U.S. has food for thought in Cup qualifier Americans have dropped 3 of past 4 to Costa Rica

Ticos top the World Cup qualifying menu for the U.S. national men's soccer team tomorrow afternoon in Portland, Ore., for a game that was sold out three months ago.

But will the Ticos, as Costa Rica's team is known, be hot and spicy, or, as in their past two games, cold and flavorless?


For the U.S. team, inching through five regional qualifying games toward next summer's World Cup finals in France, here are a couple of other questions:

Will home cooking perk up a club that sometimes seems soft in confidence? And can the Americans beat a decent opponent from this part of the world? The United States is 1-3 in the past four games against Costa Rica and was edged late, 3-2, in March in front of the Ticos' spitting, debris-throwing hometown fans in San Jose.


The answers will unfold starting at 3: 30 p.m. tomorrow (chs. 2, 7) in front of 35,000 at Portland's Civic Stadium.

While this is not a do-or-die qualifier for the 1-1-3 United States, beating 2-2-2 Costa Rica would be important psychologically and tactically. And many fans would love a statement-making win as the Americans play their first qualifier at home since tying CONCACAF region-leading Mexico, 2-2, in Foxboro, Mass., in April. As in that game, U.S. Soccer officials sought for this one a true red, white and blue site, and Portland has responded.

"U.S. Soccer could have easily sold 100,000 tickets could have made more money playing at an- other venue," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said this week. "[But] certain communities have really embraced this team, and Portland has shown that it is one. We know we're going to have a home-field advantage."

The U.S. squad will only fleetingly resemble the second-tier unit Sampson fielded in Aug. 6's 1-0 friendly loss to Ecuador in Baltimore. This game counts, and most U.S. first-stringers are back for it from their Major League Soccer and European clubs.

Sampson's main worry continues to be offense. Ailing top scorer Eric Wynalda was still tentative yesterday. The coach has several options, including Tampa Bay's Roy Lassiter, whom he prefers as an energizing substitute but who has scored in the past two U.S. meetings with Costa Rica, where he played professionally.

Sampson also called up Kansas City Wizard scoring machine Preki again, the Los Angeles Galaxy's Cobi Jones is healthy, and fleet, flashy Ernie Stewart and Claudio Reyna are here after early-season scoring for their Dutch and German clubs.

Another U.S. positive will be the return of Tab Ramos, the country's best playmaker, to midfield for the first time in nine months. Ramos played well in Baltimore, his first international test after knee surgery last winter.

On defense, Sampson is still seeking depth and speed. He called up nine players listed as defenders, including recent regulars Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope, from D.C. United, Alexi Lalas from the New England Revolution and Thomas Dooley from the Columbus Crew.


But four -- the Dallas Burn's Mark Santel, Tampa's Martin Vasquez, Kansas City's Mark Chung and the Los Angeles Galaxy's Robin Fraser -- were called after solid Baltimore performances.

Kasey Keller will start in goal, playing in Portland for the first time as a pro since starring in college there. Keller is off strongly with Leicester City, the English Premier League's biggest early-season surprise.

U.S. captain John Harkes, the D.C. United midfielder, is out because of two yellow cards in earlier qualifiers, as is Costa Rica's captain, Ronald Gonzalez. The Ticos also will be missing a key American tormentor, midfielder Paulo Wanchope, because of injury.

How spicy (or cold) the Ticos will be after an away loss to weak Canada and a home tie with El Salvador will reflect on new coach Juan Luis Hernandez. The Spanish disciplinarian is known for rebuilding Costa Rican pro clubs, not to mention having once punched a fan. He was hired Aug. 20, the third Ticos coach in 1997.

A win by the United States would mean the Americans probably need just a victory and a tie in their last four qualifiers this fall to get to France.

Pub Date: 9/06/97