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U.S. World Cup Team Saves Its 'Best' for First

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B1

PARIS, June 14 — Before a morning training session late last week, U.S. World Cup Coach Steve Sampson gathered his players in a meeting room near the practice field at Trevoux's Stade de Fetan. It was a gray, rainy morning with temperatures in the high forties — not exactly conditions to inspire a team for another workout amid cow pastures and vineyards.

But inside, Sampson stood before his 22 players — the third straight U.S. national team to appear in a World Cup — and provided the lift that the day did not.

"I told them how proud I was of their attitude going into this World Cup," Sampson said. "Even those guys who aren't scheduled to start the match are supporting those who are. They are going about their business very professionally. That maturity in itself is a difference from the 1994 and 1990 teams."

Contrasts abound between the 1998 U.S. team, which will play its World Cup opener against Germany Monday at the Parc des Princes in Paris, and the squads that posted a 1-5-1 record in the previous two World Cups, in Italy in 1990 and the United States in '94.

"This is far and away the best American soccer team ever assembled," said defender Alexi Lalas, a starter on the '94 team. "It shouldn't be any surprise. Individually, the players are so much more experienced, and collectively we have played together for four years. Between 1994 and 1998, there is really no comparison."

For the first time, every player on the roster has professional experience. Sixteen players are on a team in Major League Soccer, the three-year-old U.S. league that evolved from the '94 World Cup. The other six played in overseas leagues, as have 17 of the 22 players at some point in their careers.

Eight years ago, the United States sent what amounted to a college all-star team to the World Cup after it won the last qualifying spot for the tournament on a now-famous goal against Trinidad and Tobago by Paul Caligiuri. It was the first World Cup finals appearance by the United States in 40 years.

That team lost three matches by a combined score of 8-2.

"We didn't know what the World Cup was," said Eric Wynalda, a member of the last three U.S. teams. "We didn't know what it meant. We didn't have a clue. You get in your head that you are the best in your country — you are recognized as the best players in America. But that didn't mean a thing to the rest of the world. It was a wake-up call. I think realizing how bad we were was a turning point."

Because the 1994 Cup was played on its soil, the United States automatically qualified. It advanced to the second round, where it upset Colombia, a result so stunning a Colombian player was brutally murdered shortly after returning to his country. In the round of 16, however, the United States lost to eventual champion Brazil, 1-0.

"In '94, we had 10, 12, 14 guys who could play at a high level," said Thomas Dooley, the U.S. captain who made his debut with the team in 1994. "I don't want to say the other guys couldn't play, but this time we have 20 to 22 players with a lot of experience."

Wynalda, Tab Ramos and Marcelo Balboa will be making their third consecutive World Cup appearances for the United States. Kasey Keller — who Sampson says is among the top three or four goalies in the world — was a member of the 1990 team but overlooked by Bora Milutinovic in '94. Mike Burns, Dooley, Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Lalas, Joe-Max Moore, Claudio Reyna, Juergen Sommer, Ernie Stewart and Roy Wegerle return from 1994. That's 14 of 22 players who previously had been on a World Cup roster.

Besides the mutual respect and sound resumes the U.S. players now own, they seem to get along — at least, there appear to be no major warring factions. Players seemingly have accepted Frenchman David Regis, who gained his citizenship only a month ago, as well as relative national team newcomers Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering. All three are likely starters Monday.

In 1994, a divide existed between the players who played professionally overseas — and thus were viewed as the only players with legitimate credentials — and those who did not. To make matters worse, foreign-based players joined the national team later than the rest of the team, so their arrival was viewed as somewhat of an invasion.

In contrast, the 1998 World Cup players "understand that it takes more than 11 players to be successful," said Sampson, who was an assistant on the 1994 team. "They understand being together as a unit and not split up into cliques is an important part of our success, which wasn't necessarily the case in '94."

That's not to say this team won't have trouble advancing. For all the players' optimism, there isn't a soul willing to guarantee the United States will make it out of the first round.

The field is larger than in 1994 (32 teams instead of 24), and only the top two teams in each group will move on. Even worse, the U.S. group includes Germany, the three-time champion and a perennial soccer power, and Yugoslavia, a highly talented team occasionally plagued by inconsistency.

There is also the politically fired match on Sunday against Iran, which — like the U.S. team in 1990 — won the final qualifying spot with a last-minute victory, over Australia.

To get to the second round, teams will need at least four points — a victory is worth three points and a tie is worth one. (The only way to advance with three points is for everyone in the group to play to three ties.)

The U.S. players seem to believe they can accrue four points or more. McBride said he thought amassing six points — two victories — was attainable. Dooley said the U.S. team was aiming to make a statement by knocking off Germany.

The United States finished second of the three qualifying teams from CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football), behind Mexico and ahead of Jamaica. In the last couple years, the U.S. team balanced some bad showings — a tie at RFK Stadium against Jamaica, a loss to Costa Rica on a late goal and a tie against El Salvador on a late goal — with defeats of Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Nigeria.

A fair question during this World Cup is: Which U.S. team will show up?

"Every time we have something special to do," Dooley said, "you can just see the team spirit coming together."

Ramos, who has seen the best days with the U.S. team and the worst, combines caution and confidence.

On paper, he said, Germany is a better team than the United States. But, he added:

"All the teams in the world now know if they come to play the U.S. and they're not on their best day, they're going to lose. Now, we are a team to be reckoned with."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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