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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:15 EST

Boot Room on tour: Barbados

By Jeff Bradley [ESPN The Magazine]

The Boot Room hit the high seas to Barbados for the U.S. men's critical World Cup qualifier on Wednesday, Nov. 15. Check out these daily updates from the Caribbean!

Wednesday, Nov. 15

Ramos goes out a winner

Tab Ramos played his last game for the U.S. in the No. 10 jersey.
Two hours after the U.S. escaped Barbados' National Stadium with perhaps the closest, scariest 4-0 victory in soccer history, Tab Ramos was all smiles.

As his teammates passed him in the lobby of the Turtle Beach Resort Hotel, each one shook his hand or patted him on the back.

Tony Meola, Ramos' old friend from Kearny, N.J., said, "I'm happy for you," and it was clear that Ramos, who had just played 90 minutes in the midfield, had just played his last international game for the U.S. national team.

"Yeah, that's it," Ramos said. "I talked with Bruce about it before I came down for this game and I told him I thought the time was right for me. There's enough talent without me. I'm glad I was able to help the team win a big game, that makes it easier to walk away. I'm a pretty honest guy and I don't want to be the last guy to realize I suck."

Indeed, the 80th international match and the 15th World Cup qualification game of Ramos' career was special. Filling in for the suspended Claudio Reyna and the injured John O'Brien, Ramos battled like the rest of his teammates with the rough field and weather conditions in the first half, and found a second wind that helped the team rally.

He should be remembered as the best U.S. midfielder of his time. Back in 1990, when the U.S. sent a group of college boys to play in the World Cup in Italy, Ramos was the one player who looked capable of playing the game at a world-class tempo. In '94, he was having a brilliant World Cup when the elbow of Brazil's Leonardo met his skull and nearly ended Ramos' career right then and there. The next World Cup cycle was riddled with injuries for Ramos and surely that was a factor in the decision he made today.

"I'm happy with everything right now," Ramos said. "This was a good ending."

Tuesday, Nov. 14

U.S. doesn't expect help from Costa Rica
If the U.S. men fail to defeat Barbados tomorrow afternoon at National Stadium, they could still back in to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying if Costa Rica wins or ties their match in Guatemala. No one in the U.S. camp wants to advance in that fashion and coach Bruce Arena, for one, doesn't expect the favored Costa Ricans to help his team.

"That's going to be a difficult setting for Costa Rica in Mazatanengo," Arena said. "And as we saw, the Guatemalan Federation knows how to create advantages for their team. I'm sure the Costa Rican's route to Mazatenango will be altered. Also, I think our group has been mis-read by a number of people. Guatemala is a very good team. They defend very well overall, and at home they are especially tough."

Arena also pointed out that a key player for Costa Rica, Manchester City striker Paulo Wanchope, played Sunday and was supposed to fly on Monday from Manchester to Guatemala City, then catch a ride across the country to Mazatanengo.

The U.S. will be keeping tabs on the score from Guatemala and relay the information to Arena, who will be sitting in the stands serving the second game of his three-game FIFA-imposed suspension for criticizing officials.

Meanwhile, in its final practice before the match, the U.S. stressed the same theme, namely having the mental toughness to play through some difficult conditions. A shower late Monday night softened the field at National Stadium somewhat, but if you get a chance to tune into the game on ESPN2, you are still going to be appalled at the field conditions. The grass is long in some places and nonexistent in others. Sprinkler heads protrude dangerously. Factor in the chance of strong winds and you quickly see why the U.S. has to be concerned about the match, even against a team they beat 7-0 in August.

"Honestly, a real wet field would be better for us than anything else," Arena said. "The ball would stay down better than if it's rock hard. We have to deal with it."

Arena also said he expects Barbados to be highly motivated and play a conservative game. "They have nothing to lose," Arena said. "And they have gotten better as a team during qualifying. We are not expecting an easy game."

In tight space
  • Arena met for close to an hour with a group of reporters and spoke on a number of issues, including his concern that the MLS offseason is too long. "Soccer is a sport that has to be played 10 or 11 months out of the year. We have too many players finishing in September and not playing again until January. That idle time is killing them."

