GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala - It's about a three-hour bus ride to the Pacific side of this Central American country, but that could turn out to be a short trip compared with what's ahead as the United States begins the long road to Asia today for World Cup 2002.
Host Guatemala, an outsider in a CONCACAF qualifying group that also includes Barbados and Costa Rica, is doing everything it can to make today's opener difficult, including shifting the site from the capital city to isolated Mazatenango. Even the Guatemalan players, most of whom come from clubs in the capital, aren't used to the heat and humidity that is expected to be part of the show (1 p.m., EDT, ESPN2).
"I know every time I played there, the second half was very, very hard," said Miami Fusion midfielder Martin Machon, a Guatemalan regular until the latest coaching change in his home country. Julio Cesar Cortez, the fifth boss since 1998, tried to call in Machon on Tuesday, but the Fusion player said "no thanks" to the last-minute appeal .
While the United States won't see Machon, it will face some familiar opponents. Although Cortez has brought in new players, especially forward Luis Ruiz , the old reliables are goalkeeper Erick Estrada, midfielder Jorge Rodas and forward Juan Carlos Plata.
"They are hard to score against," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said, "but I think I have a pretty good feel for what kind of effort I can expect from our team. We know what we're about and have settled into a pretty good rhythm. We have experienced players who know what they will be facing on and off the field. Nobody is naive."
U.S. teams have a history of tough times in Central America. The United States has never beaten Guatemala in a qualifier on Guatemalan soil, but is 6-0-2 in its last eight meetings after dropping the first four.
Arena is probably correct when he says "there isn't pressure outside of what we put on ourselves because most American sports fans don't even know we have a game today." But he also acknowledges that soccer people around the world "expect the United States to qualify for the World Cup."
Getting to Japan and South Korea is difficult for anybody in CONCACAF, which has already staged four elimination rounds to cut the field to 12 qualifiers. Six more will be eliminated by Nov. 15. Three teams eventually will earn spots in 2002.
"We have the toughest draw because the first two games are away," Arena said. "But it is also an opportunity, a good test for us."
Indeed, if the United States manages to get three points today or next Sunday against Costa Rica, it can then look forward to three home games against Barbados (Aug. 16, Foxboro), Guatemala (Sept. 3, Washington) and Costa Rica (Oct. 11, Columbus) before a final trip to Barbados in November concludes the semifinals.
History says winning in Central America is tough, but this is probably the best-prepared U.S. team to embark on qualifying.
"The unit has been together for the past couple of years," Claudio Reyna said. "We have not really played a bad game since Bruce took over.
"There have been times when we didn't accomplish what we wanted to, but we have not really played a bad game. We work hard for each other and we seem to be able to create chances."
Today's lineup will be missing injured striker Brian McBride (broken cheekbone) and possibly goalkeeper Kasey Keller (wrist), but it is still strong and balanced. Ante Razov should partner Cobi Jones up front, while the return of defender Eddie Pope foreshadows a 4-4-2 formation with Pope and Robin Fraser together in the middle in front of keeper Brad Friedel.