- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

The next five days will determine the final few berths in the 32-team field for June’s World Cup in South Africa.

Starting Saturday and ending Wednesday, matches will decide the event’s last nine teams, offering a final chance at World Cup glory for some.

Count Ryan Nelsen among them.

Nelsen played four seasons with D.C. United, serving as a captain and leading the club to the MLS Cup in 2004. He now plays for the Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League.

On Saturday, Nelsen will lead New Zealand against Bahrain, hoping for a victory that will take the Kiwis to their first World Cup since 1982. At 32, Nelsen doesn’t have many chances left to reach the World Cup - especially ones this good.

Nelsen wouldn’t mind a little help to improve his chances.

“Some beautiful Wellington wind and a nice bit of sleet,” he said, would make a useful greeting for the visitors from the desert kingdom.

San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Simon Elliott and New York Red Bulls defender Andrew Boyens also are on the All Whites roster.

Rugby dominates New Zealand, but the World Cup has taken hold of the country - even if the squad’s opportunity to advance arrived in part because of the absence of Australia. The Aussies moved from the Oceania soccer federation to the Asian qualifying region.

Bahrain is aiming for its first berth in the World Cup. It came close in 2006, losing a two-game playoff to Trinidad and Tobago.

In other matches, Costa Rica will try to upset two-time World Cup champion Uruguay in a two-game playoff.

Egypt needs a three-goal victory at home over Algeria to advance. A two-goal victory would force a playoff Wednesday, but the smart money is on Algeria.

France travels to Ireland on Saturday to play before an expected 82,300 at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin.

Portugal faces Bosnia-Herzegovina in Lisbon without the services of world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, who is nursing an ankle injury. Even without Ronaldo, Portugal simply has too many talented players - Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Pepe and Nani - to lose. And with all due respect to Bosnia, the absence of Portugal and its star power from the World Cup would be a blow to the tournament.

Legendary coach Guus Hiddink is favored to get Russia past Slovenia and into the World Cup for the first time since 1994. Hiddink previously coached the Netherlands (1994) and South Korea (2002) to the semifinals as well as Australia (2006) to the round of 16.

The U.S. national team, which already has qualified, will play two World Cup-bound European clubs. The Americans take on Slovakia on Saturday in Bratislava and Denmark on Wednesday in Aarhus.

The U.S. team likely will face at least two European teams in its opening-round group in South Africa; that has happened in every World Cup since 1990. The U.S. team is 1-9-2 against European teams in the World Cup since 1990.

Jeff Cunningham and Eddie Johnson are back on the U.S. roster after long absences. Cunningham, who led MLS with 17 goals this year, gets his first call-up since 2005. Johnson, who plays for Fulham in the EPL, is on the roster for the first time since September 2008.

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