US qualifies unexpectedly for World Cup

By Dimitri Islam

While the champagne stains may be cleaned up now in Foxboro Stadium, the wave of exhilaration that surrounded the U.S. national soccer team after it defeated Jamaica 2-1 still lingers in the air. While ABC dropped the broadcast due to the impending strife overseas, around 50,000 fans managed to watch the United States qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Unlike previous qualification rounds, the U.S. managed to qualify with a full game to spare.

This past weekend, the U.S. earned a great win and benefited from some fortuitous results on another surprising day of World Cup qualification. First, Costa Rica drew with Mexico. The Ticos already qualified for the World Cup by virtue of their 2-0 win over the U.S. about a month ago. Mexico, on the other hand, did not have a guaranteed ride to Asia next summer, and many expected the Mexicans to defeat the Costa Ricans. Somehow, however, Mexico could not get the result, and the tie aided the U.S. in their attempt to reach the World Cup finals. After that result flashed on the screen in Foxboro, the United States knew it needed Trinidad & Tobago to earn an improbable win against Honduras. If T & T won, the U.S. could punch their ticket to Asia.

Trinidad & Tobago, while high in national pride, does not boast a very talented soccer team. Indeed, T & T currently occupies the very last place in World Cup qualifications for the region. Nevertheless, Trinidad & Tobago somehow beat Honduras 1-0 and after the U.S. saw that score line, the party in Foxboro went into full swing. Champagne sprayed across the locker room, the players leapt for joy, and the fans roared in approval.

After the match, U.S. attacker Joe-Max Moore summed up the significance of the United States’ berth in the World Cup: “It is so important. We have so many young kids playing today, and for them to not have a World Cup would be devastating for them. It is just so important for the progression of our sport in the U.S.”

Just like his second-half penalty kick, Moore’s comments were right on the money. Sure, U.S. elimination from the 2002 World Cup Finals would not destroy the sport in this country, but for the pride of the national team, anything less than qualification would be perceived as failure. In the 1998 World Cup, the U.S. performed unacceptably. Even then, the United States was not the worst team in the World Cup. If the U.S. missed the World Cup in 2002, the elimination would signify an actual regression for U.S. soccer. Luckily, Moore’s two goals and the generally invigorated play from the United States ensured the team spot in Asia.

The United States arguably stands as one of the top 20 teams in the world. The team cannot break into the top 10 in the foreseeable future, but the U.S. does have the talent to proceed to at least the second round of the World Cup finals. Given the right bracket and manageable challenges, the U.S. could even venture beyond the second round.

Right now, the only key challenge facing the U.S. is their endeavor to stay healthy and fresh before the trip out to Asia. As their second- and third-string showed in this qualification round, the United States simply does not possess the depth to compete with the world. If a team like Honduras or Jamaica can seriously challenge a weakened U.S. team, a squad like the Czech Republic or Spain can definitely cause fits for the United States. Consequently, the U.S. can only hope that Claudio Reyna, Chris Armas, Landon Donovan, and Co. stay healthy.

Disregarding the current concerns surrounding the national squad, the U.S. and U.S. soccer in general have great reason to rejoice. For the next eight months at least, the national team can focus on one and only one task: to improve. Through a series of friendlies and tournament competitions, the United States must stay prepared and ready for top-class opposition. Right now, the squad certainly boasts more talent (minus, perhaps, Tab Ramos) than it did about three years ago. With more good luck, and, as in this qualification round, a couple fortunate results, the U.S. can look forward to a bright and promising performance at next year’s World Cup.