SALT LAKE CITY – They’ve been booed in Birmingham and dissed in D.C.
In search of a pro-American crowd, the players on the U.S. men’s soccer team came to Salt Lake City for tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.
“In all the years I’ve done this, I don’t recall too many games in which we’ve had a real, real home-field advantage,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “So if that is the case (today), it would be great because I think we are going to need an edge.”
After a 2-1 loss at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium last month, the U.S. team played its first home game in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region at Legion Field in Alabama. At game time, most of the crowd consisted of blue-clad Guatemalan fans.
“We had 110,000 rooting against us the other day,” Arena recalled telling his players before the game. “Now we have a real home-field advantage. We cut that number down by about 90,000.”
American fans were late arrivers, and the mood changed after play began. U.S. Soccer president Bob Contiguglia estimated the crowd at 60-40 pro-American.
“By the time the game kicked off, the good ol’ boys took over,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said.
About 35,000 advance tickets were sold for the U.S. team’s first game at 45,012-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium, at the foot of the snowcapped Wasatch Mountains.
“I think it’ll be a very pro-U.S. crowd,” Contiguglia said
The Americans’ next two home qualifiers will be in Hartford, Conn., (against Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 17) and Columbus, Ohio (Mexico on Sept. 3). The site of the final game, against Panama on Oct. 12, has not been determined.
During a 3-2 loss to Honduras in a qualifier four years ago at RFK Stadium, U.S. fans were a distinct minority.
“The Honduras game pointed out that RFK wasn’t as great a venue as we thought,” Contiguglia said. “There’s no simple formula. Winning is more important than making money. In a qualifier, you want a home-field advantage, and you want to make sure there is a pro-U.S. spectator base. There are not a lot of venues in the United States where we feel comfortable to have a home-field advantage with a pro-American crowd.”
Mexico (2-0-1) leads the qualifying group with seven points, one ahead of the United States (2-1) and three in front of Guatemala and Costa Rica (1-1-1). Panama (0-1-2) has two points, and Trinidad and Tobago (0-2-1) has one.
The top three nations qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-place team advances to a home-and-home playoff against Asia’s No. 5 team for another berth. The game against Costa Rica and Wednesday night’s qualifier at Panama will bring teams to the halfway point of the 10-match round.
Midfield could be a shaky spot for the U.S. team, which lost to England 2-1 last Saturday in an exhibition game at Chicago. Captain Claudio Reyna is taking a break following an injury-disrupted season in England, Eddie Lewis is missing the game to attend to a family matter and John O’Brien has been slowed after hurting a calf.
After practicing Friday in the stadium, DaMarcus Beasley (slightly torn lateral collateral ligament in left knee) and scoring sensation Eddie Johnson (bone bruise on his right big toe) said they still were not 100 percent.
“Some days it’s good, some days it’s bad,” Johnson said.
Arena said he wasn’t sure of their status for today, but in the past he repeatedly stated he doesn’t like starting players who are not completely fit.
“Still in my head, I think about my knee,” Beasley said.
If Johnson doesn’t start, Brian McBride and Josh Wolff are the likely forwards. Cobi Jones, called in earlier this week, returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Costa Rica, coming off a 1-0 exhibition loss at Norway on May 24, will be playing its first qualifier since Alexandre Guimaraes took over as coach in April from Jorge Luis Pinto. Guimaraes coached the Ticos in the 2002 World Cup and was replaced later that year by former U.S. coach Steve Sampson, who was fired in June 2004 and replaced by Pinto.
Forward Paolo Wanchope probably is Costa Rica’s best-known player. He scored six goals for Malaga in Spain last season, but none after February.
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