U.S. homes in on three points

September 2, 2004
By Marc Connolly
(Archive)

Three points. That's what it's all about for the U.S. National Team this time around against El Salvador in Saturday's semifinal round match of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

On the road against Jamaica, a 1-1 tie wasn't a bad result. Against El Salvador it would be. Not only are the Cuscatlecos not nearly as talented as the Reggae Boyz are, but this match is at home at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. And the tie-on-the-road, win-at-home philosophy certainly applies here.

"An important part of qualifying is getting as many points as you can at home because the road is unknown," said U.S. manager Bruce Arena.

"Having said that, we accomplished a lot in the first game by getting a point in Jamaica. What we do in the group is we take the three points that you're riding at home away from Jamaica, so that's a real plus and it becomes a wash. It's very critical, I think, that we get the three points on Saturday if we want to be successful. So, I think if you explore every team that's advanced in group stages and has qualified for World Cups, it shows that they're successful at home and they find ways to steal points on the road."

To accomplish such a task, Arena has assembled 23 players to choose from for both this weekend's match against El Salvador and next Wednesday's away match against Panama.

Thirteen players are making the trek from overseas, including strikers Clint Mathis, who has not seen time for the U.S. in a qualifier this year due to injuries, and Conor Casey, who returns to the side after rehabbing a strained muscle behind his knee that he suffered in the first leg of qualifying against Grenada back in June.

Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard is also included in the roster for the third time this year, having appeared in the 4-0 victory over Honduras on June 2 and in the 1-1 draw against Poland on July 11.

"We've named what I feel is one of our strongest rosters since the World Cup," said Arena. "I feel that we have great balance all over the roster. We have experienced players at every position and, over two games, certainly I feel that we're going to be able to utilize that roster fully. I feel good about the players at camp."

One player who isn't in camp is Chris Armas. The team's usual workhorse in the holding midfielder role underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Wednesday and will be sidelined for several weeks. That could open the door for Kerry Zavagnin, who has been enjoying a stellar season for the Kansas City Wizards and has been a regular call-up by Arena this year.

"There's certainly a chance," said Arena when questioned whether Zavagnin would be in the starting lineup against El Salvador. "We won't really make those decisions until later in the week. However, Kerry has played very well for us each and every time, and I think that's the reason why he's still here. I'd feel very comfortable if Kerry is in our first 11. He's a good player and he'll do a good job."

With Casey and Mathis back in the mix, the group of strikers is stronger than it has been in some time. That might allow Arena to use Landon Donovan in a midfielder role rather than play the San Jose Earthquakes star up front.

Of course, conquering hero Brian Ching, who scored that fateful tying goal against Jamaica in the 89th minute of their August 18th encounter, remains in the mix and is a player that will continue to earn more time as qualifying moves along.

"He's likely going to get an opportunity," said Arena. "One game doesn't completely finalize my opinion on a player. I think I need to see him over a period of time. However, the reason we brought Brian in is because we felt he was a guy that could make his presence in these games and get some goals, and he certainly has demonstrated that in his short stint with the national team."

A sidelight to this match will be the crowd at the Big Razor. Will it be bi-partisan? Will it be pro-El Salvador?

When the U.S. last played El Salvador on July 12, 2003 at Gillette Stadium, the Americans certainly didn't seem to be playing in front of a home crowd. The U.S. won that match, 2-0, with relative ease despite all the noise being created by El Salvadoran fans and all the blue and white flags being waved throughout the stadium.

With ticket sales increasing after El Salvador downed Panama to take the lead in Group 1, it's likely that the away fans will make Gillette Stadium a less-than-imposing venue for Juan Ramon Paredes' side.

It's something Arena hopes isn't the case.

"I think it's important that we get support in the stands," he said. "I'm hopeful on Saturday that the supporters of this U.S. team show up and support their team because I think it's very important, because these teams are very challenging and we need the so-called 12th man to help us as well."

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com