The U.S. men's national soccer team won't play a World Cup qualifier in El Salvador for another five weeks, but today the Americans could get a raucous preview of that October showdown at San Salvador's Estadio Cuscatlan.
The Americans and Salvadorans will face each other in Foxboro, Mass., and although it's one of the U.S. team's favorite venues, a majority of the crowd will likely support the heavily overmatched visitors. Several thousand Salvadoran-born fans living on the East Coast, including many from the Washington area, are expected to attend.
The atmosphere could provide an emotional lift to the Salvadoran team, which is not nearly as experienced and talented as in past qualifying campaigns but is in first place in the four-team, semifinal-round group after defeating Panama, 2-1, on Aug. 18. The United States earned a last-minute tie at Jamaica, 1-1, in its group opener.
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said this week that he hoped to see at least a few red-white-and-blue flags fluttering at Gillette Stadium.
"I think it's important that we get support in the stands," he said. "I'm hopeful that supporters of this U.S. team show up and support their team because these teams are very challenging and we need the so-called 12th man to help us as well. . . .
"Obviously, there's no magic to what I'm saying here; that simply an important part of qualifying is getting as many points as you can at home because the road is unknown."
A U.S. victory today and a win or tie at Panama on Wednesday would place the Americans in ideal position at the schedule's midway point to earn one of the group's two berths in next year's final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. An away game against El Salvador and home matches with Panama (in Washington) and Jamaica (in Columbus, Ohio) await this fall.
Arena has assembled one of his strongest rosters since the 2002 World Cup for these next two matches. A dozen players compete in prestigious European leagues, including Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard, Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna, PSV Eindhoven wing DaMarcus Beasley and Fulham teammates Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra. They are complemented by MLS stars Landon Donovan, Eddie Pope and Brian Ching, among others.
McBride and Ching, a pair of tall and powerfully built strikers, could start alongside each other today against a smallish Salvadoran backline, with Donovan and Reyna orchestrating the attack.
After today's match, the team will continue to train at Harvard University before taking a charter to Panama City on Tuesday. Three players -- New York/New Jersey's Jonny Walker and Eddie Gaven, and Dallas's Eddie Johnson -- returned to their MLS teams yesterday for weekend league matches, but will return to Boston on Sunday.
"I'm actually ahead of where I was four years ago [in terms of understanding his roster options], and I think that's half the battle: understanding your pool of players, having the right balance and the right psychology with your team and understanding the way they need to play," Arena said.
El Salvador, which sneaked past Bermuda in the preliminary round in June, is 1-10-4 all-time against the United States, the only win coming 121/2 years ago in San Salvador. The Americans are 11-1-3 in Foxboro (7-0-3 at the old Foxboro Stadium and 4-1 at Gillette).