U.S. coach Steve Sampson faces the stiffest test of his career in the make-or-break world of the Hexagonal this spring and fall. For the top three finishers, a trip to France beckons. For the losers, there is no consolation. Sampson gives his views on the five U.S. opponents.
Interview by Duncan Irving
High noon and heat
"Jamaica is definitely the most improved team in the Caribbean. They're obviously taking their national team programs very seriously. They are much more organized than they ever have been in the past. They have enough players and individual talent that they can disrupt a defense at any given moment.
"They are what I expected Trinidad & Tobago to be this time around and interestingly enough, Trinidad really fell off where Jamaica raised their game. Jamaica have a much better ability to handle pressure than Trinidad.
"I understand that the game in Kingston will be very difficult. I also understand that the field conditions that they played Mexico on [in the first round] were just ridiculous. They play in the heat of the day -- 12 noon -- so they're going to take advantage of that. But again, this is a team that we should beat if we're operating on all cylinders."
Changeless style is limited
"Bobby Lenarduzzi hasn't changed his style, and he relies upon players that are willing to work very hard physically. They are able to close down defensively and put a lot of pressure on the ball. They like to counterattack. They are a very direct team, but I think that in this second phase the competition will be very fierce for Canada. Probably a little too fierce.
"That's because when you play Mexico or the United States or Costa Rica, they can play out of that pressure. And that's the key for us against Canada. We have to be able to match the physical workrate and at the same time intelligently play out of pressure. And if we can do that, we should be able to beat Canada.
"They've got Paul Peschisolido, who's not a bad player. Bobby coaches the team he feels comfortable with. They've had a certain amount of success with the style he plays, but I think that's a very limiting style. As a coach, you have to assess what the strengths and weaknesses of your players are and if that's the only style they can play, then you have to be 100 percent certain that they play it well."
Experience and talent vs. pressure
"Costa Rica is a very talented team and there's a tremendous amount of pressure on them to perform well at home. The fans and the press have definitely helped them. I think they have players with great international experience in Jafet Soto and Hernan Medford. They've had a recent World Cup experience. But I think Costa Rica is one of the most dangerous team, if not the most dangerous team we'll face in the second round."
Which team will we see?
"Probably the favorites in all of CONCACAF and they continue to be. It will be a tremendous advantage to play in Azteca Stadium. They'll fight to play weekend matches only, and they'll fight to play at midday when it's hot and smoggy from the altitude. And that will provide them with a great advantage.
"Our task is to come up with a strategy of how to deal with that.
"A lot will depend on how we play Mexico and what players for them are in form. Bora, I'm sure, will try to inject some youth into the squad because he knows that some of the regular players won't be the ones that will take him to France.
"You constantly have to keep studying Mexico -- who they play, where they play them. They no longer play with Ignacio Ambriz, Ramon Ramirez is a left back that he uses in midfield, Zague is in and out of the squad, Carlos Hermosillo is now back in the team Luis Garcia is in and out, Claudio Suarez is a solid player, and Jorge Campos has been hurt. So again, it's really a case of keeping on top of the squad and seeing how he plays them. Our last memory of the Azteca is a [4-0 loss] in the 1993 Gold Cup.
"But no one knows the way Mexico plays like I do."
SOCCER AMERICA: Conversely, no one knows the way the U.S. plays better than Bora ...
STEVE SAMPSON: "Yeah, but this U.S. team is significantly different than the one Bora had. Look at the lineup for the [Guatemala game]. Not one player started under Bora at the World Cup. Not one.
Look at the team we had against Costa Rica. [John] Harkes, Cobi Jones was a spot player, Mike Burns didn't play and Alexi Lalas, who did play. So that's three players played against Costa Rica played under Bora at the World Cup.
Copa will be key
"This is a team that's much, much more difficult to beat when they're at home than away. They have a new coach, Milovan Djoric, and it'll be interesting to see if their experiences at the Copa America this summer will build or destroy their confidence. It could go either way, and to my mind there is absolutely no gray area in between. It is certainly a team that has had a lot of tradition, but they're not as strong as they used to be.
"In Raul Diaz Arce and Mauricio Cienfuegos, they have a couple of key players on their squad. If you shut them down, then that can alter the rest of their squad dramatically. But with qualifying you never know."
March 2 -- Jamaica vs. USA, Mexico vs. Canada. March 16 -- USA vs. Canada, Costa Rica vs. Mexico. March 23 -- Costa Rica vs. USA.
April 6 -- Canada vs. El Salvador. April 13 -- Mexico vs. Jamaica. April 20 -- USA vs. Mexico. April 27 -- Canada vs. Jamaica.
May 4 -- El Salvador vs. Costa Rica. May 11 -- Costa Rica vs. Jamaica. May 18 -- Jamaica vs. El Salvador.
June 1 -- Canada vs. Costa Rica. June 8 -- El Salvador vs. Mexico. June 29 -- El Salvador vs. USA.
Aug. 10 -- Costa Rica vs. El Salvador.
Sept. 7 -- USA vs. Costa Rica, Jamaica vs. Canada. Sept. 14 --
Jamaica vs. Costa Rica, El Salvador vs. Canada.
Oct. 3 -- USA vs. Jamaica. Oct. 5 -- Mexico vs. El Salvador. Oct. 12 -- Canada vs. Mexico.
Nov. 2 -- Mexico vs. USA. Nov. 9 -- Canada vs. USA, El Salvador vs. Jamaica, Mexico vs. Costa Rica. Nov. 16 -- USA vs. El Salvador, Jamaica vs. Mexico, Costa Rica vs. Canada.
o Home team listed first.
o Top three teams advance to France '98.