Kansas City, Mo. While U.S. coach Bruce Arena unwaveringly claims his focus is only on tonight's World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, it would be easy for his thoughts to wander.
If the Americans win at Arrowhead Stadium, they will be in excellent shape for advancement to the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea. With victories over Mexico and Honduras in their previous qualifying games, the Americans already lead the six-team regional standings.
Many consider Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica the three strongest challengers to the United States in the North and Central American and Caribbean region, from which the top three teams advance to the World Cup.
"We feel good about having six points, but it is too early to feel real good about yourself or real bad about yourself," Arena said. "History shows that in the last round, which was a shorter round, we started off with one point from two games and were counted out, but ended up winning our group.
"We are in this for the long haul. It's a 10-game series. Costa Rica is a key game for us and our focus is on three points. Costa Rica is going to be a tough battle right to the end."
It always is. During the regional semifinals, the United States which never has won in Costa Rica lost 2-1 on a controversial penalty kick in the dying moments. The teams also played a scoreless tie in Columbus, Ohio, during that round.
But the Americans are off to a superb start in the regional finals, beating Mexico at Columbus 2-0 and winning 2-1 at Honduras.
"I think it is helpful, but again all six teams in this group are pretty close together," Arena said. "I don't know who the best teams are in our group right now. Honduras is sitting there with one point and Mexico has three. And Trinidad and Tobago is a team that is going to beat some people, and they have zero points.
"Right now it is hard to think about anything but the next game, and the next game for us is Costa Rica, and they are clearly one of the strongest teams. If we get three points, we will be very comfortable. We are not content where we are right now, but will only be content when we have qualified for the World Cup."
Once again, Arena has called on several overseas players to bolster his roster. But it has been MLS youngsters such as Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff who have been pivotal thus far.
Still, defender David Regis, midfielder Claudio Reyna and forward Earnie Stewart, all of whom play in Europe, figure to be in the lineup in front of goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Brad Friedel played the first two games in the net, but he was not recalled from Blackburn in England.
Arena is eager to get Keller, the U.S. goalie for the 1998 World Cup, involved in this round.
"I knew well in advance Brad Friedel would not be available, and I also know it is time to get Kasey back in the goal," he said. "I still believe our goalkeepers are very good and all of them will be called upon in this final stage of qualifying."
Keller's main challenges figure to come from Paulo Wanchope and Ronaldo Fonseca, Costa Rica's most creative attackers. The Central Americans beat Trinidad and Tobago 3-0 in their last game after a 2-2 tie with Honduras. Wanchope played less than one-half in those two home games.