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William Gileda

A Rousing Celebration For Infant Sport in U.S.

By William Gildea
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page E13

Ten years is a short time, especially when seen through the rear-view mirror. A 10-year anniversary often suggests promise more than achievement, a future in which much more can be accomplished. That's how Major League Soccer and soccer fans treated a 10th anniversary yesterday at RFK Stadium. It's been 10 years since the U.S. hosted the World Cup, an event that heightened interest in soccer in this country and ushered American soccer onto the sport's global stage.

A celebration was in order because so much has happened in U.S. soccer in a mere decade.


Raul Diaz Arce of the MLS international legends team scores past goalie Juergen Sommer of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team during the 2-2 draw at RFK. (Hyung Won Kang -- Reuters)

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And yet all that is still happening -- a national team that continues to improve, more young people playing the sport, the sport claiming a greater and greater place in the American culture -- hints at soccer glories yet to unfold.

Yesterday was a good time to mark the '94 Cup achievement, which included the United States' improved play against daunting world competition and sold-out stadiums from coast to coast. That year clearly was a turning point in U.S. soccer, and yesterday was a time for U.S. soccer to catch its breath and take a bow. Fittingly, members of the '94 U.S. World Cup team played a 50-minute exhibition against a squad of MLS veterans from around the world before the MLS staged its All-Star Game. A few of those U.S. "legends" found in just a few minutes of a summer afternoon in Washington that, indeed, they needed to catch their breath. It was a brutally hot day, but an epic match this was never intended to be.

It was pure fun, and it brought a flood of U.S. soccer memories and the realization that U.S. soccer today is taken seriously around the world.

Naturally, some things happened in yesterday's brief exhibition that would never happen in a regular game. The most pleasantly inventive play was initiated by the world team's goalkeeper, Jorge Campos, the onetime Mexican star. Late in the proceedings, he came all the way forward to set up a goal for his side that left the final score knotted at 2. Bruce Arena, who was "coaching" the world team, looked across at U.S. players John Harkes and Eric Wynalda and, tongue in cheek, noted their "short attention spans." They were out there simply to have a good time. "It was like sending your children out to play," Arena said. In fact, Harkes even joined in the celebration of one of the goals by the other team.

And there were some brilliant flashbacks as well. Tab Ramos can still play, running the field and delivering a splendid crossing pass; Harkes blasted a laser shot; Wynalda broke away for a goal as if he were still in his prime and scoring at the Silverdome in that 1-1 tie with Switzerland in the 1994 opener for the United States, Wynalda fed Hugo Perez and Perez struck the ball well for a goal. Alexi Lalas, with his red hair cut shorter than he used to wear it, and his fire just a tad diminished, "anchored" the defense.

This day also gave us one more fond look at some icons on the world roster, the lion-maned Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry. Summoning skills not quite vanished, both set up goals with classic style.

Goalkeeper Tony Meola made some impressive stops for the United States as did his backup, Juergen Sommer. But, of course, Meola is still very much active, having a fine year for the Kansas City Wizards. Meola was a stalwart in the nets as long ago as the '90 World Cup, helping to hold down Italy on a memorable night at Olympic Stadium in Rome, a 1-0 loss for the Americans but their first hint of success in modern times.

Harkes pulled that game from his memory bank as a particular treasure, but in his estimation nothing matched the Americans' breakthrough victory against Colombia in 1994. "It was a brilliant day," he said, "something you never forget and will cherish forever." (That, tragically, was the game that cost Colombia's Andres Escobar his life. On returning to his homeland, he was murdered because of his own goal against the United States.)

Yesterday was a mutual thank you, from fans to the '94 players and from the players to the fans, many of whom were in the crowds that flocked to those Cup games. That year helped spawn MLS's start in 1996, an ever-growing player pool across the country, the rise of soccer-only stadiums and more Americans playing at a high level abroad.

"What a great day for those players who have given so much to the league, to have a fun game," said Arena, the current national team coach. "It's only fitting that that game ends in a draw. It was an honor for me to be around those players. And it was an honor to be around Bora." Bora Milutinovic coached the '94 U.S. World Cup team then and much of the same group yesterday. Arena promised that he and Bora would be back in another decade to do this again, and Bora signed on with a smile.

Lalas was drenched in perspiration after the game. He was weary, but happy. "I felt excited, exhilarated," he said. And with a laugh, "Depressed at times." He couldn't move like he once could.

"Over the weekend, everywhere you turned was someone who played a part either on or off the field in the development of the sport," Lalas said. "We can legitimately look back on this league . . . and 10 years to the World Cup and celebrate. We can be very, very proud."


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