BURNABY, British Columbia -- Amid all the flag-waving, chants of "U.S.A." and general postgame bedlam, some U.S. national soccer team players wanted assurances that they'd qualified for next summer's World Cup.
"Everyone was running around hugging each other," Claudio Reyna said. "I said, 'Are we in?' "
Yes, he was told, he could wrap himself in a flag. They were in.
Reyna scored the game-winner in yesterday's 3-0 victory over Canada, and the United States got the help it needed in two other qualifying games.
In becoming the second country from the region that includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean to qualify for the finals in France, the United States made history. For the first time, it will be playing in the World Cup for a third straight time.
"We played like men," said Roy Wegerle, who set up Reyna's goal in the fifth minute, then scored two of his own in the final 10 minutes. "We're now on our way to Paris."
The setting for the clinching couldn't have been more quaint. Pine trees dwarfed the little park in which Swangard Stadium is located. Five rows of makeshift bleachers had been placed on the high school track surrounding the field.
A family bicycling through the park before the game could see the field through a fence.
"Mom, let's watch," said a little girl on her bike.
Later, the word came from Central America confirming that the U.S. team was in. Following Costa Rica's 3-3 tie with Mexico, the U.S. team awaited word on the Jamaica-El Salvador match. A fan in a stadium in San Salvador was to relay the outcome via cell phone.
With just over 10 minutes left in the Canada-U.S. match, the word came: Jamaica and El Salvador had tied, 2-2.
At that point, the United States was ahead by 1-0. If the Yanks held on, they would go to France. The score was immediately relayed to U.S. assistant coach Clive Charles.
"I went down the line, telling everyone the score," Charles said. "At that point, it was maybe more tense. We realized, 'It's in our hands.' "
A minute later, the tension erupted into joy when Wegerle knocked in the second U.S. goal from 10 yards. On the bench, Peter Vermes wrapped Preki Radosavijevic in an American flag. U.S. coach Steve Sampson wrapped Kasey Keller in a bear hug.
Out on the field, the game went into injury time, and Wegerle chipped in another goal.
Right then, the news from San Salvador was hitting the field. Reyna said that amid the goal celebration, "Marcelo Balboa called to me and said Jamaica and El Salvador were tied. I said, 'Is it over?' He thought it was over."
Wegerle was the feel-good story of the day. Until he returned to the national team in September, he hadn't played for the United States since the summer of 1995. Injuries had marred the career of a player who once had been a top goal-scorer in England.
"There were times I thought things were done for me," said the native of South Africa who gained U.S. citizenship when he married an American.
In fact, Wegerle starred in this historic game after not even having gotten onto the field last month for D.C. United when it won the MLS title game.
Neither Reyna nor Wegerle had scored a goal for the U.S. team since its 4-0 victory over Mexico in the 1995 U.S. Cup.
The big question of the day was whether the team had done enough to save Sampson's job. Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, had made it clear just before the game that the team was playing for Sampson's position and that just qualifying for France wasn't all of what he was looking for.
"There are two issues," Rothenberg said. "One is qualifying. That's important for us. The other is how we qualify."
Afterward, Rothenberg hugged Sampson. While not giving him the thumbs-up for France, he later said: "I think he ought to feel a lot more secure."
America and Caribbean
Top three teams qualify
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..W .. ..L .. ..T .. ..Pts
q-Mexico .. .. .. .. ..4 .. ..0 .. ..5 .. .. .17
q-U.S. .. .. .. .. .. .3 .. ..1 .. ..5 .. .. .14
Jamaica .. .. .. .. ...3 .. ..2 .. ..4 .. .. .13
El Salvador .. .. .. ..2 .. ..3 .. ..4 .. .. .10
Costa Rica .. .. .. ...2 .. ..4 .. ..3 .. .. ..9
Canada .. .. .. .. .. .1 .. ..5 .. ..3 .. .. ..6
q-qualified for World Cup
United States 3, Canada 0
El Salvador 2, Jamaica 2, tie
Mexico 3, Costa Rica 3, tie
El Salvador at U.S.-x, 2 p.m.
Canada at Costa Rica, 2 p.m.
Mexico at Jamaica, 2 p.m.
x-in Foxboro, Mass.
Pub Date: 11/10/97