Defense will ease U.S. path to semis

Americans face Canada, which needs many goals, in Olympic qualifier


April 25, 2000|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Under-23 men need merely not to be embarrassed, but Canada, their soccer opponent tonight in Hershey, Pa., needs a near-miracle. Another way of looking at the Olympic qualifier is that the Americans must defend first, and the Canadians need to attack like crazy.

That's the skinny as group play ends tonight in the battle to become one of two nations representing North and Central America and the Caribbean in men's soccer -- mainly for players 23 years old or younger -- at this summer's Olympics in Australia.

The 8 p.m. United States-Canada game at Hersheypark Stadium pits two frequent international rivals who have met four times in the past two years, the Americans having won twice with two ties. Mexico and Panama open tonight's qualifying doubleheader at 5: 30.

U.S. coach Clive Charles, before the tournament, observed that Canada "is always a difficult opponent. They are well organized and a quality team."

A number of the Canadians have played together since Under-20 days, and 13 pros dot their roster. But because Canada lacks pro leagues, players' time together on the national side is limited. Seven compete mostly at lower levels in Europe, one is in this country's Major League Soccer, five are in the A-League and four in college.

All but one of Charles' players are pros, mostly in Major League Soccer, and have, by far, the highest-level pro experience ever for a U.S. Olympic team. Plus, the United States has midfielder Ben Olsen and forward Chris Albright, two Pennsylvania natives (Olsen from nearby Middletown) who put on an offensive clinic for hometown fans in the 3-0 U.S. win over Honduras on Friday night.

With tonight's doubleheader, aficionados are watching not only wins and losses but a more technical measure of success in this particular tournament -- the cumulative difference between each side's goals scored and yielded. That differential is the first tie-breaker in determining Friday's semifinalists. For the favored Americans (1-0-0 with a tournament-topping +3 goal differential), a win or tie tonight will guarantee a semifinal berth Friday night against Guatemala (1-0-1, +1) or Mexico (0-0-1, no differential). Assuming a Mexican win, though, even being upset 1-0 or 2-0 by Canada would get the U.S. team into the semifinals on goal differential.

Canada (0-0-1, -2) must win big tonight. With its negative goal differential, squeezing into the semifinals past Honduras (1-0-1, -1) means the Canadians need a 2-0 victory or to score at least three times in beating the Americans.

That task appears daunting. In its past three meetings against the U.S. team, the Canadians have scored three times -- a goal a game during two losses and a 1-1 draw.

Olympic qualifying

Who: Mexico vs. Panama; 5: 30 tonight; United States vs. Canada, 8.

Where: Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, Pa.

Tickets: $10-$25 for doubleheader, credit-card purchases OK, 717-534-3911.

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