Steve SampsonÆs take on the Hexagonal

ôA qualification match against a Honduras is four times more difficult than playing Germany, Brazil or Argentina in a friendly.ö -- Steve Sampson. The first U.S. coach in history to pick up a point in Mexico, and the latest to qualify the USA for a World Cup, Steve Sampson shares his thoughts on the USAÆs Hexagonal quest with In qualifying the USA for France æ98, Sampson chalked up home wins against Guatemala, Costa Rica (twice), Trinidad & Tobago, Canada and El Salvador. He swept T&T and Canada and tied Mexico and Jamaica at home and on the road. His only two losses came on the road against Costa Rica. Here's how Sampson see Coach Bruce Arena's challenge. INTERVIEW BY WILL KUHNS SOCCER AMERICA: Can you give us your thoughts on the Hexagonal overall? STEVE SAMPSON: It is going to be a very difficult final phase, especially because Honduras is playing very well at the moment, Costa Rica has found some resurgence in their confidence with the victory over Guatemala. Mexico is a very difficult opponent and Jamaica is also coming into this Hexagonal with a lot of confidence. I really only see one team that, in my opinion, is the weakest in the group and that's Trinidad. And Trinidad at any moment, because of the individual ability of certain players, can be difficult, especially at home. So I feel it's a very difficult phase with no reason to believe we cannot qualify for the World Cup, but one that will be difficult. SA: What about Mexico? That team seems to be in disarray heading into this first match. SS: Well, I think it's a big mistake to judge Mexico on friendly matches or qualification matches where they've already qualified. Everyone believes Mexico is playing poorly and that Mexico is not as strong as it's been in the past, but those people who believe that are foolish. When you play in a qualification match, that's when Mexico lifts its game. Having said that, I still believe the United States can beat Mexico, especially here, and can compete with them in Mexico. SA: What about some of their injuries? SS: Certainly [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco being out of the lineup is a blow to the Mexican team, but again, they have the ability to lift their game when the games really matter and historically, Mexico has performed very well in qualification matches and in World Cup matches. I don't think the injuries, at this point, will have much part to play. SA: They don't make many mistakes, either ... SS: That's true and you always have to look at the Mexican team with regards to the Mexican league. The makeup of the national team, which clubs they come from and how difficult a run their club teams have had, how much pressure they've been under -- people fail to look at those details. If they take a good look at it, they will see that certain players will be exhausted coming into certain matches or be on top of their game. SA: Do you think Mexico will be affected by the weather? SS: No. I think they prefer to play in a warmer climate, but I think the greatest impact of playing the game in Columbus is that it will be difficult for the Mexican fans to get there. Even when I was the coach in '97 and we played in Boston, it was not a complete home-field advantage. However, in Columbus, I believe we will have that for the first time against Mexico. SA: Can you talk about preparing a team for a nine-month competition like the Hexagonal? It seems like a unique animal. SS: It is a unique animal, but I think the U.S. players now have so much experience against teams in this region that I think we have more players that are more prepared than ever before. Our players are up to the task, I believe, of these kinds of competitions. Going into each match, no question, it demands players who are on top of their game and who understand the system of play to its finest detail and players have to perform and come through. The American public, I don't think understands the dramatic differences between a qualification match and a friendly match. A qualification match against a Honduras is four times more difficult than playing Germany, Brazil or Argentina in a friendly. So there's much more at stake on both sides and that's why the preparation has to be better. SA: Looking at the style of play, you'd expect teams to play close to the vest with so much on the line. Do you expect few goals and perhaps even few chances at goal? SS: No. Every single team in this Hexagonal is prepared to take risks. In fact, one of the greatest weaknesses of two or three teams is that they'll take the risks to go forward, but they lack the discipline to get back and defend in an organized manner. I would place Trinidad, Costa Rica and Jamaica in that category.
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