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Lacking a Spark in Their Opener, U.S. Gets Burned

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 16, 1998; Page D1

 Oliver Bierhoff and Germany prove to be head and shoulders above (from left) Thomas Dooley, Eddie Pope and David Regis and the rest of the U.S. team in opener. (AFP Photo)
PARIS — Now we have seen all four teams in Group F, the tough bracket that includes the United States, and this evening finds the Americans looking up from the bottom. Germany boasts a history of winning opening games, and the misery it made for the United States Monday night at a packed Parc des Princes came as no surprise. Germany's 2-0 victory sounded alarms for the U.S. But the other gong went off Sunday in Saint-Etienne, where Iran looked much tougher than expected in bowing 1-0 to Yugoslavia, which held form as the second-rated team of the foursome. Iran showed more spunk than the U.S.

"I'm sure we'll continue to grow in the next match with Iran," U.S. Coach Steve Sampson said at the end of this bleak evening. The truth is that the Americans are going to need one mighty growth spurt by Sunday, when they play Iran. And they would have to maintain that sudden maturity through June 25, when they play Yugoslavia. A change of diet might help the Americans. If a chef was entering the culinary World Cup, he wouldn't bring all cream of wheat — his best recipe would have some spice. But too many Americans looked similarly bland against the honed German machinery.

Germany's quick goal in the eighth minute largely established the game's tone. You'd have to say that Berti Vogts, in his second stint as Germany's World Cup coach, put that scoring play into motion about a month ago. That was when he decided, after some doubt, that his midfield was big enough to hold both Thomas Haessler and Andy Moeller. That proved a wise coaching decision when Germany's shining star, Juergen Klinsmann, leaped while sandwiched by defenders David Regis and Eddie Pope in front of the U.S. goal to head the ball to Moeller, who headed it into the left corner of the net from point blank range. To begin with, Haessler controlled the ball in midfield with his enormous creativity and moved the play to that end to make the goal possible.

U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller didn't have a chance. But midfielder Mike Burns did. He had wandered into position at the left post. But as baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell likes to say when a batter takes a called third strike over the heart of the plate, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road." Burns joined all the spectators in Parc des Princes as the ball zipped past him. In another misadventure, Burns moved forward into attacker Eric Wynalda's turf, bringing along his German defender to create a traffic jam and killing any hope of Wynalda breaking free along the right sideline. Burns was on the bench in the second half.

As it was, Wynalda and his second-half replacement, Roy Wegerle, and midfielder Tom Dooley all had their troubles with the orderly, four-wide German defense, especially the veteran Juergen Kohler. Kohler is the Dennis Rodman of his side, creating havoc on defense and, in Rodman-like ways, grabbing Dooley's backside or bumping Wegerle or simply stopping Wynalda cold. Midfielder Claudio Reyna also was marked closely, unfortunate for the Americans because the offensive scheme seemed to fall largely to Reyna to create something. Reyna was the violinist without accompaniment.

This brings to mind another musical reference, uttered once by the man of many countries, Bora Milutinovic, America's coach in 1994, Costa Rica's and Mexico's before that, and now Nigeria's. "You've got to have the piano movers and the piano players," he said. Against Germany, the U.S. exhibited a good work ethic, everyone ran up and down the field, but there never was a duet to remotely resemble that played by Klinsmann and Moeller.

Burns's replacement was Frankie Hejduk, who offers a bit of spice. He promptly got a yellow card, but he stirred the pot. The U.S. spread out and showed a pulse in the second half, and Hejduk almost headed home a ball in one of the rare threatening instances. Klinsmann almost got a goal as he closed to the near post and took a cross, but Regis's defense prevented Klinsmann from getting a toe poke. But it's hard to keep containing the 33-year-old blond bomber, who raised the World Cup in Rome in 1990 and who, like Vogts, wants to atone for Germany's unexpected disaster in 1994, when they bowed in the quarterfinals to Bulgaria at Giants Stadium.

Klinsmann scored in the 64th minute off a crossing pass from his attacking mate, Oliver Bierhoff. Klinsmann settled the ball on his chest with nothing but tenderness. Then, as the experienced Dooley flew past, Klinsmann fired a bullet that Keller had no chance to stop. Keller managed everything else. Internationally, he's America's top player. But it's almost a shame that the best player is the goalkeeper because that's like having a fire extinguisher as your best weapon — you don't want to have to use it.

The Americans sprinkled some pepper in the late going, but took no shots of note. Asked what displeased him most about the game, Sampson said: "I was not particularly happy with our accuracy at goal." Of more consequence, perhaps, were the few quality chances and the fact that in most offensive thrusts it usually was a solitary American making the charge. As a result, there was no give and no go.

It would have been better to have lost 2-1 than 2-0 because goal differential could be a factor in determining which two of the four teams advance. Preki Radosavljevic, who might have been able to put a little kick into a meat-and-potatoes meal, never got out of the kitchen.

So here are the totals after one game for each Group F team: Germany and Yugoslavia get three big points for their victories, Iran and the U.S. zero, with Iran's loss not as bad as the U.S. setback. The Americans must grow; they must find a spark and gather some confidence. They have five days to do it.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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