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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:16 EST

U.S. starts back on road to World Cup


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- More than two years after crashing out of the 1998 World Cup finals, the U.S. national soccer team starts playing matches that really matter this weekend.

Cobi Jones and his U.S. teammates are looking for their first victory in Guatemala.

Sunday morning, the United States embarks on the road to World Cup 2002 with a CONCACAF Region Group E qualifier away to Guatemala.

The match marks the first qualifier for the United States since Bruce Arena took over as coach following the Americans' last-place finish in France in 1998.

"Anxious is a better word than nervous," Arena said Thursday ahead of his team's flight Saturday to Guatemala, where the Americans have won only once and scored just two goals in six matches.

Arena said he expects climate to play a part in the match in which he brings a near full-strength squad to face a defensive-minded Guatemalan team in the throes of rebuilding.

"Given the heat down there, you expect a slow, open game," Arena said. "You want to see 90 minutes where every ball is contested, but it could be more open than you think it will be."

The United States will be without Everton forward Joe-Max Moore, who is recovering from a sprained knee and Columbus forward Brian McBride (fractured cheek). Veteran midfielder Cobi Jones will move to forward and partner the less experienced Ante Razov while Rangers midfielder Claudio Reyna will marshal the U.S. attack against the Guatemalans.

The Americans also miss veteran defender Jeff Agoos (knee surgery) and hard-running midfielder Ben Olson (ankle sprain).

Arena recalled midfielder Tab Ramos, who has not played for the United States since France '98. The veteran of three World Cups will back up Reyna in midfield.

Second-choice Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Friedel is expected to start ahead of Kasey Keller, who is nursing a slight wrist injury.

The match, originally to be played at Mateo Flores National Stadium in Guatemala City, was shifted to Carlos Salazar Stadium in Mazatenango, a small city on the Pacific costal plain nearly 150 miles outside the capital city. The weather is significantly hotter and more humid in Mazatenango.

"I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to play in Mazatenango," said Martin Machon, who declined an invitation to join the Guatemalan team after coach Julio Cesar Cortez omitted the Miami Fusion midfielder two weeks ago when he began bringing players into camp.

"Every time, I found it very, very tough. You get exhausted and it's very hard to finish strong. It's very difficult weather there. I don't know if that will be an advantage for Guatemala or not because 75 percent of the players on the national team are Guatemala City players like I was. They aren't used to the conditions, either."

Cortez, who recently took over the Guatemalan side, returns a number of veteran players including goalkeeper Edgar Estrada, midfielders Guillermo Ramirez and Everaldo Valencia while Jorge Rodas should partner the young but impressive Carlos Ruiz at forward.

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