For almost 88 minutes, the U.S. men's national soccer team was even with a watered-down but dangerous Argentina squad yesterday at RFK Stadium. Then, with one touch of the ball off Ernie Stewart's right heel and a mighty swing of reserve Joe-Max Moore's left leg, the Americans continued their rise under Coach Bruce Arena with a 1-0 victory before 40,119 spectators.
It wasn't the World Cup or any other prestigious international tournament. It was just a friendly match between a global power and an often puzzling U.S. team in search of atonement following last year's World Cup flop in France. But on Moore's 18-yard blast past goalkeeper German Burgos with just a few minutes remaining, the Americans rattled the soccer establishment for the second time since Arena's arrival from D.C. United last fall.
"All it means is we're rebuilding our program," said Arena, whose team shocked Germany, 3-0, in Jacksonville, Fla., in February. "Obviously we competed with a very good team, a great team. Anyone who wears the jersey of Argentina is a great player. They have great tradition and fight, and for us, that's a good win.
"Does it say we're back in the right direction? Yes, but it doesn't say a whole lot more than that. We're not going to blow this thing out of proportion."
But the U.S. team (4-1-2 under Arena) had plenty of reasons to celebrate yesterday. With both teams running out of energy and ideas, Stewart ran onto a free ball at the top of the penalty area and used a right heel pass to set up Moore.
Moore, who entered in the 60th minute for injured midfielder Eddie Lewis, blasted a shot on the run into the left side of the net. Stewart's pass "was right in my stride and I just struck it hard," said Moore, who plays for the New England Revolution.
Said Stewart: "I saw Joe-Max and then I heard Joe-Max. I turned around and the ball was flying into the net."
The victory wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who in his first U.S. appearance since the World Cup stopped a penalty kick late in the first half and made two fabulous saves in the second. Keller, who has played nine seasons in the English league but is currently a free agent, brought back memories of his remarkable performance during a 1-0 upset of Brazil in February 1998.
In the 40th minute, after U.S. defender C.J. Brown upended charging forward Gustavo Lopez just inside the box, Keller stopped Lopez's penalty kick with a short dive to his left.
"I was trying to keep [Lopez] guessing what direction I was going to go," he said. "I got a hand on it and didn't let it get behind me. I'm sure he wanted to put it somewhere else."
Argentina Coach Marcelo Bielsa lamented his team's failure to score. "There were some very obvious missed opportunities," he said. But "the United States is a very good team and they are very skilled."
In the first half, Argentina tormented the U.S. defense -- and particularly former D.C. United midfielder Tony Sanneh -- with spirited left-side runs by World Cup veteran Javier Zanetti. Zanetti had a golden chance in the 38th minute, but after forcing Keller to commit, he chipped the ball over a vacant net.
"It was a long day of chasing" Zanetti, Sanneh said.
But Sanneh got a break in the 60th minute when he shifted to the other side of the field when Moore entered. Three minutes later, Sanneh's header off playmaker Claudio Reyna's free kick floated over Burgos but hit the junction where the crossbar meets the right post.
Keller then made two splendid saves in about four minutes, pushing wide Hugo Ibarra's angled bid and getting his hands on reserve Christian Gonzalez's rising shot. United forward Roy Lassiter, Major League Soccer's leading scorer, entered for Cobi Jones in the 77th minute and played a part in the scoring sequence by pressuring Argentina's defense.
"It's a great win as far as our soccer history is concerned," U.S. and United defender Jeff Agoos said. "But in reality, it was just a friendly. The challenge now is to replicate this performance and continue to build for the future. But we're definitely going to enjoy this one."
Notes: The U.S. team will reconvene July 11 in the Denver area to prepare for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Mexico, July 24-Aug. 3. It will play an exhibition against English Premier League club Derby County July 13 at Mile High Stadium before heading to Guadalajara, Mexico, to play New Zealand, Brazil and Germany. . . . Argentina is headed for the Copa America in Paraguay, June 29-July 18. . . .
The U.S. Soccer Federation is close to a deal to play Argentina in Buenos Aires in January, USSF Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher said. The U.S. team also is hoping to play at Chile and home against Iran early next year.
CAPTION: Ernie Stewart is pulled down by Argentina's Mauricio Ponchettino as Jovan Kirovski, left, arrives. Stewart set up match-winner with a few minutes left, before 40,119 at RFK Stadium.
CAPTION: Jeff Agoos, a defender for D.C. United, celebrates at RFK Stadium after United States scores in game's 88th minute.
CAPTION: Argentine's Julio Cruz is restricted by Robin Fraser, right, as Diego Simeone (5) watches in second half of U.S. victory.