a loss against one of the bottom three teams of the six-team group -- hampers the team's chances regardless of when it comes, but the fact that it's in the first of the 10-game schedule makes it even more vital. Coupled with a schedule that finds the U.S. heading down into Mexico to face the tricolores in the second match of this final round, it could be an outright disaster.
Should a deal not get signed, we'd see soccer's version of "The Replacements." Maybe Keanu Reeves will even be called in. Might as well, since the pickings will be slim. Except this time, there won't be anyone who looks like Brooke Langton rooting them on. Instead, it'll be yet another imposing Sea of Red that the U.S. was encountered with back in 1989 during the "Paul Caligiuri Game."
A group of replacements would feature players who have never received one cap for the full U.S. national team. That's not the easiest group to field, either, considering that Arena has capped around 100 players since taking over as national team manager in October 1998. Recently-capped players such as Clint Dempsey and Jonathan Spector would now be ineligible, as well. There'd also be a question of irking the Players Association. Guys with a real future with the national team like Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Justin Mapp, Chad Marshall and Zak Whitbread are going to be quite wary of making their lives difficult with their teammates down the road.
The last time the U.S. had to field a replacement team came in a game that didn't matter, back on Oct. 16, 1996. With less than a month to go before the first round of World Cup qualifying began for World Cup '98, the team that was fielded against Peru for an international friendly down in Lima looked like this:
Goalkeeper: Mark Dodd
Defenders: Tim Martin, Lawrence Lozzano, Tayt Ianni, Zak Ibsen
Midfielders: Eddie Lewis, Jorge Flores, Dario Brose, Scott Benedetti
Strikers: Jean Harbor, Ted Eck
Still wondering why this bunch lost 4-1?
The only good that came out of this game, besides the patching up of their differences between both sides, was that a then-22-year-old Eddie Lewis got his first cap, as did Ramiro Corrales, who made an appearance as a substitute. As for the others, only Brose and Dodd ever played again for the national team after that match, and that was for a grand total of four combined matches for Steve Sampson in 1997.
Being a replacement player isn't the worst thing in the world. Names you'll recognize such as Rick Neuheisel, Steve Largent and Doug Flutie played for different teams back in 1987 as "scab" players when the NFL players were on strike.
If an agreement isn't reached between now and Feb. 1, perhaps we'd see a team sent to Port-of-Spain that's filled with players who've been around MLS for several years and have still never been capped. Maybe a Rusty Pierce or a Mark Lisi. What about a Ross Paule, a Matt Reis, or a Bobby Rhine? Of course, these are names off the top of my head, but could you blame any of these guys for jumping at such a chance?
Though a deal hasn't been in place for two years -- what have you guys been doing? -- it's usually after a few threats and the pressure of crunch time to get something done before a specific date that a deal gets signed. It happened with baseball in 2002 at a time when a strike definitely seemed the likeliest possibility. The NHL? Forget those guys. That's simply a lost cause.
In this case, both the USNSTPA and the USSF at least have a soul. When it comes down to it, they will not let the sport suffer. They need each other because the last time I looked, soccer wasn't exactly setting the Nielsen ratings on fire or breaking attendance records all over the country. In essence, they are in bed with each other, along with MLS, due to the fact that the league's marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, owns the U.S. and Spanish-language TV rights to the 2006 World Cup.
Get it done, guys. Otherwise, the opening match of the final round of World Cup qualifying will feel more like the end than the beginning.
In the meantime, replacements must be ready. Players who don't want to necessarily rock the boat, yet have always dreamed of playing for their country and could not pass up a possible one-time opportunity.
You hear me, Greg Lalas?
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs