The U.S. men's national soccer team will begin the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a pair of road matches, including a trip to play arch rival Mexico at 114,000-seat Azteca Stadium early next year.
In a draw held yesterday at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, the Americans learned that they'll open against Trinidad and Tobago in Port-of-Spain on Feb. 9 before facing the Mexicans on March 26 or 27 in Mexico City.
Feb. 9: at Trinidad and Tobago
March 26-27: at Mexico
March 30: vs. Guatemala*
June 4-5: vs. Costa Rica*
June 8: at Panama
Aug. 17: vs. Trinidad and Tobago*
Sept. 3-4: vs. Mexico*
Sept. 7: at Guatemala
Oct. 8-9: at Costa Rica
Oct. 12: vs. Panama*
*Sites of home games TBA
The United States, seeking a fifth consecutive World Cup berth, is the only one of the six teams to play its first two games on the road. After those matches, however, the Americans will play four of their next five at home.
"Since I've been manager, most of our games in the early going of qualifying rounds have been on the road, so we understand the process and the mentality," said Coach Bruce Arena, who has a 13-4-7 record in qualifiers since 2000, including 9-1-2 at home.
"I was going to be indifferent to any scenario, because in the end everything is going to balance out. At the end of the day it's going to be extremely difficult, and the teams going to the World Cup will likely be decided on the final day."
Each country will play 10 games (five home, five away) over an eight-month period. The top three finishers will qualify for the World Cup, which will be held in Germany in the summer of 2006. The fourth-place finisher will face an Asian team in a special two-game playoff.
The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica -- all of whom qualified for the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea -- are heavily favored to secure the three automatic berths. Guatemala, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago have never qualified for a World Cup.
The sites of the U.S. home games haven't been determined, but stadiums in Columbus, Ohio; Foxboro, Mass.; and Carson, Calif., are expected to be utilized. Washington has hosted five qualifiers since 1996, including a 6-0 U.S. win over Panama in a semifinal-round game on Oct. 13, but the arrival of major league baseball at RFK Stadium this spring will limit scheduling opportunities in 2005.
Arena will have to prepare for the opening game at a time when MLS players -- who make up half of his player pool -- are just beginning to get back into shape following the offseason. His European players will be in mid-season form, but most will have league games scheduled as few as three days before the Trinidad match.
In preparation for the qualifiers, the United States will open training camp Jan. 3 in the Los Angeles area and play two friendlies at home late that month. Opponents and sites will be determined soon.