WASHINGTON -- In a game marred by 31 fouls and played before a hostile home crowd of 30,082, the United States scrapped and clawed its way to a 2-0 victory over Guatemala yesterday, successfully launching its bid to return in 1998 to soccer's premier tournament -- the World Cup.
"It was an ugly game and a very physical game with a lot of fouls, which disrupted our rhythm," said defender Alexi Lalas, whose lead pass upfield in the game's waning moments set up the knockout goal by substitute Brian McBride.
McBride, a virtual unknown in the soccer world before leading Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew in scoring this year, notched his first goal in international competition on a sliding, six-yard shot to the left post.
Veteran Eric Wynalda put the United States on the board in the 55th minute of the game when he gathered a cross from midfielder Claudio Reyna and punched it past the outstretched hands of Guatemalan goalkeeper Edgar Estrada.
Those two plays stood out in an otherwise sloppy performance by the U.S. team in its first World Cup qualifying match.
Guatemala raced out of the starting gate buoyed by its fans, who vastly outnumbered and outcheered the American faithful. At one point late in the first half, RFK Stadium reverberated with chants of "Gua-te-ma-la," drowning out a feeble retort of "U-S-A." Light-blue-and-white Guatemalan flags checkered the stands.
U.S. coach Steve Sampson was not pleased with the atmosphere. "Soccer has to understand its place in the sports market," he said afterward. "We're not the NFL yet -- hopefully, we will be -- and so we need to take a serious look at playing on Saturday instead of Sunday."
In recent years, the U.S. national team has found RFK Stadium to be one of its most supportive venues. But yesterday's 1 p.m. kickoff coincided with the start of the day's NFL games -- including those of the Redskins and Ravens.
"We thought in this stadium, we would for sure have gotten better support, but it felt a whole lot like an away game to us," said American midfielder Tab Ramos.
It is this very struggle for a fan base that soccer observers say makes the Americans' current quest for a World Cup berth critical to the game's vitality in this country. Failure to qualify would risk halting a groundswell of momentum for the sport that has been building during the past several years. Professional stadium soccer returned this year in the form of the 10-team MLS, and part of the reason for its success was interest generated by the popular 1994 World Cup. Not only was the tournament held in the United States for the first time, but also the U.S. team advanced to the second round for the first time.
Yesterday, the U.S. team took its first step toward qualifying for 1998. It will travel to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Guatemala in the next seven weeks, and play host to Trinidad on Sunday in Richmond, Va., and to Costa Rica on Dec. 14 in Palo Alto, Calif.
The top two nations in this field will join four nations from two other groups to play in a round-robin tournament next year. The top three finishers will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in the 32-nation field for the '98 World Cup.
The Guatemalans played with added grit and determination yesterday, carrying the memory of a national tragedy in their minds. They took the field for the first time since a stadium stampede killed 84 people before a scheduled World Cup qualifying match in Guatemala City almost three weeks ago.
"For us, [losing] is a sad moment," said Guatemalan defender Martin Machon, who wore a black ribbon on the right sleeve of his jersey. "We tried to win the game for all of the people who lost friends and members of their family [in the disaster]."
Pub Date: 11/04/96