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U.S., Mexico can reach the final six

Times Staff Writer

Coaches Bob Bradley and Sven-Goran Eriksson are treading two very different paths, but both are headed in the same direction -- to soccer’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Bradley’s U.S. national team plays Cuba today at RFK Stadium in Washington (4 p.m., ESPN Classic). With a win, the Americans will secure a place in the final round of qualifying in 2009, when six teams will vie for three spots at the World Cup, with a fourth going to a playoff.

Also today, Eriksson’s Mexico national team takes on Jamaica in Kingston (4:30 p.m., Telemundo). With a win, the Mexicans will earn their place in the final round.

Cautious to a fault, both coaches are downplaying what should be straightforward victories, given the relative weakness of their opponents.

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Even though Bradley has called in younger players, including nine from the U.S. team at the Beijing Olympics, the likelihood is that he will persevere with his veterans until qualification for the final round is secured.

After that, he probably will give more playing time to such youngsters as Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore, as well as Mexico-based players Jose Francisco Torres and Michael Orozco.

The U.S. team this week rose to No. 21 in the monthly FIFA world rankings, based in part on its 1-0 win over Cuba in Havana and a 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in Chicago last month. Cuba fell to No. 98.

Of the 22 players on the U.S. roster, only four play in Major League Soccer -- including Galaxy forward Landon Donovan and Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan.

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Like the U.S., Mexico has three victories in three games and a maximum nine points already in the bag. Ranked No. 24 by FIFA, “El Tri” is sitting pretty, but Eriksson shows all the signs of being a worrier.

“It is very difficult to understand how Jamaica will play,” he said this week, even though his team had shut out the Jamaicans, 3-0, as recently as Sept. 6. “The truth is, it is complicated.”

The reason is that Jamaica fired Brazil’s Rene Simoes as its coach after earlier firing former U.S. and Mexico coach Bora Milutinovic.

It then hired Jamaican-born former England international John Barnes as Simoes’ replacement starting in November, and installed Theodore Whitmore as a caretaker until then. Whitmore has made all sorts of roster changes.

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“Therefore they are a rival we know very little about,” Eriksson said.

After today’s games, the U.S. and Mexico will play on the road Wednesday -- the U.S. against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Mexico against Canada in Edmonton.

Costa Rica and El Salvador also have all but clinched places in the final round. They can do so today with victories over Suriname and Haiti, respectively.

Also close to reaching the final six is Honduras, which will advance if it defeats Canada in San Pedro Sula today and Jamaica fails to beat Mexico.

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The final spot is being fought for between Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, who play each other in Guatemala City today.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com


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