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World Cup Soccer : Injury-Hampered U.S. Needs a Victory Today

Times Staff Writer

The United States national soccer team is likely to be without both its most experienced player, Rick Davis, and its most creative player, Hugo Perez, when it plays Costa Rica in a vital World Cup qualifying match today at St. Louis.

Davis, who has been the backbone of the U.S. team for more than a decade, is questionable because of an injury, and Perez, arguably the most inventive and technically skilled of the American players, is definitely sidelined with one.

That leaves Coach Bob Gansler with a problem. Having lost the first of its eight qualifying games, 1-0, to Costa Rica in Costa Rica on April 16, the U.S. team is faced with a virtual must-win situation today if it is to avoid falling further behind in the five-team qualifying group.

Each of the five teams plays a home-and-home series against the other four. Two points are awarded for a win, one for a tie and none for a loss. The top two teams in the final standings will advance to next year’s World Cup in Italy.

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Costa Rica leads the standings with four points after two wins and a loss. Guatemala is second with two points after splitting its series with Costa Rica. The United States has no points after one loss. The two other teams in the group, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago, have yet to play.

The Americans controlled much of the play at San Jose two weeks ago, but were unable to overcome a slow start, during which they allowed Costa Rica to take the lead in the 14th minute. With a crowd of 26,271, including Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, cheering them on, the Costa Rican players hung on for the victory.

“We came out tentative and lackadaisical in the first half,” Gansler told Soccer America magazine. “It picked up in the second half, but we didn’t create enough (scoring) chances for ourselves. . . . Whether it was the sun, the crowd, the wrong breakfast, whatever. We just played too slowly.”

Davis and Perez missed the first game, too, and their absence showed. Without Davis’ stabilizing influence in the midfield and defense, the United States at times appeared shaky under pressure. On attack, meanwhile, it missed the skills that Perez brings to the game. Tab Ramos was impressive, but the Americans would have posed a greater threat had he been able to team with Perez.

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Gansler, who has been criticized for playing Perez in the Marlboro Cup games at Miami before he had fully recovered, recognized the need for more creativity on offense.

“We were setting up well,” he said of the game in San Jose, “but either the pass wouldn’t come or our movement off the ball was nonexistent. Our players were not creating the great passing angle so we could play behind their players. We needed to go forward with more urgency.”

The United States is likely to do that today at St. Louis Soccer Park in suburban Fenton, Mo. The 8,500-seat stadium has been sold out for the game, which will be televised live on ESPN at 1 p.m. (PDT).

“We’re capable of playing better than we did,” Gansler said. “We’ll be ready for them in St. Louis.”

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After today’s match, the U.S. team heads west to begin preparing for its May 13 qualifying match against Trinidad & Tobago at El Camino College in Torrance.


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