Funny event, this winding-down, 14-month grind of games to qualify for next June's World Cup final round in France. Last Sunday, the U.S. and Mexico teams played a scoreless thriller in Mexico City in front of 114,600 spectators, one of the two largest reported crowds for a qualifier anywhere in the world this year.
This afternoon, the U.S. team visits Canada for a bigger game, really, from the U.S. viewpoint. An American win plus a couple of breaks south of the Rio Grande, and it's tickets to fly.
As U.S. coach Steve Sampson put it for his team: "The World Cup is Sunday. It's not next June. It's this weekend."
But though this game is another sellout, the stands in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, will have a more intimate feel -- something like 106,000 fewer fans than crammed famed Azteca (now called Guillermo Canedo) Stadium. Yes, all 8,068 tickets have been long sold, counting 1,000 allocated to American fans.
So Canada isn't Mexico, or even the United States, when it comes to pro soccer these days. That's no surprise, but it is cause for concern because the U.S. team expects -- needs -- to beat Canada, and, as Sampson said, "The Canadians would love to play spoiler."
This game should motivate U.S. players for several other reasons, too:
The Canucks, who can defend competently, but find scoring impossible at times, are toughest at home. On Oct. 12, they shocked region-leading Mexico with another unexpected draw, 2-2, in unseasonably freezing Edmonton.
Even though the plodding U.S. team (2-1-5) seems safe and Canada (1-4-3) is last in this region's six-team chase for three berths in France, the Canucks are 4-0-3 at home through two rounds of qualifying.
The Yanks have not won on the road in this final round.
Canada leads the United States in all-time competition, 10-9-7, dating to 1925. However, the Americans won the last meeting, which opened this final round of World Cup qualifying, by 3-0 in Palo Alto, Calif.
The last time the Canadians beat the U.S. team was in 1990 -- how's this for karma? -- in Burnaby.
And finally, an American win today mathematically eliminates Canada from France.
Still, said U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna: "They're a difficult team to beat. They will give a good effort. The crowd will not be as loud, but we have to play with the same attitude we did in Mexico."
Reyna, who starred against Costa Rica, was so-so against Jamaica and sat out the Mexico game because of yellow cards, will have major responsibility against Canada as playmaker.
That's because captain John Harkes will sit because of yellows, and Tab Ramos, the best American playmaker ever, is lost indefinitely after re-rupturing his left anterior cruciate knee ligament preparing for Mexico -- a major injury that the U.S. team downplayed.
The U.S. defense against Canada's English-style, long-ball offense would seem sound with rugged Brad Friedel, who played well against Mexico, in goal again. Sampson must replace defender Jeff Agoos, who was red-carded in the Mexico game, in the back, but has experienced options in Alexi Lalas, Peter Vermes, Paul Caliguiri and Mike Lapper to go with Eddie Pope and Thomas Dooley, who will be captain.
Sampson's main challenge, yet again, will be finding forwards who can score, with Eric Wynalda sure of starting.
Canada will be missing its captain, Randy Samuel, because of yellow cards, too, and has two midfielders out with injuries.
Its starting goalkeeper, Craig Forest, has remained with his English Premier League team, West Ham.
But Canadian coach Bob Lenarduzzi said the game could be important for some of his players, who will be playing for pride, as well as for themselves.
"You never know who's watching," he said. "A good performance could result in a player enhancing his position."
What: World Cup qualifier, United States vs. Canada
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Burnaby, British Columbia
TV: Univision, live; ESPN2, 8 p.m., on tape
The stakes: A U.S. win coupled with losses or ties by Costa Rica and El Salvador in other games this afternoon will mean the U.S. team, along with Mexico and almost certainly Jamaica, will qualify from its region for the World Cup final round in France. Any other combination means do-or-die for the U.S. team in its final qualifier against El Salvador at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium next Sunday.
Pub Date: 11/09/97