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It Seems To Me . . .

U.S. advancement was nice, but now the hard part begins.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

ST. JAMES, Barbados (Thursday, November 16, 2000) -- Whew! After flirting with disaster, the United States finally found its rhythmn in the final 30 minutes against a game, but tiring Barbados and accomplished its goal for the year 2000 -- advancement to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The past year has been the easy part. The going gets much tougher now.

There will be six teams in this final round of qualifying -- once a playoff between Costa Rica and Guatemala on a neutral field decides who joins the U.S., Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago. They will play each other home and away in a round robin from which the top three finishers advance to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. There will be no weak teams in the field.

It will be much harder to advance to the Asian Cup than it was to qualify for France in 1998. To repeat: there will be no weak teams in the field. No nation will win all its matches. If history holds, only Mexico could be expected to win all its home matches. Points will be hard won. Points on the road will be precious. For the U.S., especially, its five road matches will range from merely difficult to downright ugly.

Letís look at the field.

Mexico -- Is still the strongest team in the region. It has depth and it has a new coach desperate to prove himself. At times on the road, the team loses focus and can lose matches. But when all is said and done, Mexico should be sitting on top of the qualifiers.

Trinidad & Tobago -- With Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, has world-class firepower and with Clayton Ince in goal, has a dependable keeper, This will be a dangerous side at home and a respectable side on the road.

Jamaica -- The Reggae Boyz qualified for France and will be even stronger this time around. With European-based players such as Deon Burton and Onandi Lowe, can score goals and the defense is above average. This is not a team that will lose points at home in Kingston.

Honduras -- Not well-known, but far and away the most improved team in Central America. With European-based players like Maynor Suazo, David Suazo, Milton Nunez and Carlos Pavon, one of the best strikers playing in Mexico, this is an extremely dangerous team. A trip to Tegucigalpa will be no picnic.

Costa Rica or Guatemala -- As Costa Rican star Paulo Wanchope was leaving the field in Columbus last month after Costa Rica tied the U.S. 0-0, he was hit in the head by an empty plastic beer bottle and then had a beer dumped on his head. The incident was little noticed in the U.S., but was raised to something of an international incident in Costa Rica. Should Costa Rica qualify for the next round, the next U.S. visit to Saprissa Stadium will not be fun, to say the least. Should Guatemala upset the Ticos in their playoff, the U.S. will at least be spared that trip.

The one advantage the U.S. has in the next round of qualifying is its depth. "Because of injuries and club obligations, we have never been able to put our 11 best on the field at one time," U.S. coach Bruce Arena noted after the 4-0 defeat of Barbados yesterday. "Look who was missing out there today. Look at the team that got the point from Costa Rica in Columbus. We should be very pleased with our depth."

Except for Mexico, no other team in the qualifying has much in the way of depth. More than that, most depend on a handful of star players. Injuries or suspensions from red cards or accumulated yellow cards could make a huge difference. Trinidad without Yorke or Costa Rica without Wanchope are not the same teams as with them.

So what will it take to qualify for the World Cup. Each team plays 10 matches, a possibility of a maximum of 30 points should any team run the table. No one will, probably not even Mexico at home.

An early analysis would seem to indicate that Mexico will lead the final standings with 19 or perhaps 20 points. If that is the case, 17 points to get a team through and possibly 16 will do it. For the U.S., that probably means it will have to take four points away from its five road matches. The Americans will not win all five of their home matches. If they only lost two points out of 15 at home, winning four and drawing one -- it will be a fine record. With 13 points from its home matches, and four points on the road, the U.S. should be able to punch its ticket for 2002. If it loses five points at home (a loss and a draw), or four points (draws two) the U.S. will have to find five or six points on the road. In this field, that will be difficult, although far from a mission impossible.

"We ended with a record of nine wins, two loses and six ties. I think thatís a tremendous year," Arena said. "Our objective in this round was to get through to the next round, and we have done it. What we went through in qualifying this past year is going to help us in the next round and Iím very confident I am going to be able to put a much better team on the field."

One final note before leaving Barbados. The Rockets did themselves proud yesterday. They outplayed the U.S. through the first hour of the match and with a little luck, they could have had the lead. The fans were wonderful hosts to Americans who followed the U.S. down here. They rooted hard for their team, but were universally pleasant to their visitors. It was a completely relaxed and fun scene, if a little tense by the 60th minute. The U.S. likely will not have this kind of experience on the road again in the next round.

This was the fun part. Now the hard part begins.

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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