Sold-out stadium braces for high-drama U.S. test


HERNDON, Va. - No flash. No hype. Courteous but bland comments from the coach after a sweaty but relaxed hour of afternoon practice at D.C. United's training field here yesterday afternoon.

Little action elsewhere, either, except for a publicized, but decidedly bush-league attempt by maybe a dozen Americans to do unto Guatemala's soccer team at its hotel what folks in that nation do to visiting national teams in their country, which is to say make a lot of noise at night.

Those are components of a curiously low-key backdrop for today's 2 p.m. World Cup qualifying rematch of United States-Guatemala at Washington's RFK Stadium (ABC-TV).

That and bad U.S. team memories from July 16 of an 86th-minute goal that salvaged the underdog Guatemalans a 1-1 tie at home and the last-minute shift of stadiums for that game. The move required U.S. players to endure a sweaty, 2 1/2 -hour bus ride to play at a decrepit (but freshly painted), concrete-block stadium in the tropical heat, humidity and obscurity of coastal Matazunegra -distained even by many of that tiny nation's own players.

From the virtually nonexistent buildup for today's game, you might think it's no big deal.

Real soccer fans know better, though. They sold the place out early last week, even if it is just another regional semifinal en route to qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. That means 52,000-plus fans, with the Redskins opening their NFL season an hour earlier in front of 80,000 at FedEx Field, a few miles east on the Capital Beltway.

"Anytime you have a stadium that's [at] capacity with numbers over 50,000, that's pretty electric, so I think it'll be a great day for soccer," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena.

The game matters for the U.S. team (1-1-1 in qualifying so far) because, vengeance aside, the three points for a victory could virtually guarantee it one of two spots in the final qualifying round for North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Arena doesn't buy that publicly, though, sticking to the "one game at a time" mantra all coaches chant.

The main U.S. team questions are, which offense will show up and can the defense play the full 90 minutes?

Will the offense be the one that broke fast, doing whatever it wanted in Guatemala except finish? Or will it be the offense featuring Joe-Max Moore's emergence as a punishing scorer and the ever-promising, but erratic-shooting Brian McBride that humiliated weak-sister Barbados, 7-0, in Foxboro, Mass.?

At the other end, will the defense, with Eddie Pope still showing effects of knee problems and Holland-based Gregg Berhalter in the middle, get gassed late, as happened in both Guatemala and Costa Rica?

And one more question: With emerging star Chris Armas gone because of knee-ligament problems, can John O'Brien, 23, the Californian who left home as a teen-ager to play in Ajax-Amsterdam's system and now starts for the big club, emerge as a defensive midfielder? It's important, because Arena's system requires strength at that position - where attacking thrusts usually form. O'Brien will be starting his first World Cup qualifier.

Big crowds like today's at RFK have been a problem for U.S. men's teams in the recent past. Under Arena, the Americans were eliminated from Olympic contention in a 1-1 tie with Portugal before 58,012 - perhaps the stadium's most intense, thrilling soccer match ever. And on Oct. 3, 1997, before 51,528, a dreadful and less-than-deserved tie with psyched-up Jamaica seriously rattled U.S. fans' hopes for that up-and-down American squad.

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