After each of the U.S. men's national soccer team's upset victories last year, Coach Bruce Arena acted as if he had just finished a mundane training session. The result was nice, he would say calmly, but didn't mean much in the broad scheme of things.
His top priorities at the time were rebuilding the program after its 1998 World Cup debacle and identifying new players.
But starting today, when the U.S. team opens its 2000 schedule against Iran at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., the emphasis on winning will intensify.
The Americans are turning serious about preparing for 2002 World Cup qualifying play, which begins in September.
In addition, today's match has a distinctive political edge and marks another small step toward a thaw in relations between nations that have not had diplomatic ties since 1979. One of the most memorable moments of the 1998 World Cup in France occurred in Lyon prior to the United States-Iran first-round match, when the players exchanged gifts and posed for pictures together.
"We don't want the game to be seen as political," said Iran defender Mohammad Khakpour, who joined the New York/New Jersey MetroStars last year. "We are here to play games and be representative of the Iranian people."
The Americans, meantime, want redemption for their 2-1 loss to the Iranians in 1998. "We would certainly like to show Iran and the rest of the world how we have improved in the last 18 months," said D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos, who probably will start at left back for the U.S. squad today.
Although the Americans are at home today, Iran figures to have the majority of the support. There are about 600,000 Southern California residents with Iranian lineage, and Iran had plenty of supporters during the first two games of its first U.S. tour--a 2-1 loss to Mexico last weekend in Oakland, Calif., and a 2-1 victory over Ecuador on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Iranian television will broadcast today's game live, starting at 1 a.m. in the Middle East.
But the American players' minds are on the future too.
"The beginning of this year is primarily to get us prepared for [2002 World Cup] qualifying," Agoos said. "There are some very difficult games ahead, but it will be a solid test for where we are. We still need to improve as a team and come together again. . . . It will take some time to get into our stride again, but I believe we are on the right path."
After today's match, the Americans will play at Chile in two weeks. They will meet Haiti, Peru and probably Jamaica or Colombia in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament next month, then Tunisia in March, Russia in April, and Ireland, South Africa and Mexico in the U.S. Cup tournament in June.
Arena tested more than 50 players last year and is gradually whittling that total. He has many of his top players available today and probably will turn to several veterans for the starting lineup.
Agoos and United teammate Carlos Llamosa may join Marcelo Balboa (Colorado Rapids) and right back Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany) on defense, in front of goalkeeper Tony Meola (Kansas City Wizards) or Brad Friedel (Liverpool, England).
United's Ben Olsen, Eddie Lewis (San Jose Earthquakes), Chris Armas (Chicago Fire) and playmaker Claudio Reyna (Glasgow Rangers, Scotland) seem set to start in the midfield. And Brian McBride (Columbus Crew) will be joined at forward by either Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy) or Jovan Kirovski (Borussia Dortmund, Germany).
United also is represented by goalie Tom Presthus, defender Carey Talley and midfielder Richie Williams.
Soccer Notes: Joe-Max Moore, who was excused from this game to remain with his English club, scored in the 90th minute for his first Premier League goal, lifting Everton to a 2-2 tie with Nottingham Forest.