US Men's National Team Faces Guatemala Tonight in World Cup Qualifier

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BIRMINGHAM Ala. (By Ronald Blum / Associated Press ) - Futbol not football takes over Legion Field on Wednesday night when the United States plays Guatemala in the Americans' first home game in the final round of World Cup qualifying.

At the stadium where Bear Bryant wore his houndstooth hat and Joe Namath became a star fans figure to be cheering "U-S-A! U-S-A!' instead of "Roll Tide Roll!"

The faded sign across the now-closed upper deck still reads "Football Capital of the South" and when people talk about going for ribs they're likely talking about a meal at Dreamland not ways for defenders to get attacking players out of the game.

"It's good to see a lot of American flags forward Eddie Johnson said Tuesday.

While the stadium was empty this city has been a comfortable spot for the U.S. team following Sunday's 2-1 loss in the smog and altitude of Mexico City. The U.S. Soccer Federation has picked sites where it hopes to see a patriotic crowd for the team's home dates — the Costa Rica game will be in Salt Lake City and the Mexico match in Columbus Ohio with the meeting against Trinidad and Tobago likely in Hartford Conn.

The idea is to create a home-field advantage.

"We're going to see Guatemala's fans when we go to Guatemala City U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "We shouldn't be seeing more of them here. That's one of the ideas."

Mexico (2-0) leads the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region with six points two ahead of Guatemala (1-0-1) and three in front of the United States and Costa Rica (both 1-1). The top three team advance to next year's tournament in Germany and the fourth-place team goes to a playoff against an Asian nation for another berth.

It's the start of a key stretch for the U.S. team which plays four of its next five qualifiers on American soil.

"You put one step into the World Cup if you win your games at home U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. "We shouldn't get too anxious it's only the third game."

In Birmingham the qualifier has been front-page news. The U.S. national team has played at Legion Field just twice and both were exhibition games: a 1-1 tie against Tunisia in March 2000 and a 1-0 victory over Ecuador in March 2002.

Reyna still remembers when he scored 28 seconds in during a 3-1 win over Argentina in the 1996 Olympics a game that drew 83 810 to Legion Field. That however was the American Under-23 team supplemented with three overage wild-card players not the full national team.

"It was a great venue for us said Arena who the U.S. Olympic coach back then.

The USSF expects a crowd of 25000 to 30000 on Wednesday night. Guatemala is coming off a 5-1 win Saturday against Trinidad and is led by Carlos Ruiz who has eight goals in qualifying. The Americans are 7-4-3 against the Guatemalans including 6-0 at home but the teams haven't played since 2000 when they tied 1-1 in Mazatenango and the Americans won 1-0 in Washington both semifinal-round qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup.

In Mexico the Americans went with a defensive formation. Johnson who turns 21 Thursday was the lone forward.

They are expected to be more aggressive playing at home although they must replace DaMarcus Beasley suspended because he received his second yellow card of qualifying Sunday.

"You want to attack you want to throw numbers forward defender Gregg Berhalter said "but you don't want to open yourself up to a counterattack when they're coming with numbers and they get easy opportunities."

Arena expects the Guatemalans to be on the defensive playing for a tie.

"I think they'll come in here tomorrow real happy to get a point so they can sit back comfortably force us to take the game to them and wait for an opportunity to catch us on a break or get us on a rebound he said. "It's a nice position to be in."