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Warning Signs

Times Staff Writer

The omens have not been promising for the United States.

First there was the sad case of Kyle Martino’s new $1,100 acoustic guitar. It was ruined on the flight to Mexico, the neck and the base of the instrument going their separate ways thanks to some unkind baggage handling.

“I think someone took it out of the case and just snapped it,” Martino fumed.

Then there was the case of Martino himself. A hip injury led to the Columbus Crew midfielder’s being cut Friday for the CONCACAF Olympic soccer qualifying tournament that starts today in Guadalajara.

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Then there are the Mexican fans, who have taken to calling out “Adu, Adu” every time they catch a glimpse of U.S. winger DaMarcus Beasley when he trains on the fields surrounding the Estadio Tres de Marzo.

Beasley is a World Cup player. Freddy Adu is 14. The Mexican fans will learn the difference.

Finally, there is the hotel food, which the American players and coaches have found to be, well, interesting.

“You could play hoops with this ham,” Tim Mulqueen, the team’s goalkeepers coach, told U.S. press officer Bryan Chenault during one particularly unappetizing meal.

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And so it goes as the Americans prepare for three games this week -- and, they hope, two more the week after -- as they continue along the road to Athens 2004.

To reach Greece, the U.S. has to reach the final of this tournament. Only the top two teams from among the eight competing will advance to the Olympics.

The eight have been divided into two groups of four, with the first- and second-place finishers from each group going into the semifinals after round-robin play.

The Americans are in Group A, along with Canada, Honduras and Panama. Group B consists of Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago.

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The task facing U.S. Coach Glen “Mooch” Myernick and Mexico Coach Ricardo Lavolpe is straightforward: Their teams are favored, so both have to try to win their respective groups to avoid meeting in the semifinals.

The tournament opens with a doubleheader at Estadio Jalisco this evening when Costa Rica plays Jamaica, after which Mexico plays Trinidad and Tobago.

The U.S. opens against Panama on Tuesday at Estadio Tres de Marzo, then plays Canada on Thursday and Honduras on Saturday.

“We have not come here to play three games in five days, we’ve come here to play five games in 10 days,” Myernick said, in a comment that has become almost his mantra.

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“Since we’ve gotten to Mexico, there’s been a lot of media coverage. All everybody wants to talk about is U.S.-Mexico, and all I think about is U.S.-Panama.

“It’s the most difficult game because it’s the first one. We will be the away team in every game down here for sure, not just because it’s in Mexico, but because of the rivalry that takes place between the U.S. and Mexico.”

Fans, in other words, will be rooting for U.S. opponents.

Fortunately for the U.S., this Olympic qualifying team is far more experienced than its recent predecessors and should be able to handle the fans and the competition.

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Nineteen of the 20 players are from Major League Soccer, led by the 2002 World Cup duo of Beasley and Landon Donovan. Similarly, Bobby Convey is a player with considerable national team experience.

“The 1996 Olympic team was a college all-star team, with three overage players,” said Myernick, who was an assistant under Bruce Arena for the Atlanta Games.

“The last Olympic team, which set the bar very high for us and did a wonderful job [in reaching the semifinals under Coach Clive Charles at the Sydney 2000 Games], was predominantly [made up of] professional players, but more recent professionals.

“This team has a little bit more experience. I think where this team doesn’t have as much experience as I would like is across the back. I think we have a very good attacking group of players and a capable defense.”

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Which could be a problem once Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico attack.

“The challenge for our defense is to stay intact and make defending their priority,” Myernick said.

“I’m not expecting us to be the type of team where we have defenders coming out of the back, joining the attack, overlapping into the final third of the field, providing us with crosses, getting to the edge of the box and getting shots.

“We simply don’t have that makeup in our team.

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“I believe we have the type of defense that needs to stay at home, control their area of the field, dominate the forwards that they play against and get the ball into midfield to the players who can provide it to our forwards so that we can be dangerous and highlight our strengths.”

Those strengths probably will be the diamond-shaped midfield, where Kyle Beckerman will play in the defensive spot occupied by Chris Armas or Pablo Mastroeni on the national team.

Out wide, Myernick will make full use of the pace and dribbling skills of Beasley and Convey on the left and right, respectively, while Donovan will be the sharp point of the diamond, right behind whichever two forwards Myernick starts.

Offensively, the U.S. should be a threat to anyone. Defensively, it might be vulnerable.

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To the relief of the players, however, the waiting is finally over. The final week of training in Guadalajara has been useful, but also wearying.

“It’s a just a normal foreign trip for us,” Convey said. “Some of the fields we’ve played on haven’t been that good, but we’ve played some practice games, we’ve gotten used to the referees here pretty much calling everything against us....

“We just kind of hang out. We play cards. We have PlayStation and Xbox. We’ve gotten on the Internet. We keep busy. But we are ready to play.”

Just how ready will be seen Tuesday.

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