Back in the Mid-Atlantic, the U.S. national team plays Jamaica's self-labeled Reggae Boyz tonight in a World Cup qualifying game with unanticipated importance for both sides.
A win by either team in the 7: 30 game (ESPN) at sold-out RFK Stadium in Washington will mean ascendancy to first place in the tight, six-nation battle for three spots from this part of the world in next summer's World Cup finals in France.
"We consider this game to be equally, if not more, important to our last one [a 1-0 United States win Sept. 7] against Costa Rica," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said.
Figure RFK to be rockin'. The remaining few tickets of the second-largest number ever sold for a World Cup qualifier in this country -- 51,528 -- vanished yesterday. That's RFK's max without temporary bleachers used for 1994's five World Cup games and for the July 1996, U.S.-Portugal Olympic game that drew 58,012, the RFK record for any event.
Several publications got caught up in the buzz last week that more than 12,000 tickets had been sold to fans of surprising Jamaica.
No matter, mon. Call it added ambience. Because easily triple that number will join Uncle Sam's Army -- that flag-waving, drum-bashing fan club -- in rooting loudly for the Americans.
Months ago when this game was scheduled, it figured to be a David vs. Goliath mismatch of little consequence. But after being wiped out by Mexico, 6-0, and after an ugly fight at an unrelated exhibition in Mexico, Jamaica kept eeking out 1-0 wins and scoreless draws.
Thus, favored Mexico (3-0-2) still leads qualifying from North and Central America and the Caribbean that ends next month. But overachieving Jamaica (3-2-2) is second, with the United States (2-1-3) and El Salvador (2-2-3) a point back, tied for third.
Many factors favor the U.S. team tonight, home-field advantage the largest among them. Only Mexico, once, has won on the road in this qualifying round's 20 games. Sampson expects Jamaica to be defensive, "looking for a tie, hoping to steal a win."
Jamaica has scored just four goals in seven qualifiers, yielding seven; the U.S. team has put in five more and given up three fewer. The teams' 0-0 draw in Kingston in March was the most recent in a five-game scoreless stretch against the United States for Jamaica. A win would be the island nation's first in 10 tries against the U.S. team dating to 1972 -- a grand upset for players who, their media guide says, would prefer living in America.
"We hope to be much more precise in front of the goal," Sampson said, promising a more aggressive attack than his makeshift lineup generated against Costa Rica.
The most positive picture in months at the injury-hampered forward spots greeted Sampson at practice at George Mason University on Tuesday. Thus, the New England Revolution's Joe-Max Moore, the U.S. team's second-leading active scorer, seems a likely starter.
Top scorer Eric Wynalda will be available, although maybe not for 90 minutes. But Sampson said the return of team captain John Harkes, of D.C. United, to midfield after missing Portland because of yellow cards, could free fleet Ernie Stewart for use up front.
Sampson all but guaranteed more playing time late for Major League Soccer's scoring champion, Preki, who ignited the attack as a sub against Costa Rica.
Defensively, Sampson said he was reluctant to change the back four combination that showed unusual cohesiveness vs. Costa Rica.
Jamaica's Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, has molded the Jamaicans, for years a lightly regarded, undisciplined bunch, into a team that has galvanized the whole island's attention.
Simoes added to the team four English-raised players of Jamaican descent, all from either England's Premier League or First Division. Two are young attackers with typically dogged, English work-rates: Paul Hall and Deon Burton, neither of whom played against the U.S. team earlier. The 20-year-old Burton's goals have won Jamaica's past two games.
Here's where the six regional finalists from North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) stand in World Cup qualification. After 10 home-and-home games, the top three advance to the World Cup finals in France next summer:
Team .. .. .. W .. .. L .. .. T .. .. GF .. ... GA ... ... Pts.*
Mexico .. ... 3 .. .. 0 .. .. 2 .. .. 13 .. ... 2 .. .. .. 11
Jamaica .. .. 3 .. .. 2 .. .. 2 .. ... 4 .. ... 9 .. .. .. 11
U.S.A. .. ... 2 .. .. 1 .. .. 3 .. ... 9 .. ... 6 .. .. .. 9
El Sal'dor .. 2 .. .. 2 .. .. 3 .. ... 7 .. ... 5 .. .. .. 9
C'ta Rica ... 2 .. .. 4 .. .. 2 .. ... 7 .. ... 8 .. .. .. 8
Canada .. ... 1 .. .. 4 .. .. 2 .. ... 2 .. ... 12 ... ... 5
* Three points for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss
Remaining games Oct. 3: Jamaica at U.S., RFK Stadium
Oct. 5: El Salvador at Mexico
Oct. 12: Mexico at Canada
Nov. 2: U.S. at Mexico, Mexico City
Nov. 9: U.S. at Canada, Van- couver
Jamaica at El Salvador
Costa Rica at Mexico
Nov. 16: Mexico at Jamaica
Canada at Costa Rica
El Salvador at U.S., Fox- boro, Mass.
SOURCE: U. S. Soccer Federation
Pub Date: 10/03/97