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Jul 20, 2005

'Slow' turf might help the U.S.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Brian McBride once compared playing on the artificial surface at Giants Stadium with running on the beach. You don't feel fast, and it seems like you're sprinting in quicksand.

The sod that has been laid over the troublesome Field Turf doesn't seem to have helped matters. After testing out the new field during Wednesday afternoon's training session, Steve Ralston said the turf comes up easily when running, making screw-in cleats the footwear of choice in the Gold Cup semifinal matchup between the U.S. national team and Honduras tonight (6 ET).

As much as the quicker U.S. players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan may get frustrated with the slow Meadowlands turf, it might benefit the Americans, who will be facing a Honduran side known for its speed and quickness.

"Not only are they fast in the attack, but they move well off the ball," midfielder Pablo Mastroeni said. "They play great, collective soccer."

In other words, this is a team that will, as Bruce Arena and a few of his players have put it, "play the game," and not simply get numbers behind the ball and try and hold on for a result.

"They throw numbers forward and like to attack," said Ralston, who will likely play as the team's right-side midfielder tonight.

Led by a daring and creative attacking duo of Wilmer Velasquez and Milton Nunez, the Catrachos will certainly look to continue their scoring ways tonight. Velasquez had two goals -- even after missing a sitter from 8 yards away in the second half -- in a 3-2 victory over Costa Rica Saturday, which gives him three overall in the Gold Cup, tying him with several players for the tournament lead. He lines up as a withdrawn striker, but likes to pop up in different spots all over the field, making him especially difficult to mark.

Nunez is the quicker of the two, as several of the veterans on the U.S. side know after playing against the Honduran striker several times over the years. In the Americans' devastating 3-2 loss to Honduras at home on Sept. 1, 2001, which at the time put the Yanks' World Cup qualifying hopes in jeopardy, the 5-foot-5 Nunez struck twice.

The U.S. centerbacks will have to be physical with Nunez, since they lack the necessary quickness to stay with him.

"They can put balls over the top to Nunez," Ralston said, "and use his speed to get in."

For the most part, though, Honduras won't settle for through balls into space against what has been an organized U.S. defense. That strategy hasn't worked well for other teams during CONCACAF qualifying. Instead, the Catrachos likely will try and match possession with the Americans and use their creativity to break down the defense and create scoring opportunities.

After watching a 20-minute video package of Honduras' last four games, U.S. midfielder John O'Brien came away impressed, knowing his team's next opponent will be a lot more dangerous on offense than the three teams the U.S. played in group play -- including Jamaica, which the U.S. beat 3-1 Saturday in Foxboro, Mass.

"It's a very good passing team," said O'Brien, who earlier in the Gold Cup made his first appearance with the national team in over two years. "They are very technical. Up top they have four creative players who can make things happen and like to get in behind you. That's a dangerous thing."

"They've played well," Arena said. "They've won their group. That speaks for itself. They beat a good Colombia team, and Panama as well in group play. Then they had a pretty easy win over Costa Rica, so it's a team that deserves a lot of credit. And they belong here."

It's also a side that, like Jamaica in the quarterfinals, hopes to ignite the passions of their fans back home since they failed to qualify for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

"This is another team with a lot to play for," said Mastroeni. "This is their World Cup. It's going to be difficult."

That being said, the U.S. -- which beat Honduras 1-0 in March in Albuquerque, N.M., on a goal by Eddie Johnson -- is expected to win this match. The Americans are at home, where they have a winning streak against CONCACAF opponents that now spans an impressive 28 games. That streak goes all the way back to (you guessed it) that loss to Honduras in '01, which nicely sets the stage for this match.

In addition, the U.S. recently got word that it is ranked sixth in the world according to the latest FIFA rankings. Even though those rankings mean little and were downplayed as expected by Arena during his 15-minute session with the media Wednesday, it does fuel the fire for U.S. opponents. And as Donovan pointed out, the Americans are now the favorites to not only get to Sunday's final, but also triumph against the winner of the other semifinal between Panama and Columbia.

"We have pressure to win now with Mexico out," said Donovan, referring to the side that, despite losing to Colombia Sunday, is considered the class of CONCACAF at the moment.

