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U.S. Gets a Bit Closer to Athens

Times Staff Writer

Hold onto your sombreros, here we go again.

The United States and Mexico, soccer rivals of old, will square off in Guadalajara on Tuesday night with nothing less than a place in the Olympics at stake.

That much was assured Saturday afternoon when the U.S. defeated Honduras, 4-3, to set up a crucial semifinal against Mexico in front of a probable sellout crowd of 60,000 in Estadio Jalisco.

A hat trick by D.C. United’s Alecko Eskandarian and a goal by the Colorado Rapids’ Kyle Beckerman kept the U.S. unbeaten and untied as it won Group A of the eight-nation CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.

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Costa Rica, the winner of Group B, will play Honduras in the other semifinal Tuesday, with the victor also earning a trip to Athens.

There had been much media speculation before Saturday’s match about whether the U.S. or Honduras would seek to lose simply to avoid playing Mexico.

The U.S. coaches were adamant in rejecting such notions.

“It goes against everything our country stands for,” said Curt Onalfo, who has been scouting the U.S. opposition.

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“We’re Americans, and we don’t know how to lay down,” said Ralph Perez, assistant to Coach Glenn “Mooch” Myernick.

Myernick was asked beforehand about the possibility of several own goals being scored late in the game.

“It won’t be by us,” he snapped.

All the same, the U.S. fielded basically a reserve team, with only three regular starters in the lineup -- defensive midfielder Beckerman and defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert.

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Honduras also used its substitutes, but whereas the U.S. tried to attack, the Central Americans were content to stroll through the game -- much to the amusement of Honduras national team Coach Bora Milutinovic, Canada Coach Frank Yallop and Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid, who watched together from the stands.

Myernick said his instructions to the American players were clear.

“I don’t think Honduras was in a hurry to try to win the game,” he said. “The thing we said to our players was we really only know how to play one way, and that’s to play to win.”

The game started at a snail’s pace, with one Mexican radio commentator noting that “it looks like a practice match.”

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Gradually, however, the U.S. let it be known that it was intent on winning.

Eskandarian opened the scoring in the 28th minute, curling a free kick around a five-man defensive wall and past goalkeeper Donis Escobar to make it 1-0.

Two minutes later, U.S. defender Jose Burciaga handled the ball while blocking a shot by forward Mario Berrios. Referee Gilberto Alcala of Mexico ejected Burciaga and awarded Honduras a penalty kick.

Burciaga, of the Kansas City Wizards, will sit out Tuesday’s semifinal because of the red card.

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Roland Maradiaga scored from the penalty spot, beating goalkeeper Doug Warren of D.C. United to tie the score, 1-1.

The U.S. continued pressing in the second 45 minutes and had built a 4-1 lead before Honduras replied.

Beckerman made it 2-1 in the 47th minute off a pass from the Galaxy’s Ricky Lewis and Eskandarian scored goals in the 58th and 70th minutes.

Honduras, free at last to attack, knowing that a couple of goals would not hurt its chances of losing, managed to score twice in the last 20 minutes, with Maradiaga scoring his second and Samir Arzu scoring the third goal.

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Honduras Coach Edwin Pavon deflected a question about whether he was happy that the loss had enabled Honduras to avoid Mexico and face Costa Rica instead.

“There is no difference between Mexico and Costa Rica except the location [of the semifinal],” he said, referring to the massive support Mexico is expected to receive Tuesday night.

Myernick dismissed that as largely irrelevant.

“The Mexican team will start the game with 12 players [instead of 11] because of the 60,000 [fans], but none of them are allowed to kick the ball,” he said.

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“We knew coming here that we were going to face a very good team, it didn’t matter whether it was Costa Rica or Mexico, in the semifinals. The Olympics is a big prize and it shouldn’t come easy, and it won’t.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our young players to gain international experience playing in big games like this in Mexico, because if they are to continue to have an international career they’ll play in big games like this all the time.

“So we’re excited about it. We’re not apprehensive about the game at all.”

In Saturday’s other match, involving teams already eliminated, Panama defeated Canada, 2-1.

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