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Oct 6, 2005

A matter of survival

There is an axiom in sport, and it especially applies in soccer, that a player should always attempt to perform at his best because someone of relative importance could be watching. This axiom applies moreso these days, since television cameras are ubiquitous, and so is the FIFA ratings system. So, though the U.S. has already qualified for Germany '06, the results of games against Costa Rica in San Jose Saturday and Panama in Foxborough Wednesday will have some significance. These matches will not directly affect seedings this time around. When the final draw is announced Dec. 9 in Leipzig, FIFA will again use its formula of weighing each country's performance in the previous three World Cup finals -- excluding as factors qualifiers and other tournaments. There will be eight No. 1 seeds: Argentina, Brazil and six European nations. After that, everything becomes subjective. Or, more accurately, everything becomes political. And every performance counts. Placings in the World Cup finals are really the only criteria that will count in these political maneuverings. South America's probable contingent of five teams (from its 10-team qualifying tournament) in the finals is often questioned. After the '94 World Cup, a European reporter expressed doubts about the wisdom of allocating places to 50 percent of CONMEBOL's teams to confederation president Julio Grondona, who replied that his region had won the tournament eight times, and who could top that? That is Grondona's show-stopping line, and when discussions take place in Leipzig, he will now be able to say the South Americans have won nine World Cups and nobody will be able to top it. The U.S. and other CONCACAF countries are not going to be negotiating at that level, but every on-field success will help in the political arena. Yes, the group pairings are supposed to be randomly determined, with assorted celebrities picking ping pong balls out of bins. But it does not hurt to have used some influence with Sepp Blatter & Co. before the official ceremony (actually, before the rehearsal ceremony), as U.S. coach Bruce Arena angrily noted before the 1996 Olympic Games. Arena understands the political process of soccer well, but coaching is Arena's specialty, and he has more than fulfilled expectations with the U.S. national team. But Arena is breaking new ground. Arena has taken the U.S. to the next level, established the team as a perennial favorite regionally and as a credible dark horse intercontinentally. No U.S. coach, though, has been successful in significant games with a "B" team, and that is what Arena is bringing to Costa Rica and Foxborough. Consider this an experiment on the world stage, then. Arena is doing everything possible to prepare the team. The U.S. has been training on artificial turf in South Florida in preparation for the surface at Estadio Saprissa. (It should be noted that the Ticos are working out on Heredia's grass field, lessening the stress on players' joints caused by the artificial field). Costa Rica is going into this game at full speed. The stadium is sold out. Most of the top foreign-based players have arrived. The country is waiting to celebrate qualification, as it did after a 2-0 victory over the U.S. in September 2001. Arena is an excellent motivator, and the U.S. players will enter this game with confidence. But what should the tactics be? When the U.S. "A" team visited Mexico in March, it played defensively and fell behind by two goals at halftime. Arena went on the attack in the second half, too late to make a difference. That was the last time the U.S. played a meaningful road match against a high-level foe. This time, elevation will not be a factor. And, though security measures are more advanced at Estadio Saprissa than in recent years, the home crowd is going to have a strong influence. The U.S. players were upset by the chants of the Estadio Azteca spectators in March. But, though that crowd was massive, it was not nearly as threatening on a warm spring Sunday as the crowd will be in an intimate, traditionally hostile, venue in Tibas, on the outskirts of San Jose, at night. The Ticos will spread the field, maintain possession, draw fouls, and they will look for Paulo Cesar Wanchope. Wanchope has moved to Al Garafah in Qatar, and might not be as sharp as he has been while honing his ability in Europe in the past. But Wanchope has scored seven goals in qualifying and has 42 goals in 66 internationals for Costa Rica. Oguchi Onyewu defended well in a physical matchup with Mexico's Jared Borgetti in Columbus. But Wanchope is cleverer than Borgetti and could be a handful for the U.S. defense. Without Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna in midfield, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. retaining enough possession to defuse the Ticos' attack. Saprissa has mostly been a scene of U.S. nightmares, going back to the 2002 qualifier in which referee Peter Prendergast awarded a dubious late penalty to the Ticos, after which Arena and Claudio Reyna were suspended by FIFA for their protests. Prendergast will be at the Mexico-Guatemala game Saturday, but there could be other surprises awaiting the U.S. This could be a matter of survival for the U.S. If it can perform respectably in San Jose, then capitalize on the home-field advantage of Gillette Stadium Wednesday, it could give U.S. Soccer Federation representatives and fans something to talk about.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .