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U.S. Soccer Faces Bottom-Line Pressure : World Cup: An American victory over Trinidad and Tobago would mean $1.4 million for the U.S. federation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the United States defeats Trinidad and Tobago Sunday at Port of Spain, Trinidad, thereby earning a berth in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, $1.4 million would automatically be added to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s coffers.

For the financially strapped organization, that is incentive enough to do everything possible to guarantee a victory.

Although that may be the bottom line, the rewards of a victory would not stop there.

“You can make a pretty good case that this is the most significant game for the United States in this half-century, at least,” said Scott LeTellier, a Newport Beach attorney who recently moved to Washington to become president of the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee.

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In his current position, LeTellier has given this subject more than a passing thought.

The immediate impact of a victory would be to send the United States to Italy next June along with 23 other teams for one of sport’s greatest spectacles, rivaled for worldwide interest only by the Olympic Games. That would be no small achievement considering that the United States has not played in the World Cup since 1950 and has never played in one for which it had to qualify. Its four previous appearances were by invitation.

Ultimately, however, a U.S. berth in the 1990 World Cup might have more impact on the 1994 World Cup, which will be played for the first time in the United States.

“Our strategy will be the same whether the United States qualifies this time or not,” LeTellier said. “We will be selling the significance of the World Cup, the bigness of the event. But there’s no question that it will be an easier sell if the United States makes it to Italy (in 1990).”

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One of the mandates of the International Federation of Assn. Football (FIFA) when it awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States was that the USSF begin to generate more interest in soccer by fielding a team that could qualify for 1990. USSF President Werner Fricker said he felt comfortable with that at the time. Why not?

In the Central and North American and Caribbean region (CONCACAF), the most formidable team, Mexico, was disqualified because it used overage players in a junior tournament. That left the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador to play a round-robin tournament for two berths.

None of those other teams seemed unbeatable, particularly considering that the United States has mounted its most determined effort ever. It hired a full-time coach, paid players for the first time so that they would not be tempted to divide their time between the national team and foreign professional leagues, and scheduled a series of exhibition games against teams that would test Italy or Brazil.

Nevertheless, the United States has been able to do no better than hold its own in CONCACAF. Costa Rica qualified with a 5-2-1 record. The other berth will go either to Trinidad and Tobago or the United States, each 3-1-3.

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Trinidad and Tobago, which scored in the final two minutes to tie the United States, 1-1, earlier this year in Torrance, has the advantage. Not only will it be playing at home in the National Stadium before a capacity crowd of 35,000, it needs only a tie to advance because it has a greater goal differential.

“I can sense that FIFA is frustrated with us,” LeTellier said. “They think it’s very important that the United States be in Italy in 1990. They’re looking at what’s at stake for them. Considering the American market, they feel there will be more dollars available for them if the United States qualifies.

“But just from a sporting standpoint, they can’t believe that we may not qualify from the group that we’re in. They’re saying, ‘Mexico’s out, there’s two berths available, and you still can’t qualify? When do you think you’re going to be able to do it?’ ”

That is a question that USSF officials have been asking themselves. As if it were not perplexing enough that the United States could only tie in its last two games against the region’s weakest teams, Guatemala and El Salvador, it was not even able to score a goal. The United States has not scored in its last 208 minutes.

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U.S. Coach Bob Gansler said his players have been overwhelmed by the pressure.

“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “The more experienced you are, it becomes a little bit easier. We’re certainly not experienced.”

As the U.S. players are receiving salaries, they no doubt are aware that one thing at stake is the USSF’s financial health.

FIFA guarantees every team that qualifies at least $1.4 million. Beyond that, the USSF would be able to attract better teams to the United States next year for exhibition games leading up to the World Cup, which, presumably, would attract more ticket-buying fans and television coverage. The USSF’s sponsorships also would be worth more money if the United States is a World Cup team.

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But if the United States does not earn a berth in Italy, the USSF, as one official who did not want to be identified said, would be in “deep trouble.”

And soccer in the United States would suffer another setback.

“I don’t want to say that the acceptance of soccer in the United States depends on this game, but in terms of the development of the sport here, it certainly is extremely important,” said Sunil Gulati, chairman of the USSF’s International Games Committee.

“It will be extremely frustrating if we’re not in the World Cup after the amount of time, effort and money that we’ve put into it. The sun will still shine, but it will be cloudy for a while.”

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On the bright side, the United States definitely will play in the 1994 World Cup. The host country receives an automatic invitation.


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