Noon in the Caribbean may be prime time for sunbathing, but it can be brutal for soccer. The idea in today's World Cup qualifier was to make the United States play at midday in sauna-like conditions, in hopes the visitors would become as limp and soggy as their sweat-soaked uniforms.
But instead it was Trinidad and Tobago that wilted in the 90-degree heat and 85 percent humidity. While the home team took a breather after a foul in the 34th minute, John Harkes of the United States smartly hurried a free kick to Joe-Max Moore, who kept running while Trinidad and Tobago stopped to catch its collective breath.
Moore lofted a 16-yard chip shot over a disorganized defense for the only goal that was necessary in an exhausting 1-0 victory that demonstrated the composure and professionalism of a maturing team as it seeks a berth in the 1998 World Cup in France.
After withstanding a desperate flurry of shots in the second half, and gaining a third consecutive shutout from goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the United States (3-0) can advance to next year's final qualifying round of the North America, Central America and Caribbean region with a victory next Sunday in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica lost, 1-0, to Guatemala today in Los Angeles.
''I'm extremely happy to get this result on the road, under these conditions,'' said Steve Sampson, the American coach. ''To get that first goal in the first half was important. If we had needed our legs for a goal later in the game, I'm not sure we would have had them.''
Today's victory may have been costly. Midfielder Tab Ramos injured his left knee in the second half, and is scheduled to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging test Monday in Miami. The United States will play next week without midfielder Jeff Agoos, who received his second yellow card of the round today and must sit out a game.
At least the United States team has the satisfaction of being a step closer to playing in the World Cup's final stages for the third consecutive time. Trinidad and Tobago (0-3-1) suffered what is becoming familiar disappointment at the hands of the United States, which defeated the Caribbean nation by 2-0 two weeks ago and by 1-0 to prevent it from qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
After Trinidad and Tobago's poor start in this qualifying round, local fans grew resigned to defeat. Only 8,000 showed up today, leaving Hasely Crawford Stadium two-thirds empty. The team captain, Russell Latapy, was also absent, remaining with his professional club in Portugal. Still, Trinidad and Tobago played creatively, drawing the star forward Dwight Yorke into midfield to create openings for his teammates.
The United States got a scare in the 26th minute when Keller rushed out to make a sliding save on a breakaway by Trinidad and Tobago's Hutson Charles. Keller was called -- incorrectly, as replays showed -- for using his hands outside the penalty area. Fortunately for the United States, the goalkeeper received a yellow card instead of a red one, which would have meant ejection.
Eight minutes later, Trinidad and Tobago's Ancil Elcock brought Ernie Stewart down from behind, giving the United States a free kick from 25 yards. While the home players stopped, to rest or to contest the call, and goalkeeper Michael Maurice remained well off his line, Harkes smartly pushed the ball toward Moore, who chipped a shot over Maurice's shoulder into an empty goal.
''Absolutely brilliant,'' Sampson said of Harkes's free kick. ''When you have this heat and humidity, people tend to take mental breathers or turn their backs to the ball. That's the time to put it down and play.''
Feverishly needing a victory, Trinidad and Tobago pushed aggressively forward in the second half.
Too fatigued to counterattack, the Americans relied on a sturdy defense.
Agoos expertly blocked a shot after Keller was beaten by the substitute Stern John. Keller followed with a diving save, then Eddie Pope headed away a dangerous cross. When Keller was called for delay of game in the 73d minute, and Trinidad and Tobago was given an indirect free kick from 6 yards, Cobi Jones snuffed Yorke's blast with his face.
Ramos broke Trinidad and Tobago's momentum by feigning a leg cramp; in the 79th minute, Mike Burns replaced the injured Ramos to shadow Yorke, and the home team seemed to run out of gas.
''With 20 minutes left, I hit a brick wall,'' said Yorke, who plays professionally in chilly England. ''The sun was frightening.''