That line of thinking seems to be sitting well with Honduras manager Jose De La Paz, who was quite loose Wednesday during his press conference, saying his team has really come together during the course of the Gold Cup. Aided by Chicago Fire players Samuel Caballero and Ivan Guerrero, as well as from scouting the younger players like Beasley and Donovan during their days as U-17 standouts, De La Paz was very confident as far as what to expect come tonight.

"We feel we know them," said De La Paz, whose side took a train from Boston to New York in a trip that was dubbed "Victory Train" in the Honduran newspapers back home. "And they don't know us as much as we know them. We want to take advantage of that."

Honduras will likely see a U.S. lineup similar to the one Arena employed against Jamaica. Defender Steve Cherundolo is out with a knee sprain after getting tackled viciously at midfield during the first half of Saturday's match. However, Arena will have the services of Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh, who were both nursing ankle injuries, as well as Brad Davis and Frankie Hejduk, who missed the Jamaica match due to yellow card accumulation. The only player serving a one-match suspension for the U.S. is Ben Olsen, who was red carded against Jamaica for pulling down Andy Williams from behind as he was going to goal.

Kasey Keller will get the start in a goal in front of a back line that will likely have Hejduk on the right, Greg Vanney on the left, and Pope and either Oguchi Onyewu or Jimmy Conrad manning the central defense. In the midfield, expect to see O'Brien, Donovan, Mastreoni and Ralston as a unit, with O'Brien tucked in a bit on the left, and Ralston wide on the right. Up top, the duo of Beasley and Josh Wolff is a likely pairing. Beasley leads the tournament with four assists, and is tied for the lead in goals with three, after his two-goal performance Saturday.

Colombia-Panama
The nightcap features two teams that were not supposed to be here. Panama wasn't expected to triumph over South Africa, and Colombia wasn't given much of a chance to beat Mexico Sunday.

Yet, here they both are, hoping to spoil the party and win a regional title in what will be a rematch of a group-play game on July 6. Panama came out on top that night with a 1-0 victory, but this Colombian side has exceptional momentum after what transpired over the weekend.

The Colombians downed the Tricolores in stunning fashion, outplaying the Mexicans in a 2-1 affair that could have been won by a greater margin with a bit more luck. They attacked without fear and put their favored opponent on its heels, which is something the U.S. failed to do in its loss to Mexico back in March.

What made the result even more fascinating is it came after the Cafeteros limped into the quarterfinals with a 1-2 record after suffering losses to Panama and Honduras in group play. In fact, their two goals against Mexico came after only totaling three goals in their three group-play matches.

The Colombians will need to be as aggressive in the attack as they were against Mexico, since the Panamanian defense is not nearly as strong as its offense. Striker Tressor Moreno, 25, is probably the most dangerous player Panama will have to keep an eye on. Though he has yet to tally a goal in this tournament, he is a player who is as much a playmaker as a goalscorer. Since many of Reinaldo Rueda's top players were not brought in for the Gold Cup, several others have been counted on to step up. One of those players has been Abel Aguilar, who has scored goals in each of the last two matches.

Panama manager Jose "Cheche" Hernandez said he is pleasantly surprised with his young side since it had never gone 120 minutes before Sunday's match, which eventually was decided on penalty kicks. Yet he has veterans on his roster such as the Dely Valdes brothers, Jorge and Julio, and players such as Ricardo Phillips and Julio Medina, who have been major parts of their march to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the first time in history.

Luis Tejada, who is a known entity to his opponent since he plays for the Colombian club Envigado, scored the lone goal in Panama's victory over Colombia two weeks ago, and has three for the tournament.

For Panama to continue its joyride in this tournament, Hernandez will have to get a strong performance and on-the-field leadership from Julio Dely Valdes. Though he now is approaching 38 years old and is back playing in his home country for Deportivo Árabe Unido, Dely Valdes had a long, successful career in Europe and remains the all-time leading goalscorer for the Spanish League team Malaga. The attacking midfielder -- the country's top sportsman for the 20th century -- has the poise and ability to break down defenses with a side flick or a quick shot from the top of the box. He will be vital in one of the more important matches ever played by his national team.

The winners of the semifinal matches will stay put in the Garden State and meet Sunday afternoon at Giants Stadium at 3 p.m. ET. Since Mexico is the reigning Gold Cup champion after triumphing over Brazil in the summer of 2003, one thing is for certain in an already-wild tournament: A new champion will be crowned come the weekend.

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