Road to World Cup Begins in Columbus


The objective is to play in the heat and humidity of Japan and South Korea in June 2002. The road to that sweaty goal for the U.S. men’s soccer team begins Wednesday night in the cold of Columbus.

The prospect of teeth-rattling temperatures for their opening qualifying match against Mexico doesn’t seem to faze the Americans. Considering how they fared in the 1998 World Cup, finishing last in the 32-team field, they can use any edge they can find.

“A lot of their players are used to warm weather and for us, the colder the better,” midfielder Chris Armas says. “And if that is a little bit of an advantage, we will take it.


“At the end of the day it doesn’t take much to get the players excited for any of these games leading up to the World Cup. This is what it is all about, being part of a national team and knowing if you can put some good games together, you are going to the World Cup.”

While the United States has played in the last three world soccer championships--qualifying in 1990 and ‘98, automatically making it as host in ‘94--rarely has it put together good games. Now, with the level of soccer in Central America and the Caribbean much better, it will take a string of strong games to get to the World Cup.

Also in the round-robin CONCACAF finals are Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago. U.S. coach Bruce Arena believes any of the six teams can win the group, and any can finish at the bottom.

The top three will advance to next year’s World Cup.

“Their soccer federations have put more money into developing the sport in their countries,” says Arena, who took over as U.S. coach soon after the 0-3 debacle in France. “Also key players in these countries are playing abroad: Dwight Yorke at Manchester United, David Suazo for Honduras in Italy, and Paulo Wanchope from Costa Rica in England.

“These countries’ players are better and have more well-rounded soccer experiences.”

Those other countries also have a distinct advantage in the way their professional leagues are set up. Everything is designed to make the national team better, and the first priority for players is being available for national team games.

Not so in the United States, where Arena and his predecessors always have had difficulty putting together the best roster. Kasey Keller, one of America’s top goalies, wasn’t chosen for Wednesday’s match because he has a club game in Spain on Sunday.


Luckily for the Americans, goalkeeper is their strongest position, with Brad Friedel and Tony Meola available against Mexico.

But for the United States to get to World Cup 2002, it will need all of its players, particularly on the road.

Arena was forced to use 31 players in the second round of qualifying, and he doesn’t want to go through that again.

“You would like to believe it will be a smaller group than 31,” he says. “Other teams are comprised basically of players who are playing in their national leagues and it’s centered around the national team. We don’t have that luxury.”

He pointed out that Costa Rica used just 17 players in the first round, adding that he hopes “it gets a little narrower in terms of the number of players we use.”

Certain to be among those players are Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Armas. But at least if Arena is forced to play roster roulette, he has some depth and experience to call upon.


“On this team we can interchange several players and everybody is on the same page,” Armas says. “The system stays the same. For my role, it is not like I have to change and adjust to anything. My job has remained the same throughout all my games with the national team.

“The talent on this team is pretty deep, with guys on the bench and in camp who can step in and do the same job.”

That job becomes more difficult beginning Wednesday.


CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying

* What: Mexico vs. U.S.

* When: Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. PST

* TV: ESPN2, Telemundo.

* Where: At Columbus, Ohio.

* Update: The U.S. opens the final round of a 10-game World Cup qualifying schedule, trying to become one of three teams from a six-team group that plays in Japan/Korea 2002. The U.S. will try to extend its 16-game home unbeaten streak in World Cup qualifying play, having lost a match to Costa Rica on May 31, 1985, in Torrance. Mexico holds a 27-7-9 record in the all-time series, but the U.S. has lost in only four of the last 12 meetings.

* Other opening games: Trinidad and Tobago vs. Jamaica at Kingston; Honduras vs. Costa rica at San Jose.