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U.S. gets down to business of qualifying; Olympic quest begins vs. Honduras tonight


Honduran players settled their strike over lack of pay -- apparently. Or, at least a team representing the tiny Central American country was officially reported yesterday as being in the air, with arrival in Hershey, Pa., last night.

Which means, yes, the U.S. Olympic men's soccer team will open its quest for late-summer tickets to Sydney, Australia, with a game at 8 tonight in Hersheypark Stadium against Honduras.

That game and a 5: 30 p.m. match between Guatemala and Panama are the curtain-raisers of a six-nation men's soccer tournament that ends April 30 and will decide which two national teams will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean among the 16 finalists in this year's Olympics. The final round of regional qualifying is being played at Hershey in the form of five doubleheaders.

With rain predicted for tonight, Hersheypark spokesman Todd Smith said a crowd of about 10,000 is expected. The stadium seats 16,000.

The U.S. team and Mexico, which open tournament play with two games apiece in opposite brackets, are expected to be the region's qualifiers. If form follows, each should win its April 28 semifinal match, thus qualifying for Sydney and rendering the finale on April 30 as window dressing.

But Mexico stumbled at home while qualifying for Hershey, spotting Honduras a 2-0 lead before rallying for a draw. And the U.S. team, until it proves otherwise, is only a paper favorite, having gotten this far as the tournament's host nation. The Americans' last play-for-real tournament resulted in a third-place finish in 1999's Pan American Games in Winnipeg.

The Americans also must play Canada, a side that in the recent past has given them problems, albeit not losses, on Tuesday. Mexico's first two challengers are Panama and Guatemala.

While other teams got to Hershey through rough, passionate matches Central American fans, especially, view as life-and-death combat, coach Clive Charles' Americans have tuned up by belting an all-star team 10-0 and the A-League Hershey Wildcats, 4-0.

Because of the odd, six-team format, the favored Mexicans and Americans share one dread: an early upset. If either wins both its opening matches and the other loses or ties one, the favorites could end up meeting in a semifinal match -- meaning one would stay home and an underdog would fly to Sydney.

Charles said he simplified things for his players: "I told them, in order to qualify for the Olympics, we have to win three games. If we want to win the tournament, then we have to win four games -- it's that simple.

"The most important thing is Honduras right now. We'll really put ourselves in a hole if we don't win. It means everything, really."

Honduras, good in the air, with a strong front line and sound defense, qualified for Hershey by tying Mexico and Costa Rica and beating Jamaica, 2-0.

Charles, who coaches at the University of Portland and has had the Under-23 squad for three years, brings a team of pro players, several of whom already have established names for themselves -- a first for U.S. Olympic aspirants in the sport. In the past, American teams have been largely college players or semipros.

Charles credits Major League Soccer with improving American chances for these Olympics.

"Whatever success we have, we can give MLS 99.9 percent of the credit," he said. "The teams coming into this tournament have played under pressure lately, but so have the players on [our] team -- all have been involved in high-quality games with their clubs."

Olympic qualifying

Who: Panama-Guatemala, U.S.-Honduras Who: Panama-Guatemala, U.S.-Honduras

When: 5: 30 and 8 tonight, respectively. U.S. also plays Canada, 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, Pa., about 90 minutes north of Baltimore.

Tickets: 717-534-3911. Prices $10-$25 per doubleheader, depending on seat location and tournament phase.

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