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 World Cup ' 98

 On Sunday, Iran defeated the U.S.
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U.S. Team Remains Optimistic After Loss

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 1998; Page E5

 Alexi Lalas leads Mike Burns and Eric Wynalda off the plane as the U.S. team arrived in Nantes.
(Pascal Guyott/AFP)
PORNIC, June 22 — A cross-country charter flight today took the U.S. World Cup soccer players far away from the site of their 2-1 loss to Iran Sunday and conveyed them to a seaside resort southwest of Nantes, where they will stay this week.

The cliffside hotel isn't a castle like the team's previous training base, but it is somewhat more than accommodating. It allows for meals on a wide balcony just above crashing waves, walks over rocky cliffs and sunbathing on a sandy beach that touches the Atlantic Ocean. The change of venue seemed to lighten the spirits considerably today, fewer than 24 hours after Iran erased the United States' hopes of advancing to the round of 16.

Players even mustered a few laughs today, despite knowing their World Cup experience will end after Thursday's game in Nantes against Yugoslavia, regardless of the outcome. Tab Ramos deadpanned to the team that at least the major security worries had disappeared — other than the fear of attack by members of Sam's Army, the U.S. Soccer Federation's fan club.

While players acknowledged they disappointed themselves and their countrymen, none was willing to call the early elimination a strike against soccer in the United States.

"There's going to be a tremendous amount of disappointment from the fans and from the general public," defender Alexi Lalas said. "I think the last four years have obviously increased awareness in the team, and with that has come the expectation to succeed and win at a high level."

While the U.S. team undeniably has made some progress since World Cup appearances in 1990 and 1994, an all-too-familiar refrain resurfaced today as the U.S. players and Coach Steve Sampson tried to put into perspective this year's setback: the United States men still have a long way to go in international soccer.

"We can't compete, player for player, with the great speed and ball control ... of the most elite countries in the world," Sampson said.

But, he added: "Obviously we are not among the elite, but we could compete with any second-tier European team and, because of our exposure to Latin America, I believe we can compete with the best teams in Central and South America and on occasion beat them."

Though his future with the national team won't be decided until after the tournament, Sampson said U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg — Sampson's boss — and USSF officials Hank Steinbrecher and Sunil Gulati offered an encouraging sign: support after Sunday's loss.

"I think they wanted this team to show an attacking brand of soccer," Sampson said. "And we did show that. ... They are also result-oriented ... so we will see."

Players have Tuesday off to spend with their families. Sampson likely will be trying to figure out a way to finish this World Cup with something more impressive than three losses. The Yugoslavia team will be trying hard to surpass the Germans for the Group F top seed. The No. 1 seed will face the second seed from Group E instead of the likely No. 1 seed from Group E, the Netherlands.

Sampson said today he was undecided about whether to start a team of young players who would benefit from the World Cup experience or a group of veterans deserving of the chance to finish what they essentially started.

Lalas, for one, who played in neither of the first two matches, said he would like to play Thursday.

Sampson today declined to discuss in depth his unexpected benching of forward Eric Wynalda. The reasons, however, seemed plain: besides a poor performance against Germany last week, Wynalda apparently gave a less than full effort in practice. One team source said there was no visible falling out between Sampson and Wynalda, the U.S. team's all-time leading goal scorer. Wynalda avoided reporters today, hurrying to the team bus, and Sampson said only: "I don't want to criticize my own players through the media. Roy Wegerle deserved to start against Iran, and it was the perfect game for Brian McBride to come in."

Sampson also said Wynalda's slow recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery in April proved damaging to him and the team.

"The injury to Eric Wynalda made it very difficult for him to come back and play at this level and make an impact," Sampson said. "I had hoped the excitement of the event would allow Eric to work through this and for him to make an impact in the Germany match. It just didn't come."

The U.S. team had many contributors, besides Wynalda, to its unanticipated first-round flop in this World Cup. But with the prospect of a few days in the salty air and sunshine of a town known for its excellent seafood, no one seemed capable of getting too upset about anything today.

"This was obviously a tremendous disappointment, but there is nothing wrong with American soccer," Lalas said. "I think we are well on our way to approaching the rest of the world."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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