- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Ecuador is likely to be a much tougher opponent for the U.S. men's team tomorrow than the watered-down Honduran team the Americans ran over 4-0 last week in Seattle.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez has called up most of his top players to face the Americans at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., as both teams continue to prepare for the World Cup in Asia, which starts in 82 days.
Ecuador was traditionally the poor relation to its soccer neighbors. Then the South American underdogs stunned the soccer world last year, finishing second in qualifying behind Argentina on the road to their first World Cup.
But it hasn't been an easy ride for Ecuador. Take, for instance, the plight of Gomez, who has performed a miracle in leading Ecuador to soccer's biggest event with a modest group of players.
The Colombian native was shot last May during an argument with a man who blamed him for excluding a player from Ecuador's youth team. Gomez still has the bullet in his thigh and has delayed surgery to prepare his team for the Cup finals.
Such events are not new to Gomez. His brother, midfielder Gabriel Jaime Gomez, received death threats the day before the game and was left off the Colombia roster when the team faced the United States at the 1994 World Cup. Hernan Dario Gomez was assistant coach as his team was upset 2-1 by the Americans. Colombian defender Andres Escobar, who directed John Harkes' shot into his own goal in the game, was murdered 10 days later in Colombia.
"Thanks for the own goal," one of the assailants said.
Gomez will try and leave all that behind him tomorrow as he leads his 37th-ranked team against the 13th-ranked Americans.
Ecuador, which is one of four first-time nations at this year's World Cup along with China, Senegal and Slovenia, pulled off a surprising 1-0 victory over Turkey in Holland last month and will seek to do the same against the United States. As for U.S. coach Bruce Arena, he will be trying to build on his 6-1 record this year.
Arena is set to give goalie Tim Howard, 23, his first start in an American jersey because Kasey Keller has been called back to England for club duty. Keller, who shut out Honduras, has not lost a game on U.S. soil since a 2-0 loss to Holland on Feb.21, 1998, a span of 16 games.
Tomorrow's game will be another chance for American forward Clint Mathis to improve his fitness after his return from knee surgery. Mathis looked very good in the Honduras game, scoring two goals and nearly adding a third when his shot came off the crossbar.
No break for Sampson Tom Fitzgerald, former coach of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew from 1996 to '01, joined UCLA this week as coach of the men's team. Former U.S. team coach Steve Sampson had been thought to be the favorite for the job.
"I don't want to mince words here: I'm very disappointed with their decision," Sampson told the Los Angeles Times.
Latest poll I know it's just a kids' poll but it makes you wonder if there's any hope for soccer. In the annual Sports Illustrated for Kids readers poll published this month, soccer came in fourth (11.2 percent) as the favorite sport to play, behind baseball (27.9 percent), basketball (26.6 percent), football (15.3 percent) and ahead of hockey (6 percent). Where are all those kids playing baseball in my neighborhood?
In the favorite sports to watch on television category, soccer came in last with only 3.6 percent. Memo to ESPN: Give the Landon Donovan hype a break.
The good news from the poll is that Mia Hamm is still the favorite female athlete for the third year in a row and eighth overall. Hamm will be on ESPN's "SportsCenter" on Monday at 6 p.m. to talk about the upcoming season.
United notes Oh boy, what a baptism of fire Ray Hudson got in his first game as D.C. United's coach on Wednesday night in Guatemala City. United had two players sent off and gave up four goals against Comunicaciones in the first leg of the Champions Cup.
Milton "Tyson" Nunez, who scored two goals against the U.S. team for Honduras in the team's 3-2 win at RFK Stadium last fall, scored three goals against United. Which begs the question, why was United so keen on getting Honduran defender Milton Reyes when defenders are a dime a dozen in America and not a skillful attacker like Nunez? No doubt Hudson will push Reyes up into a more midfield role and use his speed on offensive runs.
This week's result sets up a great return game at RFK Stadium on Wednesday night. The only course for United against Comunicaciones will be to attack, attack and attack.
Goals galore With his two goals in a 4-0 victory over Tottenham this week, Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy became the first Manchester United player in 14 years to score 30 goals in a season. Brian McClair scored 31 goals in 48 games in 1987-88. Van Nistelrooy has his goals in 37 games.

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