The roar of the crowd at RFK Stadium ignited so quickly and so loudly that it sounded as if the Redskins were back in their old home, and Art Monk was young again and running under a long touchdown pass. You know how the joint could rock. It sounded like that yesterday, although the sport was different. When Kasey Keller, the U.S. national soccer team's goalkeeper, dived left and stopped a penalty kick, and when substitute Joe-Max Moore booted home the game's only goal with time running preciously short, it seemed as if the noise would blow down the walls. The Americans beat Argentina, 1-0. That's Argentina, as in world soccer power.
Keep in mind, amid the jubilation, however, that Argentina's lineup was about 3/11ths of what it was during the 1998 World Cup in France. That Argentine lineup ousted England in the most breathtaking game of the Cup finals before it failed to catch its breath and bowed out in the quarterfinals, against the Netherlands. Midfielder Diego Simeone and defenders Roberto Ayala and Javier Zanetti were the lone holdovers; the tireless Zanetti started several runs that his forwards couldn't finish.
"There were some very obvious missed opportunities," said a frustrated Marcelo Bielsa, Argentina's new coach who finds himself under immediate pressure from a demanding populace. May the hand of God be with him.
Meanwhile, America has its own soccer problems, regaining respectability being foremost after finishing 32nd out of 32 teams in France. U.S. soccer fans gladly will take this victory because it is not devoid of meaning. The message was clear: The United States already is better than it was a year ago in France, and it should continue to improve. The difference is in the coaching.
The last time the U.S. national team appeared in Washington, nothing happened -- an omen since that exhibition with Scotland fell on the eve of last year's World Cup finals. The final score of 0-0 didn't begin to describe the desultory contest. Steve Sampson, who lost his job as coach immediately after leading the Americans to their inglorious dead-last finish in France, offered reassurances after the snoozer against Scotland. But the suspicion already had been planted in the RFK sod that the Americans were headed for a quick round-trip abroad.
Yesterday's friendly was far more festive and, three years removed from the next Cup finals, a source of encouragement for Americans. A "Welcome Home Bruce" sign was strung on the front railing of the stands, hailing the return of Bruce Arena as U.S. coach following his success with D.C. United. Argentine fans arrived in force. A crowd of 40,119 was out to see "the beautiful game," and if it wasn't a masterpiece it was no homely victory either for the United States. Arena wisely did not attach undue significance to the outcome. "We're a year away from being a pretty good national team," he said.
If that's the case, the United States will be on its way to happier times in Japan/South Korea in 2002. The U.S. women's national team is among the world's best and maybe the best -- and will try to maintain its status beginning Saturday, when the Women's World Cup opens at Giants Stadium. Conversely, the U.S. men are trying to catch up with much of the world. Yesterday they were striding in the right direction, and with a very early record of 4-1-2 under Arena, at least are feeling good about themselves.
The Americans yesterday were younger, and played more aggressively and confidently than the team of last year. They kept attacking. True, they lived dangerously by breaking down defensively a couple of times in the second half, but Argentina failed to capitalize. Keller made two outstanding saves in addition to stopping the penalty kick. Arena reiterated that Keller is "a world-class goalkeeper." Midfield newcomers Eddie Lewis and Chris Armas played well, as did Tony Sanneh and Jovan Kirovski, who also didn't make the '98 Cup squad. It was reassuring to see the Americans liberated from the defensive trenches they dug in France.
Even if this was a 0-0 game into the 88th minute, this was not to be confused with the scoreless U.S.-Scotland game of May 1998. In soccer, there can be a world of difference between scoreless games. It's part of the mystery, which the uninitiated will have to take on faith. A 1-0 game can be a barn-burner, like yesterday's, filled with quality chances and acrobatic saves.
"Whoever says 1-0 soccer games are not exciting is mistaken," Arena said.
The United States will be more pressed next month in Mexico at the Confederations Cup. First-round opponents include Brazil and Germany, as well as New Zealand. Arena has many more players to look at, morale to maintain -- the Americans' route to Asia will be much longer even than an ordinary trip there.
But the French proved last year that dramatic improvement is possible, winning the World Cup after missing the finals two straight times. This is not to suggest that the Americans could achieve anything remotely similar by 2002 or any time soon thereafter. The French rebuilt a tradition, the Americans are still building near ground level. But Arena's record suggests that he will bring in enough of the construction on time.
CAPTION: Ernie Stewart (8), Roy Lassiter play follow the leader, who is goal-scorer Joe-Max Moore.