Denied redemption for its loss to Iran in the 1998 World Cup, the U.S. men's national soccer team avoided another debacle today, thanks to a player it was not certain it would be allowed to use less than two years ago.
Chris Armas's goal early in the second half salvaged a 1-1 tie in the exhibition, the highest-profile sporting event between the United States and Iran on American soil since relations between them soured with the 1979 seizure of hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran. Iran's wrestling team competed in the United States in 1998.
The match was played before an overwhelmingly pro-Iranian crowd of 50,181 at the Rose Bowl. It ended with players shaking hands and exchanging jerseys and the Iranian team receiving a thunderous ovation as it jogged around the field.
The Iranian supporters, from the estimated 600,000 individuals of Iranian descent living in Southern California, spent much of the match blowing horns, waving green, white and red Iranian flags and chanting, "Iran! Iran!"
"They made the game," U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk said. "Without the Iranian fans, how many people would have shown up? Whenever you have thousands of Iranians, Brazilians, Guatemalans or whatever show up, it makes for a great atmosphere."
However, Coach Bruce Arena was upset by the lack of support for the U.S. team.
"I think it's about time people started getting behind our national team," Arena said.
Following the match, an official of Iran's soccer federation visited the U.S. locker room, presented the team with a commemorative plate and invited it to play in Tehran.
"What do we need to play in Tehran for? I thought we were in Tehran today," U.S. midfielder Eddie Lewis joked afterward.
When asked about the potential for a rematch in Tehran, Iranian Coach Mansour Pourhaidari also opted for humor.
"Obviously, I can't say yes or no, as I am just the coach, but as the old saying goes, we would like to because then we can beat them better next time," Pourhaidari jokingly said through an interpreter.
The was the first time the U.S. team had faced Iran since its 2-1 upset victory in the 1998 World Cup ended the Americans' hopes of advancing to the second round. Each team started four players from that game in the rematch.
The American quartet was Hejduk, midfielder Claudio Reyna and forwards Cobi Jones and Brian McBride. The starting lineup also included three players who played for Arena during his three seasons as D.C. United coach--midfielder Tony Sanneh and defenders Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa. A fourth United player, midfielder Ben Olsen, entered the match as a substitute in the 62nd minute.
But it was Armas who ended up playing the most vital role of any U.S. player. On a sequence that began with Hejduk's long pass down the right flank to Jones, Armas took Jones's cross and put a shot from 10 yards out into the upper left corner of the net in the 48th minute. It was his first goal in nine matches with the U.S. team.
"I'm not a goal scorer, but I was able to get that one on target and take advantage of the chance," Armas said. "Frankie and Cobi were able to work the ball in and get it across and I called Eddie Lewis off the ball to leave it for me, which he did, and it went in."
A midfielder for Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, Armas was among eight of the 26 players on today's U.S. roster who joined the national team after Arena became coach in October 1998. Before making his U.S. national team debut on Nov. 6, 1998, in Arena's first match as coach, he needed to be cleared for play by CONCACAF (now the Football Confederation), soccer's regional governing body.
Armas had made five appearances with Puerto Rico's national team. Ordinarily that would bar him from playing for the United States under the regulation by FIFA, soccer's worldwide governing body, limiting a player to playing for one nation during his or her life. Armas was ruled eligible to play for the U.S. squad after it was learned the matches he played for Puerto Rico were exhibitions and not in any regional tournament or World Cup qualifying.
Mehdi Mahdavikia scored Iran's goal in the seventh minute.