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Can U.S. take heat?

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MAZATENANGO, Guatemala — When the game kicks off at 11 a.m. Guatemalan time, 1 p.m. EDT, the temperature could be close to 100 degrees.

And that's not even the biggest problem the Americans face as they begin qualifying for the 2002 World Cup against Guatemala in a little town that is a three-hour bus ride west of the capital of Guatemala City.

The summer climate in this sugar-producing hamlet of 80,000 can be brutal.

"It gets up to 100, then there is a downpour and the vapor comes straight up. It's tremendous," says Fernando Lopez of the Guatemalan Football Federation.

Originally scheduled for Guatemala City, the Guatemalan federation moved the game to the 11,000-capacity Carlos Salazar Stadium.

Officially, they said it was to spread the game to more rural areas of the country.

The Americans, who have never won on a World Cup qualifier on the road over Guatemala or Costa Rica — who they play next Sunday — see the change of venue as an attempt to intimidate them.

And it isn't the heat that will be the most bothersome, rather a threatening atmosphere.

"The environment makes the difference. It has nothing to do with what happens between the lines on the field," said U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, recalled to the national team for the first time since the 1998 World Cup.

"It's everything else around you, the things that get thrown at you, the way people treat you the whole time you're there, whether they're yelling at you at the airport.

"Those are the types of situations that are uncommon, that you usually don't see at friendly games. Games in Central America are even more difficult because of all the politics involved with representing the United States."

Sunday's game is the first of six for both the United States and Guatemala. Playing in a four-team group that also includes Costa Rica and Barbados, each team will play each other at home and away, and must finish first or second to advance to the final round of qualifying.

Both sides will be somewhat undermanned.

Guatemala will be without midfielders Martin Machon, who plays for the Miami Fusion, and Guillermo Ramirez.

Ramirez left the team without explanation and Machon was called up too late to get released by the Fusion.

On the other hand, the United States will be without several regulars, including Brian McBride, who fractured his cheekbone June 17 playing for Columbus against Colorado; Joe-Max Moore, still recovering from knee surgery after being hurt playing in England; defender Jeff Agoos, who had knee surgery last week; and D.C. midfielder Ben Olsen, out with a sprained ankle.

It will force U.S. coach Bruce Arena to use Chicago Fire forward Ante Razov, who has only nine appearances for the national team up front with Cobi Jones.

"It's not like we're on the first page of sports sections in this country," Arena said. "Most of the American sporting public probably doesn't even know we have a game on Sunday. The only pressure we have is the pressure we put on ourselves.

"(The U.S. players) are going to experience the nervousness that everyone feels before a game of this magnitude. I think it'll be a new experience for not only those players, but myself as well. But I think our players have enough experience to deal with this."

In soccer-passionate countries like Guatemala, though, the home-field advantage can turn into a disadvantage because fans can turn on a team if things go badly.

"We go into this game with our dream, the illusion of going to the World Cup, and we can achieve it if we play with good technical skill and extra effort — and the warrior spirit," Guatemala's Uruguayan coach Julio Cesar Cortes said.