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SUAREZ SELECTION WORTH THE WAIT.

Byline: SCOTT FRENCH Soccer

CARSON - Be assured when Bruce Arena reveals the U.S. World Cup roster, on May 1 or thereabouts, he already will have contacted every player on the list - and every hopeful who failed to make the cut.

Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe apparently feels no such need; hence, the surreal scene that unfolded Sunday night deep in the bowels of Home Depot Center.

Claudio Suarez, a legendary figure in Mexican soccer, sat fidgeting in front of a dozen or so reporters, a handful of television cameras - two representing Mexican networks - his agent, Chivas USA's coach and general manager, his wife and three children, and several other interested parties awaiting public pronouncement from Mexico City on whether his name had been included on Lavolpe's 26-player preliminary roster.

Suarez, 38, a central defender who played in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and missed 2002 with a broken leg, had high hopes after performing well in Mexico's victory Wednesday in Chicago over Paraguay, his second game with the Tricolores since last summer and only his fourth since the 2002 Cup.

All signs were encouraging. Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico's two biggest networks, had sent crews to HDC to document his selection - the announcement was to be televised south of the border - and the context of reporters' questions following Chivas USA's season-opening victory hours earlier had been ``you're on the team. Now what?''

Yet it was a potentially embarrassing scenario - what if he wasn't among the chosen few? - and there was no way for Suarez to mask his nerves. He grew increasingly fretful as things dragged on, past the anticipated 8 p.m. announcement (10 p.m. in Mexico City) to 8:30, 8:40, coming up on 9.

Certainly the most dramatic moment during Major League Soccer's opening weekend at HDC - the Galaxy-New England game Saturday night was a bore, and Chivas, with Suarez making his MLS debut, thoroughly dominated Real Salt Lake on Sunday afternoon - quickly turned to high comedy.

Lavolpe's voice, following those of Federacion Mexicana de Futbol executives, carried from the FMF headquarters in Mexico City across television screens around the country, into a phone held up to a TV set in the capital, to Chivas USA communications director Keegan Pierce's Blackberry, placed against a microphone, and to speakers on both sides of Suarez. Lavolpe started with the goalkeepers (``Sanchez, Corona, Ochoa'') and onto the defenders, one after another after another, and finally ... Suarez.

Suarez's wife, Irma, let out a scream, applause filled the room, and the tension in the defender's face dissolved into a broad smile, more relief than joy.

``Four years ago, it felt really bad to miss the World Cup, and now I have a new opportunity ...,'' he said moments later. ``I've been criticized by some, who have questioned my (national team) call-ups, but I've always done a good job every time (Lavolpe) calls me up. I know I'll have a lot of responsibility, being one of the most experienced players.''

Lavolpe is the first World Cup coach to announce a roster - it must be whittled to 23 by the May 15 deadline - and it's product of an astounding agreement with the Mexican Primera Division's presidents, who are allowing their top players to leave for the national team camp although the Clausura season is far from over.

Hardest hit is Guadalajara, Chivas USA's parent club, which has played superbly since former Mexico national team star Jose Manuel ``Chepo'' da la Torre took over a little more than two weeks ago. Chivas, which has won its past four games, climbed to third overall in the Clausura and leads its group at Copa Libertadores, surrenders five players to Lavolpe's preparations, which begin April 12 in Acapulco.

Chivas USA president Antonio Cue says his club is ``100 percent behind'' the Mexican national team and will do whatever is needed to aid its preparations. Will they release Suarez for the camp? No decision yet.

--High numbers: Suarez's appearance against Paraguay was his 174th in international play. Only Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, with 180 ``caps,'' has played in more games against other national teams - at least among men.

Kristine Lilly, who debuted for the U.S. women in 1987, when she was 16, is the all-time leader. She made her 306th appearance at last month's Algarve Cup final in Portugal.

Until asked about Lilly, Suarez had never heard of her. ``I don't know much about women's soccer,'' he admitted. ``I know the United States is the best team in the world.''

Told Lilly has played in 300-plus ``internationals,'' Suarez's jaw dropped. ``She's already beaten the men.''

Lilly, who admitted she hadn't heard of Suarez, doesn't necessarily agree.

``I don't think you can really compare the men's and women's games in any aspect,'' she said. ``It's different on our level because we don't have a league, so (international games) is our league. ... I think comparing the women's and men's games in anything is like oranges to apples.''

--First step: The U.S. women Sunday began a six-month residency at HDC, fulfilling a landmark contract with U.S. Soccer and beginning preparations for the region's 2007 Women's World Cup qualifying tournament next November.

Twenty-five players, most receiving $70,000 a year from the federation, are in camp, and several others - including USC forward Amy Rodriguez and UCLA recruit Lauren Cheney - are slated to participate. Among the missing are forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who turned down an invitation in order to play with Chelsea Ladies in London, and defender Kate Markgraf, who is pregnant with her first child.

--Spot kicks: Chivas USA has called a news conference this afternoon to announce the signing of U.S. national team midfielder John O'Brien, who has spent his career in Holland. ... No Americans among World Cup referees for the first time since 1978. ... UEFA Champions League quarterfinals wrap up today and Wednesday. Likely semifinal pairings: Barcelona vs. AC Milan and Arsenal vs. Inter Milan.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Chivas USA defender Claudio Suarez appears bound for Germany after his selection to Mexico's preliminary World Cup roster.

Edna T. Simpson/Daily News
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 4, 2006
Words:1017
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