europe. These people live for these games. It's certainly different than going to an NBA Final, or a Super Bowl, because this is for national pride. It's a cultural experience that's second to none."

It is important for the U.S. to get off to a good start, especially since its most difficult road matches in this round are the first two matches on the first two weekends. It would appear that if the U.S. could come out of the matches against Guatemala and Costa Rica with at least four points, a win and a tie, the Americans would be in a commanding position to advance to CONCACAF's final round.

The U.S. is playing in Group E, one of three four-team groups in this round. In addition to Guatemala and Costa Rica, Barbados, is in this group. Between now and October, each team within a group plays the others at home and away. With three points for a victory and one point for a tie, the top two teams in the group advance to the next round.

That final round, a six-nation round-robin competition will begin in February and run through November 2001. The three teams with the highest point totals will go to the World Cup. Mexico and the United States are favored to be two of those teams.

The roster:

Goalkeepers: Brad Friedel, 29 years-old (hometown: Bay Village, Ohio; club team: Liverpool, England; 65 international appearances), Kasey Keller, 30 (Lacey, Wash.; Rayo Vallecano, Spain; 42).

Defenders: Robin Fraser, 33 (Denver; Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS; 26), Eddie Pope, 26 (High Point, N.C.; D.C. United, MLS; 32), David Regis, 31 (Valenciennes, France; F.C. Metz; France; 11), Greg Vanney, 26 (Chandler, Ariz.; Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS; 7).

Midfielders: Chris Armas, 27 (Brentwood, N.Y.; Chicago Fire, MLS; 17), Chad Deering, 29 (Plano, Tex., 16), Frankie Hejduk, 25 (Cardiff, Calif.; Bayer Leverkusen, Germany, 27), Cobi Jones, 30 (Westlake Village, Calif.; Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS; 129); Eddie Lewis, 26 (Cerritos, Calif.; Fulham, England; 22), Clint Mathis, 23 (Conyers, Ga.; MetroStars, MLS; 3), Tab Ramos, 33 (Kearny, N.J.; MetroStars, MLS; 78), Claudio Reyna, 26 (Springfield, N.J.; Glasgow Rangers, Scotland; 74), Tony Sanneh, 29 (St. Paul, Minn.; Hertha Berlin, Germany; 10).

Forwards: Jason Kreis, 27 (Omaha, Neb, Dallas Burn, MLS; 13), Ante Razov, 26 (Whittier, Calif.; Chicago Fire, MLS, 9), Earnie Stewart, 31 (Point Arena, Calif.; NAC Breda, Netherlands, 59).

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

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