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Home-based Americans ready for Ecuador test

© Reuters 2002

By Chris Cowles

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, March 9 (Reuters) - The United States play Ecuador in a friendly on Sunday which will be the last chance for a number of home-based American players to stake their claims for places in the World Cup squad.

"There's no question about it, this game is really important for some guys," said U.S. forward Clint Mathis, who scored twice in a 4-0 rout of Honduras last weekend. "You have a big group of European (based) guys who are probably in the team, but the MLS guys are trying to make the team.

"Ecuador is going to be a good test for us, they're a good opponent and for some guys, it's a chance to see what they can do."

Mathis, who plays for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, made his first start at the weekend after seven months out with a knee injury, and he is expected to partner Brian McBride in attack against an injury-hit Ecuador team.

The U.S. won four straight matches at the start of their qualifying campaign before the loss of Mathis and a number of other players compounded the team's dip in form before they booked their ticket to Asia with one game to spare.

Although he will be keen to cement his strike partnership with Mathis, McBride knows that results are not the most important thing at the moment. "It's definitely nice to win and it also breeds confidence," said McBride, who set up two goals against Honduras.

"Winning isn't the most important thing now (before the World Cup), but it's important to be playing well. Winning games can be deceiving."

Goalkeeper Tim Howard will make his international debut in place of Tottenham Hotspur's Kasey Keller, who is involved in an English FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea, while Crystal Palace defender Gregg Berhalter and Fulham midfielder Eddie Lewis will be looking to boost their World Cup claims. Lewis does not get much first-team action at Fulham and Berhalter is used infrequently by Trevor Francis at Crystal Palace.

"I'm making a contribution at Palace and helping the team when I can and doing the same thing for the U.S," Berhalter said. "Everyone is competing for a spot on the U.S. team, but at the same time, everyone is relaxed and working. It's competitive, everyone wants to go to the World Cup. Sunday's match will be only the fifth game Ecuador have played since they finished second in the South American region to qualify for their first World Cup finals.

A depleted squad of 17 players arrived on Thursday in Birmingham. Missing through injury are veteran defender Ivan Hurtado and forward Angel Fernandez, while Austin Delgado, the joint-leading scorer during qualifying with nine goals in 18 games, is recovering from knee surgery. Defender Ulises de la Cruz remains with Hibernian and veteran midfielder Alex Aguinaga is with his Mexican club Necaxa.

But coach Hernan Gomez remained upbeat. "This is a great group of players that has worked together to achieve a goal and I feel very blessed," he said. "They (players) have a nation behind them and it doesn't matter that it is our first World Cup. There are no expectations for this team (in the finals). Our goal was to make it to the World Cup so everything from here will be a learning experience."

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