  • On the development of American players in leagues abroad, Arena said, "I don't begrudge anyone for wanting to make more money, but I'm worried that some of them are going backwards as players because they're not getting in games. Every time an American player steps foot on a field in Europe, he's anointed the next American soccer savior. I don't believe there are any players who are saviors. If there is going to be a savior for American soccer, it's going to be MLS."

  • Greg Berhalter said he's been offered another 30-day deal from Everton, but thinks he has to look elsewhere for a job. "I like the club, but I have to find a place to play more than reserve matches, so I think I'm going to continue looking for the right team."

  • Eddie Lewis, who's been struggling to get minutes with English First Division title contenders Fulham, thinks if his club gains promotion to the Premier League, he will be quickly moved to another club. "I've got to be honest with myself," Lewis said. "And I know the club sees itself rivaling Chelsea in years to come. If we go up, there is going to be a blank check for signing new players."

  • The U.S. failing to defeat Costa Rica at home may have cost Diego Gutierrez a chance to make his debut for the national team. The U.S. is still checking into Gutierrez's eligibility and expects once he plays in a match, there is going to be a challenge from the opposition.

    In early MLS media guides, Gutierrez was listed as having played for the Colombian Under-17 and Under-20 national team, but Gutierrez, who gained U.S. citizenship this past summer, says he played in nothing sanctioned by FIFA. Colombian records do not show Gutierrez as having participated in any FIFA competitions, but USSF officials still fear something could go wrong. Basically, a meaningless game against Barbados would have been the perfect opportunity to put Gutierrez on the field, without fear of punishment.

    More later...

    Monday, Nov. 13, p.m.

    Arena: "We know there will be a lot of bad plays"

    Tony Meola will have to deal with less-than optimal field conditions on Wednesday.
    As the U.S. national team finished up practice today at the Cable and Wireless sports facility here in Barbados, the drill that said the most about the Yanks' pre-match mentality was the one where goalkeeper coach Milutin Soskic hit intentionally bad back-passes to Tony Meola, who then tried to clear those balls to safety.

    On Wednesday, when the U.S. plays Barbados at National Stadium, they will have to deal with a field that is part grass, part dried mud, and 100 percent dangerous.

    "It's certainly not a great field," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "We'll be ready for it. The game will be a mental exercise for our guys. They have to know that there are going to be a lot of bad plays in the game, and anything can happen on every long shot, every back-pass, every throw-in, everything."

    When Barbados defeated Costa Rica here in its opening qualifying match, the team overcame a 1-0, second-half deficit, scoring on two fortuitous bounces.

    A pretty game is unlikely, so to that end, Arena will play a lot of "scrappy" players on Wednesday. In front of Tony Meola, a three-man backline of Carlos Llamosa, Greg Berhalter and Jeff Agoos. A midfield of Chris Armas, Chris Klein, Earnie Stewart, Tab Ramos and Eddie Lewis, and Joe-Max Moore and Clint Mathis as front-runners.

    "We know Klein is going to put in the work on the right, getting up and down that flank," Arena said, "we know Chris Armas is going to win balls, and we know Joe-Max will fight like hell up front. Hopefully, having technical players like Tab and Clint on the field with those guys, we'll be able to make some plays that lead to chances."

    Mathis, who at the beginning of this qualifying stage was deemed "not quite ready" is now one of Arena's great hopes. "He's a very good finisher," Arena said. "He just strikes the ball so clean, even when the ball is hopping up on him. He's very calm and collected in front of the net. He's got qualities some of our other forwards do not have. He can go by a guy, he can hold the ball. He's a young player we have to give a chance."

    Nats notebook
  • Add Arena to the list of people who'd love to see MLS loan forward Landon Donovan from his German club Bayer Leverkusen. "Where he is playing now, in the German fourth division (Regional Liga) is not a high enough level for a player with his talent," Arena said. "If MLS could work out a loan, to get him here for a year, they should do it. Not only would it be good for Landon, but it would be great PR for the league, to add one of the bright, young American players into the league." So far, MLS has maintained a policy of not loaning American players from their foreign clubs because they do not want to create that type of precedent.

