For the U.S. men's soccer team, the Confederations Cup tournament, which begins in Mexico on Saturday, is more than its first major international competition under a new coach. It is a hoped-for exorcism of demons left over from its dismal 1998 World Cup performance.
The new squad -- much younger and more inexperienced than last year's World Cup team -- is off to a surprisingly strong start under Coach Bruce Arena, who in the past 10 years led D.C. United to two Major League Soccer championships and the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles. Arena was named the U.S. coach last October, and so far this year he has built a 4-1-1 record, beating powerhouses Germany and Argentina and outscoring opponents by a combined 10-4. He also seems to have the respect of his players.
That is in stark contrast to last summer's World Cup fiasco in France, when the U.S. team lost its three first-round games, scored only once and ended up ranked last among the 32 qualifying teams. The debacle was marked by nasty sniping between coach Steve Sampson and some of his players, many of whom criticized his leadership. He resigned after the U.S. team's elimination.
"I think in the aftermath of the World Cup, the team would say they were embarrassed personally by some of their antics, and they were embarrassed by the results," Arena said in an interview here.
"Our goal now is to have a good team ready by October 2000," when qualifying matches begin for the 2002 World Cup, he said. "My goal is to make progress. We don't have to make great strides, but we need to play as a team, and we need to have a good style and a good way of conducting ourselves on and off the field."
"We have something to prove to ourselves and to the soccer community, because we were called the worst team in the World Cup, and it really tarnished our image," said Jeff Agoos, a defender for D.C. United who was a member of the '98 World Cup team and is a likely starter against New Zealand on Saturday. "But the team now is much different, from the coach to the management to the infusion of new players. There is a fresh new attitude. You're going to see a more aggressive team."
The Confederations Cup -- a tournament between the leading teams in the world's six regional soccer federations -- is the first major international test of Arena's U.S. team. After New Zealand, the U.S. team faces Brazil on Wednesday and Germany on July 30. All of those games are to be played here.
The top two teams from the group advance to play the top two teams from a second group that comprises Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bolivia. The final is scheduled for Aug. 4 at Mexico City's 115,000-seat Azteca Stadium.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for us to compete against some of the best teams in the world and show if we've made progress," Arena said. "We should expect to beat New Zealand, but we want to see if we can step onto the field and play even with these other teams. . . . We can't depend on being lucky. When our opponents walk off the field after 90 minutes, I want them to say, `They are a hard team to play against.' "
The U.S. team practiced for five days in Denver to prepare for Guadalajara's altitude of 5,000 feet, and it arrived here Sunday for six days of practice before the start of the tournament. In friendly games not part of its record, it beat English Premier League club Derby County, 2-1, in Denver and topped Egypt, 4-3, Tuesday here.
Before taking over the men's team last year, Arena, 47, coached Virginia for 18 seasons and United for three. In addition, he coached the 1996 U.S. Olympic men's soccer team. But this tournament is his first major international competition as a national team coach.
He said that with the national team, he is focusing on building a strong defense, quicker ballhandling and better transition between offense and defense. Arena is known for recognizing and developing young talent, but he said one handicap the team faces is young members who do not have a lot of international playing experience. Eleven of the 20 players he brought to Guadalajara were not on the 1998 World Cup team.
Kasey Keller, the top goalie on last year's World Cup squad and a probable starter Saturday, said youth and inexperience cut both ways.
"Many of the guys before had been with the team for 10 years, but a lot of these guys now are fresh, and that gives you more drive and ambition to do well when you are brand-new," he said after a recent practice. "It will be a difficult tournament with our draw -- we know that. We just want to go out and advance and try to grow and get some experience."
"A lot of us think of this as a new beginning. We are at ground zero, and now we are working to become a power in world soccer," said midfielder Ben Olsen, one of four D.C. United players Arena selected for the Confederations Cup team. The others are Agoos, defender Carlos Llamosa and midfielder Richie Williams.
"The chemistry [between coach and players] is crucial to a team's success, and a lot depends on attitude," Olsen said. "These guys are hungry, and [Arena] makes sure they're hungry. . . . He keeps people working as hard as they can."
Agoos, who like Olsen played for Arena with United and at U-Va., said: "Bruce's style will sit well with the national team players because Bruce doesn't micromanage everything. He allows you to play your own style and game, and he tells us to fix things ourselves on the field. He's definitely a players' coach, and people want to win for him."
At the same time, Agoos said, Arena is injecting the team with a new sense of confidence, without being cocky. Previous teams were perhaps too deferential to world soccer powers, he said.
"There definitely needed to be a change in leadership in U.S. soccer," Agoos said. "We definitely need to stop thinking of ourselves as good enough to play with a lot of teams. We need to be competitive and think we can beat the other teams in the world."
Confederations Cup Schedule
Brazil vs. Germany, 1 p.m.
New Zealand vs. U.S., 3:30 p.m.
Bolivia vs. Egypt, 1 p.m.
Mexico vs. Saudi Arabia, 3:30 p.m.
Saudi Arabia vs. Bolivia, 7 p.m.
Mex. vs. Egypt, 9:30 p.m.
Germany vs. New Zealand, 7 p.m.
Brazil vs. U.S., 9:30 p.m.
Egypt vs. S. Arabia, 7 p.m.
Bolivia vs. Mex., 9:30 p.m.
U.S. vs. Germany, 7 p.m.
New Zealand vs. Brazil, 9:30 p.m.
Winner A vs. Runner-up B, 1 p.m. (1)
Winner B vs. Runner-up A, 4 p.m. (2)
Loser 1 vs. Loser 2,
Winner 1 vs. Winner 2, 10 p.m.