PAUL KENNEDY: Eight into three

I'll take Bruce Arena at his word when he says he hasn't lost any sleep over the U.S. elimination from the Gold Cup in the quarterfinals, but I have to say that the road to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan seems much harder than it was a week earlier. On the U.S. front, no news is bad news. During Arena's 16-month tenure as U.S. national team coach, he has always brought together a different group of players, and everything worked out. Until now. Yes, the United States extended its record of having won every first-round game it has played in the Gold Cup and it went home unbeaten (in the record book). Unfortunately, there was nothing new to report in the Americans' play. With the exception of Cobi Jones, the most capped player in the squad with 122 international appearances, no one stood out. The big news, though, was the play of the other TFC teams, notably semifinalists Canada and Trinidad & Tobago and Group A champion Honduras, which was outstanding until it self-destructed against Peru. Even Guatemala looked good in its 1-1 tie with Mexico. Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras will open World Cup 2002 qualifying March 4 when they host Nicaragua and Netherlands Antilles, respectively. The United States, Mexico, Jamaica and Costa Rica - the four CONCACAF representatives at the World Cup in the '90s - have a bye into the second round. The upshot of the 2000 Gold Cup is that eight teams now believe they have a legitimate shot of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup finals - the four seeds, plus Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras and Guatemala. Only six will advance to the final round of qualifying in 2001. And only three will go on to the finals in 2002. Eight into three promises to be interesting.
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