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Guatemalan players:
'We'll fight like hell.’

CONCACAF qualifying

With 52,000 watching, U.S. men face crucial home match with Guatemala.

By Robert Wagman

HERNDON, Va. (Friday, September 1) -- While not absolutely guaranteeing a place in the next round of World Cup qualifying, a victory over Guatemala Sunday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. would all but propel the United States into the six-team CONCACAF final qualifying round next year.

Going into this match, televised live on ABC at 2 p.m., the U.S. is second place in the four team group. Costa Rica (2-1, 6 points) is on top with the U.S. and Guatemala with at 1-1-1 with four points. Barbados (1-2, 3 points) is last.

So far, the U.S. is the only team in Group E to have gained a point on the road. With each team having three matches remaining, all four mathematically among the two teams to advance to the next round. The odds, however, favor Costa Rica and the Americans.

"... he's done better in every game we have played and this past week has been his best camp with us."
-- Bruce Arena on Tony Sanneh's conversion to attacking back
If the U.S. gets by Guatemala on Sunday, and assuming Costa Rica defeats Barbados at home, the U.S. will remain in second place in the Group E and open a three-point advantage over Guatemala. The Americans then would probably need three more points in the final two games to advance. If that wasn’t accomplished against Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, on October 11, there would no excuse for not winning in Barbados on November 15.

There is, however, not a lot of margin for error. The U.S. must defeat Guatemala, a team that is both battered and undermanned, and which is expected to play defensively and hope for a 0-0 draw. A key factor in the match is that two of Guatemala's better players, central defender Gustavo Cabrera and striker Carlos Ruiz, are suspended for cards and ineligible. Ruiz has provided much of Guatemala's offense in its first three matches, including the late goal that allowed the 1-1 draw against the U.S. in Mazatenango. His quickness will not be easy to replace.

Guatemalan coach Julio Cesár Cortés says he expects his team will play a "physical" match. Mexican referee Edgar Rangel, who will be in the middle, has a reputation for letting teams play, so it could end up a tough and mean match. If the U.S. has shown a negative tendency under coach Bruce Arena, it is an inability to break down physical, defensive teams.

The U.S. did get seven goals against Barbados in Foxboro, but it missed a slew of other chances. On Sunday, the U.S. must finish better because Guatemala will probably not give up too many quality chances. "I'm expecting in Guatemala, a team that will have a clear defensive posture, a team that would be elated to leave RFK with a draw," Arena said after practice today. "I expect them to try to win the game, but their ambition is to walk off the field 0-0."

As is his practice Arena will not name his starting lineup until a team meeting tomorrow night. Today he sparred with reporters saying only, "Tou can expect to see (Claudio) Reyna, and yes, (Kasey) Keller will be in goal, probably." But based on practice this week, the lineup will basically be the same as the team that handled Barbados so easily in Foxboro Stadium near Boston three weeks ago, with certainly two changes, and possibly one other.

Kasey Keller, who was unavailable for Barbados because of club commitments in Spain, will start in goal in place of Brad Friedel. Ajax of Amsterdam's John O'Brien will start in the defensive midfield in place of the injured Chris Armas.

The one question would seem to be who will play at left and right midfield, with Reyna in the middle. Joe-Max Moore and Brian McBride will be up front. Against Barbados, it was Cobi Jones on the left in place of Eddie Lewis, who had two poor outings. But Jones has not been very effective over the last three U.S. matches.

Based on the look in training today, the starter at right midfield will be Jovan Kirovski, who is having a good early run at Sporting Lisbon in Portugal where, while not a starter, he has gotten playing minutes and is looking very fit. In that case, Arena would move Stewart from right to the left side to place Kirovski in his more natural position.

Lewis, who has had a good week, or possibly by Tab Ramos who has also shown well in training, might also ve considered to replace Jones.

The back line looks to be the same as against Barbados, where Arena started the central tandem of Eddie Pope and Greg Berhalter, who has impressed Arena recently. David Regis will start on the left side once again and Tony Sanneh will start on the right. This means the D.C. United duo of Carlos Llamosa and Jeff Agoos will be available off the bench.

Arena is sticking with the conversion of Sanneh to an attacking right back. "Look, he's done better in every game we have played and this past week has been his best camp with us," Arena said. "It's now the end of two months of him playing that position for us and he's beginning to look like a guy who is comfortable with it."

Arena is clearly pleased with this past week. The club has worked very hard and has looked relaxed and confident. "The way they have practiced this week you could make a good argument for playing any one of the 18 I will dress Sunday," Arena said. "Look how different this is than before the match in Costa Rica where I was just trying to find 11 players who could play. We are in a very much stronger position now."

With a sell-out of 52,000, venerable RFK Stadium will be rocking. United States Soccer Federation officials say the crowd will likely be about half American and half supporting Guatemala. This is the kind of pressure match the U.S. must learn to handle in stride.

If the other CONCACAF semifinal qualifying matches this weekend run true to form, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago will already be through to the final round. Both Panama and Canada face difficult tests on the road knowing if they lose to Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago, respectively, they will be eliminated.

In Group D, St. Vincent & Grenadines must win its final three semifinal matches to advance and faces a stern test traveling to Kingston, Jamaica. The most interesting match of the day, after the U.S.-Guatemala, will be Trinidad & Tobago attempting to maintain its perfect qualifying record at home at the Queen's Park Oval against Canada, T&T opening qualifying with a 2-0 win in Edmonton. Rumors that Dwight Yorke was injured appear unfounded and the Manchester United striker will start for T&T.

El Salvador also faces a major test, visiting Honduras, a team it lost to at home 5-2 in the first match of the semifinals. A Honduras victory, combined with Jamaica taking at least one point in their match with lowly St. Vincent & Grenadines, guarantees those two countries both advance to the final round.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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