  • Amazing contrast between my trip here to Barbados and my earlier trip to Guatemala. Where the entire country of Guatemala seemed keyed up about the match, following the U.S. bus everywhere, no one in this country seems to care at all. A very small crowd of maybe 2,000-4,000 is expected on Wednesday, but Arena warned, "That might make this the most difficult game we've played so far."

  • On Tony Meola, Arena commented, "I guess it's the old adage about goalkeepers reaching their prime in their 30s. I think also the injury that Tony suffered gave him some perspective on what he does for a living and how quickly it could all come to an end."

    Monday, Nov. 13, a.m.

    U.S. Cuts to the Chase: "If We Can't Beat Barbados, We're Not Cup Worthy."
    The U.S. national team's final workout in the U.S. before taking off for Barbados on Sunday, included a 70-minute game against a makeshift Miami Fusion side. The U.S. won by a 2-1 score -- getting goals from Eddie Lewis and Ante Razov -- but the game ended in controversy as the Fusion were awarded a penalty at the end of regulation, then watched as the referee smiled and said, "Game over." Two or three of the dozen fans in the stands at Florida Atlantic University were irate over the decision. Oh well.

    Bruce Arena's lineup to start the match was as follows:
    Tony Meola in net.
    A three-man backline of Carlos Llamosa, Greg Berhalter and Jeff Agoos.
    Chris Armas in defensive midfield.
    Chris Klein on the right flank. Eddie Lewis on the left.
    Tab Ramos and Ernie Stewart in the attacking, central midfield.
    Clint Mathis and Ante Razov up top.

    Remember, Joe-Max Moore did not take part in the Fort Lauderdale camp. He will arrive in Barbados directly from England. You would expect Moore will start, either one of the attacking midfield spots occupied on Sunday by Ramos or Stewart, or up front in place of either Razov or Mathis. Arena appears to be leaning toward starting Mathis up front, so Razov, Ramos and Stewart must await the coach's decision.

    For what it's worth, Razov, a notoriously streaky goal scorer, finished a brilliant header off a cross from Klein in the Fusion match while Ramos and Stewart both had quiet matches ... that may or may not weigh into Arena's thinking.

    As for the team's mindset, as they boarded their plane to Barbados, everyone seemed to echo Lewis, who said, "We know it's a huge match and we know it's a match we should win. We've got to be totally honest with ourselves. If we can't beat Barbados, we don't deserve to be anywhere near the World Cup. We know what we've got to do. Win."

    In tight space
    Get a bunch of MLS players together and you're bound to get some scuttlebutt. Here are some of the things that are being talked about so far this offseason:

  • Kansas City is expecting to get two allocations, presumably replacements for Mo Johnston and Miklos Molnar, but expect some rival GMs to argue against a replacement for Molnar, who committed what many around the league consider to be a non-replaceable sin, that is to say, he pulled a "one and run." When teams acquire their own foreign talent, they do so with the league's mandate to "think long-term." Stay tuned.

  • So ... maybe the Wizards won't get a foreign replacement for Molnar, but the hottest rumor so far this offseason has Roy Lassiter moving on to Kansas City, that is if the Fusion, a notoriously difficult team to deal with, doesn't ask for the world. It's well known that Miami wants at least a player the caliber of Chris Henderson. And, there may be something to that rumor, because K.C. has been pursuing veteran flank player Mark Santel, who could slide into Henderson's spot on the left.

  • Remember a few weeks back, we talked about Henry Zambrano moving from Colorado to New England. Well, that trade rumor is hotter than ever, though it's still unclear what the Revolution would send Colorado's way. New England would have to do something with one of their senior internationals (Mauricio Ramos) to make room for Zambrano.

  • In addition to Lassiter, Miami also knows it has to move one of its three senior international players (Welton, Diego Serna or Andy Williams) if it is going to be able to take advantage of its allocation for not making the playoffs. Williams is one of many MLS players who is in the middle of the green card process, but the club probably won't be able to wait. Of those three, Serna is supposedly the most tradeable.

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