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World Cup Soccer : U. S. Faces First Test in Costa Rica

From The Associated Press

After 39 years of failure, the United States has its best chance yet of qualifying for soccer’s World Cup finals.

Strong recent performances have made the Americans a favorite to be one of the two teams from the Central and North American and Caribbean region (CONCACAF) to advance to the tournament in Italy next summer.

“In our neck of the woods, we’ve achieved parity,” U.S. national team Coach Bob Gansler said.

With Mexico barred from international competition for two years for using over-age players in qualifying for the Under-20 world championships, and Canada already eliminated, two of the United States’ major adversaries in the region have been removed.

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All the same, no one is taking anything for granted.

“I don’t think there is a favorite (in the region),” Gansler said. “If anybody feels this is going to be a cakewalk, they are sadly mistaken.”

The U.S. opens its final-round schedule of eight home-and-home matches today at San Jose, Costa Rica.

It will play the return match against Costa Rica on April 30 in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, Mo., and play host to Trinidad & Tobago on May 13 at El Camino College in Torrance.

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Then, the U.S. plays Guatemala in New Britain, Conn. on June 10. It plays in El Salvador on July 9 and in Guatemala on Oct. 8. The final two games will be played at yet to be determined U.S. sites against El Salvador on Nov. 5 and in Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19.

The Americans last played in the World Cup in 1950--when participation was by invitation. Since then, they have failed to qualify in nine consecutive attempts.

After a successful Olympic qualifying performance, an encouraging Olympic showing, a third-place finish in the world indoor championships in the Netherlands in January and a surprisingly strong, fourth-place finish in the Under-20 world championships in Saudi Arabia in February, a new confident attitude seems to have developed on the U.S. team.

“To put us in the World Cup will make us a legitimate host to the 1994 World Cup,” said 24-year-old forward Brent Goulet. “For the players who stuck out it out in soccer when there really was nowhere for them to play in this country . . . for all these players, for us to keep their dream alive is so important.”

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Now, the U.S. team believes it can fulfill those dreams.

“When you look at the qualifying effort that we had back for the 1982 World Cup, it was different than we have right now,” said Rick Davis, midfielder and captain of the U.S. team for the last decade.

“We were in a group with Canada and Mexico. When we went down to Mexico, the attitude on the team was ‘Well let’s try to keep it as close as possible.’ Whereas when we went down to El Salvador last year as part of the Olympic qualifying it was: ‘Hey, let’s see if we can’t really run this score up.’

“The overall attitude is completely different.”

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Self-confidence was firmly installed during the indoor championships in the Netherlands.

“What we got out of the indoor championships is that they’re human and that we have the skill,” Goulet said. “We can beat those teams.

“Just having a winning attitude (is important). We learn by winning. We don’t go out and just compete. We want to win.”

The team has been able to maintain this positive attitude and maintain continuity by placing more than a dozen players under contract. This keeps the players together and has allowed the team to develop a rhythm.

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Goulet, Hugo Perez, Bruce Murray and Peter Vermes consistently have made up the offensive threat over the last two years. Davis has anchored a midfield with Tab Ramos, John Harkes and Jim Gabarra, and Mike Windischmann has formed the base of the defense with Paul Caligiuri and Brian Bliss.

David Vanole has been the No. 1 goalkeeper over the past two years but now has yielded that role to his backup during that time, Jeff Duback.

In preparation for the final qualifying round, the United States has played well: a 2-0 record on a South American tour in March and a second-place finish last weekend to Colombia’s Santa Fe in the Marlboro Cup of Miami, where it lost the championship game on penalty kicks.

The players Gansler has are mostly young, about half the squad is under 25-years-old.

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The two most internationally experienced players are Davis and Windischmann. Davis, the most experienced with more than 40 appearances for the U.S. in international competition, may miss time due to torn cartilage in his right knee.

So far, the mix of youth and experience has helped the United States, but the loss of Davis may upset that balance.

“Rick’s there as a stabilizer, more or less, because he’s been through more international games than anybody,” said the 24-year-old Bliss. “Mike (Windischmann) would probably pick up that (leadership) responsibility. We lose a little bit there as far as Rick’s ability to keep the players calm when we’re under pressure because he’s gone through that stuff before.”


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