Sven Serrano gets excited about his team's Korea opportunity.
As a supporter of the U.S.A World Cup Soccer team with a card (member #0746 of Sam's Army) and a tattoo (upper right shoulder) to prove it, I am not claiming that we will wipe the floor and take home the cup in Korea/Japan 2002. However, I will predict that our much-improved team will surprise our opponents in Group D and qualify for the second round. Three reasons: Coach Bruce Arena, the MLS, and our players on European club teams.
In France '98 coach Steve Sampson over-managed by tinkering with the line-up, alienating veteran players and demoralizing the team to the point where they flopped on the field and finished 32 out of 32.
Enter Bruce Arena, a Brooklyn native, and coach of MLS club (Washington) D.C. United. Since taking over Arena has led the Americans to an impressive winning record in international friendly, tournament, and WC qualifying play, culminating this February with a 2-0 victory of Costa Rica in the Final of the Gold Cup, the North and Central American regional championship.
He's shown great skill in building a team by giving rising junior players a chance to play and shuffling his veterans to fill-in the gaps in defense and offense. He's given the Americans the needed confidence to be world-beaters. It means a lot when a rising soccer country can find a coach from within their own country, instead of bringing in foreign experts. Ask Japan. Or England, for that matter.
Another boost for the Americans has been the existence of their own professional league, the MLS (Major League Soccer). Like the J-League in Japan it has helped the game the immeasurably by giving young pros a chance to play in their home country before respectable crowds of 15,000-20,000. While play is probably on par with the English First Division, it is slowly improving as the league steadily gains exposure and sponsors. Soccer-only stadiums have been constructed for the first time in the States for MLS teams and fans have become wiser about the game. The MLS Project 40 youth program allows promising high schoolers to defer their college education and be drafted straight into MLS club teams, like in Europe and South America. Graduates of the program include DaMarcus Beasley (MF) and Josh Wolff (F), who knocked home the winning goal in a key WC qualifying victory over Mexico last year.
Currently over 16 American players are on European top and second tier club teams. Notables among these are our three world-class' players: goalkeeper Casey Keller (Tottenham Hotspur), midfielder Carlos Reyna (Sunderland) and goalkeeper Brad Friedel (Blackburn). On Feb.24 both American goalkeepers were on the field when Tottenham faced Blackburn in the final of the Worthington Cup with Friedel coming up the winner as Blackburn triumphed 2-1. "There's not a goalkeeper in the Premier League I would swap him for." said Blackburn manager Graeme Souness after the match. "He makes telling saves at crucial times." Other national team regulars and hopefuls playing on the continent include David Regis (Metz), Greg Vanney (Bastia), Joe Max Moore (Everton), Earnie Steward (NAC Breda), Jovan Kirovski (Crystal Palace) and John O'Brien (Ajax). Together with the MLS players they give coach Arena a widening pool of talent to choose from, making his job of picking a line up just a bit easier.
Realistically, the Americans are short a world class forward with finishing skills. Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, and Josh Wolff have all shown flashes of brilliance but not much consistency. Also, when the U.S. plays without Claudio Reyna their midfield play falls apart and passes miss their mark. Veteran Jeff Agoos shepherds an effective defense but lapses occur, leaving only Keller or Friedel to save the day. The pressure of the whole world watching will be telling when the Yanks put on their boots to play Figo's Portugal, then the hometown favorites South Korea. The game against Poland should be winnable, so my prediction is for a 1W-1L-1D record in the first round seeing us through to the second round.
As for myself, I enjoy watching the U.S. team precisely because they are part of the one world sport that the Americans do not dominate. Soccer is a game that the majority of American sports enthusiasts will never understand because it is a game of denial. Soccer does not produce an avalanche of points, statistics and money (for the professional player in America, that is). It is a middle and upper class game, shunned by our talented and glory hunting inner-city kids. If the Yanks actually won the World Cup, it probably would not produce the massive national outpouring of joy and nationalism we see when other countries like Brazil and Italy hoist the trophy. (But I can dream, can't I?)
I take my lead from the fans of the Scotland squad, who sadly did not qualify this year. Standing in a mass of celebrating kilt-wearing Tartan Army' supporters joyously partying in a square in St Etienne, France, before their final 1 first round match against Morocco in June 1998, I leaned over and asked a Scottish youngster (he was maybe 7) if Scotland was going to win. "No we're going to lose," he said, "we're supposed to." They did, 3-0, but the party kept going. Thus, after the USA punted their last match to Yugoslavia 1-0 in Nantes a great bunch of Sam's Army supporters and I joyously drank the club car dry on the last express train back to Paris. Go USA!
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