This was supposed to be an exhilarating weekend for futbol fans in El Salvador, what with those dastardly Americans in town for a 2006 World Cup qualifier Saturday night and the normally beloved Salvadoran national team, La Seleccion, in position to move into first place in the group standings.
But the U.S. team's first visit here in more than seven years hasn't stirred the country's emotions as much as one might think. The reason: El Salvador's team is, well, lousy.
"You will win," a local taxi driver said. "You will see. For El Salvador, it will be very difficult."
The Salvadorans' gloomy outlook is based on the team's past two qualifiers: a 2-0 loss to the United States in Foxboro, Mass., which very easily could've ended up 5-0; and an embarrassing 3-0 home loss to Jamaica four days later that dropped its record to 1-2 and into last place in the four-team, semifinal-round group. On Saturday the turnout at Estadio Cuscatlan, a nearly 40,000-seat cauldron near downtown that includes a hard-core sideline section known as "Vietnam," might not surpass 15,000 for El Salvador's final home game of its six-match schedule.
Coach Juan Ramon Paredes was fired after the pair of humbling defeats, replaced by Armando Contreras Palma, who tried to look on the bright side this week by repeating the international soccer mantra: "En el futbol no hay imposibles." (Essentially he was saying, "In soccer, nothing is impossible.")
Salvadoran soccer has taken a catastrophic tumble since the mid- to late-1990s, when stars such as Raul Diaz Arce and Mauricio Cienfuegos had the national team challenging for a World Cup berth in the region known as CONCACAF, which encompasses North and Central America and the Caribbean. These days, the program has had to turn to several players past their prime to regain respectability, marginal talents such as former D.C. United forward Ronald Cerritos.
As desperate as things appear, El Salvador could actually move to the top of the standings if it upsets the United States while Jamaica and Panama, who face each other on Saturday, finish in a tie. The draw in Panama City is a distinct possibility, but anything other than a resounding U.S. victory would be a surprise.
If the Americans (1-0-2) win or tie here and then beat Panama at RFK Stadium on Wednesday, they will lock up a berth in the final round of qualifying next year with one game to spare. But Coach Bruce Arena's club has gotten off to a sluggish start, thoroughly beating El Salvador but needing last-minute goals to steal ties at Jamaica and Panama. In each of those draws, the United States failed to capitalize on its control of possession in the first half and then was overwhelmed after intermission.
Overall, the Americans have not played like a team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
"We're capable of playing better than we have in the first three games," Arena said. "We've had moments in games where we haven't played well, we've been inconsistent and we haven't taken advantage of our opportunities. So that's part of the objective in our next two games -- to play better."
But the Americans will have to do it in a part of the world where they've historically had trouble earning good results. In World Cup qualifiers, they are 3-5-7 at Central American venues, with all three wins coming in Honduras -- two against the host team and one against El Salvador in a neutral-site match. The last time the United States played in San Salvador, in 1997, the result was a 1-1 tie.
But Arena can point to the fact that CONCACAF opponents have been unable to beat the U.S. team since the fall of 2001 -- a 26-game American unbeaten streak.
Missing from the lineup on Saturday will be the team's longtime captain, midfielder Claudio Reyna, who was scratched from the roster last week because of a thigh injury. Although Reyna didn't play well in the tie at Panama, the Americans will miss his poise, leadership and ability to deliver a pass onto the foot of a teammate in a dangerous position. His absence will put more pressure on enigmatic midfielder Clint Mathis, as well as fleet-footed players DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, to charge the U.S. attack.
El Salvador "is going to be extremely well prepared and the game is going to be very difficult in a venue that's difficult to play in," Arena said. "I think at this point in time we have the experience to go in there and win. That's certainly going to be our goal."
U.S. Notes: If midfielder Cobi Jones plays Saturday, he will tie D.C. United's Earnie Stewart for most qualifying appearances in U.S. history (29).