The U.S. men's soccer team's friendly match in Jamaica tonight is not necessarily about stirring national pride or trying to continue a stretch of good results. It's about exposing a group of novice players to the sound and fury of international soccer.
In a little more than a year, the United States will begin its quest for a berth in the 2002 World Cup, and to qualify, it will have to play in soccer-intense countries in Central America and the Caribbean, where beating America in anything -- particularly an endeavor low on the U.S. sports agenda -- is top priority.
Tonight's game at National Stadium in Kingston will provide a sample of what U.S. players can expect at Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador, where some of the rowdier locals have nicknamed a stretch of concrete bleachers "Vietnam"; at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, where the Mexicans play before 100,000 and haven't lost in 18 years; at Costa Rica's Saprissa Stadium, a place so intimidating that it's known as "Cueva del Monstruo" (Monster's Cave).
There also is the possibility of treacherous trips to Guatemala City, Havana and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, among others.
It's quite a change for players accustomed to Major League Soccer games with 15,000 polite spectators and nothing more than an occasional plastic cup tossed onto the field.
Kingston "is not going to be an easy place to play," said D.C. United defender Eddie Pope, who along with forward Brian McBride are the only U.S. players on this trip with World Cup experience. "But that's what it's like everywhere we go in this region. There's no such thing as an easy road game."
Considering tonight's game is only an exhibition, the passion on and off the field won't be nearly as intense as for a World Cup qualifier. But the Americans will get the experience of being holed up in a guarded hotel, of being constantly booed and of playing on an uneven, parched field not conducive to elegant soccer.
Coach Bruce Arena's 19-man roster consists of 18 MLS players, eight of whom have never made a U.S. national team appearance and only three who have played in more than seven U.S. matches.
"This game is important because we are, in a sense, giving national team tryouts to a number of players," he said. "I think they are quality players and they will be tested against a strong opponent in a difficult environment. Additionally, we have set a standard for ourselves and expect to be competitive in every match we play."
Arena is particularly interested in observing Dallas midfielder Jason Kreis, who is second in MLS in scoring; Chicago forward Josh Wolff, who is only 22; Miami sweeper Leo Cullen, from the University of Maryland; defender Steve Cherundolo, 20, who plays in Germany; and Miami midfielder Henry Gutierrez, who at 31 has never played for the national team.
Midfielder Ben Olsen was a late addition after United initially refused to release him. He, Pope and D.C. midfielder Richie Williams are probable starters.
Playing at home following a loss to struggling Canada last week, Jamaica won't be conducting any youth experiments. Its quirky Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes, who guided the Reggae Boyz to their first World Cup appearance in 1998, has called in most of his England-based veterans.
In a preliminary game tonight, the under-17 national teams for each country will meet in an exhibition.
The U.S. squad -- coached by John Ellinger of Ellicott City and preparing for the world championships in New Zealand in November -- has four players from the Washington area: defenders Oguchi Onyewu (Olney) and Alexander Yi (Easton, Md.), midfielder Kyle Beckerman (Crofton) and forward Abe Thompson (Fairfax Station).