CONCACAF Is Alive and Kicking : Soccer: The sport's weakest region, making noises, starts its own tournament tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football, known by the unwieldy acronym of CONCACAF, has long been considered soccer's Third World.

Of 34 countries in the region, only Mexico has been taken seriously. As for the others, most have not been economically sound enough to support world-class professional leagues or national teams, while in the two countries where money for sports is abundant--the United States and Canada--soccer has been about as popular for spectators as hemorrhoids.

But there is evidence that the region is beginning to stir, including the establishment of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The region's first championship tournament starts tonight at the Coliseum with Canada vs. Honduras and Mexico vs. Jamaica. The other four teams will begin play Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with Costa Rica vs. Guatemala and the United States vs. Trinidad and Tobago.

After 10 days and 16 games, CONCACAF, like soccer's other regions, will have a champion. And the champion will be richer by $100,000, the winner's share of the $250,000 purse.

"We've become so jaded by the money we hear about in professional sports in the United States that $100,000 might not sound like a lot," said Chuck Blazer, CONCACAF's general secretary. "But believe me, that would go a long way in many of these countries."

Money, however, is not the only incentive.

Mexico is presumed to be the region's jewel. But the last time it met its neighbors in a significant competition--the final qualification round for the 1982 World Cup--it finished third behind Honduras and El Salvador. Mexico would like to reassert itself, while Costa Rica, inspired by its 13th-place finish in last year's 24-team World Cup, wants to prove it has arrived on Mexico's level.

The United States is not there yet. But it expects to be before 1994, when it will play host to the World Cup for the first time, in an attempt by the international soccer federation (FIFA) to conquer its last frontier.

To speed the competitive process, the U.S. Soccer Federation hired Bora Milutinovic as its coach. He coached Mexico in the 1986 World Cup and Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup.

U.S. officials also are optimistic because of recent successes at the box office. Since Milutinovic arrived five games ago, average attendance at games involving the national team has been 38,779. It's not exactly an eruption, but the sport is definitely making some rumbling noises.

CONCACAF Gold Cup

A look at the teams competing in the 10-day tournament that begins tonight at the Coliseum:

COUNTRY: Canada.

COACH: Tony Waiters.

EXPERIENCE: Advanced to World Cup tournament for the first time in 1986; won 1990 North American Nations Cup, finished third this year behind Mexico and United States.

OUTLOOK: In Los Angeles earlier this year for North American Nations Cup, Canadians lost to Mexico, 3-0, and United States, 2-0. Should be improved after adding six international players, including goalkeeper Craig Forrest and defender Frank Yallop of Ipswich in England's second division. Forward John Catliff scored all three of team's goals in 1990 North American Nations Cup in Vancouver.

COUNTRY: Costa Rica.

COACH: Rolando Villalobos.

EXPERIENCE: Finished 13th of 24 teams in 1990 World Cup, advancing to second round; champion of this year's Central American Cup.

OUTLOOK: "Ticos" are Central America's dominant team and considered one of three leading contenders here along with Mexico and United States. Villalobos, 37, was assistant in World Cup under Bora Milutinovic, now U.S. coach. Ten players from that team are here, including goalkeeper Luis Conejo. His play this season was major factor in Albacete's promotion from Spanish second division to first.

COUNTRY: Guatemala.

COACH: Harold Cordon.

EXPERIENCE: Third in 1991 Central American Cup.

OUTLOOK: Earned invitation here as third-place team in Central American Cup only because champion Costa Rica had automatic berth. Played to scoreless draws in that tournament with El Salvador and Honduras. Lost to Costa Rica, 1-0. Only all-tournament player was goalkeeper Humberto Marotta. "Chapines" are trying to rebuild, but their professional league is beset by financial problems. They have no players in professional leagues outside country.

COUNTRY: Honduras.

COACH: Flavio Ortega.

EXPERIENCE: World Cup qualifier in 1982; second in this year's Central American Cup.

OUTLOOK: Also financially strapped, it has experienced drought since its only World Cup appearance in 1982. Edge over Guatemala because "Catrachas" at least beat El Salvador's outmanned youth team, 2-1, in Central American Cup. But they were not in Costa Rica's league, losing, 2-0. All-tournament players were defender Marco Antonio Anariba, midfielder Camilo Bonilla and forward Luis Vallejo.

COUNTRY: Jamaica.

COACH: Carl Brown.

EXPERIENCE: 1991 Shell Cup champion.

OUTLOOK: Could be tournament's most entertaining team. Fast, explosive but sometimes undisciplined. Scored 11 goals and allowed only two in four Shell Cup games. Won final from Trinidad and Tobago, 2-0. Record this year is 9-0-1. Forward Paul Davis has 10 international goals; midfielder M. Winston Anglin has seven.

COUNTRY: Mexico.

COACH: Manuel Lapuente.

EXPERIENCE: Reached quarterfinals of 1986 World Cup; won 1991 North American Nations Cup.

OUTLOOK: Long considered class of CONCACAF, but now "Tri-Color" has to prove it afield. Critics of conservative Coach Lapuente contend his job is on line in this tournament. At his disposal is team loaded with talent, including Luis Garcia, first Mexican national in 15 years to lead Mexican League in scoring; forward Roberto Luis Alvez (Zaguinho); midfielder Manuel de la Torre, considered by some best player in country; defender Roberto Ruiz Esparza; defender Efrain (the Knife) Herrera and veteran goalkeeper Pablo Larios.

COUNTRY: Trinidad and Tobago.

COACH: Edgar Vidale.

EXPERIENCE: Second in 1991 Shell Cup.

OUTLOOK: Needed only tie to advance to World Cup for first time in 1990 but suffered heartbreaking 1-0 loss to United States at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in final qualifying game. Several players from that game are still with "Strike Squad," including hard-luck goalkeeper Michael Maurice, midfielder Russell Latapy and forward Leonson Lewis. But there have since been two coaching changes. Vidale previously coached team in 1970-85.

COUNTRY: United States.

COACH: Bora Milutinovic.

EXPERIENCE: Reached World Cup in 1990 for first time in 40 years; runner-up in this year's North American Nations Cup.

OUTLOOK: Much better under Milutinovic, who coached Mexico in 1986 World Cup and Costa Rica in 1990 World Cup. Since he took over in April, team is 1-1-3 but beat one good national team, Uruguay, which two nights later upset Mexico at Coliseum, and tied another, Ireland. Ten players were on World Cup team. Two who weren't, midfielder Hugo Perez and defender Fernando Clavijo, have impressed. Midfielder Bruce Murray, leading scorer in U.S. history with 13 goals in international games, will tie all-time appearance record at 58 in his first game here.

Compiled by RANDY HARVEY

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