U.S. team feels heat in Trinidad

With Germany in mind, Americans face tough one

Soccer

February 09, 2005|By Chris Cowles | Chris Cowles,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - Soccer came of age in the United States in 1989 when the national team qualified for its first World Cup finals in 40 years, thanks to a gritty victory on the road over Trinidad and Tobago.

Since that time, the team has transformed itself from a plucky group of collegiate players to a regional power, now poised to join a few select countries that have qualified for five straight finals.

The final round of qualifying for a spot in Germany in 2006 begins today in the heat, humidity and emotionally charged atmosphere of Carnival season in Trinidad (2:30 ET, ESPN2).

Since 1982, the United States has a 10-1-3 record against Trinidad, outscoring the "Soca Warriors," 20-7. The lone loss by the Americans to a Caribbean nation came against Trinidad and Tobago in 1994.

Despite the glittering record, the visitors are wary of their hosts, who have opted to play at 25,000-seat Queen's Park Oval, which is primarily used for cricket, instead of the National Stadium, site of the epic 1989 match.

"They [Trinidad and Tobago] feel like it's anyone's game," said U.S. defender Eddie Pope. "They're a dangerous team, especially up top. I'm sure it's [the atmosphere] going to be electric, with Carnival and all - they [fans] have a lot of energy."

Much of the focus will be on the return of Trinidad and Tobago forward Dwight Yorke, the nation's greatest athlete, who fell out of favor with the national team midway through qualifying for the 2002 finals.

Yorke, who achieved acclaim during a three-year stint with Manchester United, has not played in a qualifier since the United States beat the Soca Warriors, 2-0, in Foxboro, Mass., in 2001.

The hosts are expected to play a 3-5-2 formation, with Cornell Glen and Stern John at forward and Yorke slotted in just behind them. Employing a fast-paced attack, they have proved to be tough in one-on-one situations, but often lack cohesion and are suspect on defense.

The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica are the favorites for automatic advancement from the six-nation group, with Guatemala, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago left to battle for fourth place.

The fourth-place finisher gets a chance to also advance to the finals via a two-leg playoff against an Asian nation.

Given the lack of preparation time, U.S. coach Bruce Arena said his team is a bit behind the eight ball. Unlike the hosts, who have had the luxury of playing five games in less than three weeks, the United States has not played since November.

A two-month dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the national team players led to a refusal by squad members to appear for training camps that led to the cancellation of exhibitions against Sweden and South Korea last month.

Arena went as far as hastily assembling a squad of replacement players in the event the standoff could not be resolved by Feb. 1, the deadline the USSF had set to finalize a roster for the Trinidad and Tobago game.

"They invested a lot in this game," Arena said of the hosts, "and they've prepared pretty hard for the last couple months. They are as well prepared as they can be."

Always taking a "can-do" approach with his team, which has gone 31 straight games without a loss to a regional foe, Arena said his team will play to win, not just steal a point with a tie.

"We've always tried to win games," he said, "but I think there's a confidence that we can win on the road and we know, realistically, that it can be very difficult - the conditions you face and everything else. But we have enough experience in this group to be successful."

Since his domestic players lack match fitness, Arena is likely to start eight European-based players, although he has not made public his lineup.

"Everybody's ready," said forward Brian McBride, "the combination of players itching to play a game and those maybe just looking to be a part of the national team."

McBride is expected to partner Eddie Johnson up front with Landon Donovan, and they'll be joined by midfielders Eddie Lewis, Pablo Mastroeni and DaMarcus Beasley.

Pope and Carlos Bocanegra will be in the center of the back line, with Cory Gibbs and Steve Cherundolo on the flanks in front of goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

This final round of 10 games - five home and five away - will continue next month when the Americans play in Mexico before returning home to meet Guatemala in Birmingham, Ala.

At a glance

What: U.S. men's national team vs. Trinidad and Tobago in 2006 World Cup qualifier

Site: Queen's Park Oval, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

When: Today, 2:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

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