SEOUL, South Korea -- They can't finish any lower this time.
Going into the 1998 World Cup, some players on the U.S. soccer team doubted they could advance to the second round for the second straight time. They were right, but they didn't just flop, they finished last in the 32-nation field, whining about their coach and playing terribly.
Four years later, the United States travels to South Korea with a revamped roster that includes 11 World Cup rookies. And make no mistake, this is a brash bunch.
''We have to go in with the attitude we can win it,'' star forward Clint Mathis said. ''If we don't go in with the attitude we can win every game, we've lost. Sure, we might not be the best team in the world, but the best teams don't always win.''
Since returning to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the Americans have gone 1-8-1, including losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia at the 1998 tournament in France. They were outscored 17-6 during their last three World Cup appearances, getting just one goal in their last five games.
The task at this year's tournament is only slightly easier. They play Portugal (June 5), co-host South Korea (June 10) and Poland (June 14), and will probably need at least a win and a tie -- possibly a win and two ties -- to advance. If they get to the second round, their opponent would probably be Italy or Croatia.
In 1994, when the Cup was held in the United States, the Americans advanced from their group and lost to Brazil 1-0 in the second round.
''If we make it through, it would be a great achievement,'' U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. ''That's our goal -- to make it through our group. That's what we talk about in our locker room and our games.''
Winning in the second round to reach the quarterfinals would be the greatest moment for U.S. soccer since the team beat England in the 1950 World Cup. Still, there's little hope the United States will take home soccer's top prize.
''We're not going to win because we're not a good enough team,'' U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. ''I don't think anyone is going to be damaged by us saying that. I mean, how many countries have ever won it? Seven? Come on.''
From the moment Germany's Jens Jeremies whacked Reyna seconds into the first game in 1998, the Americans were outhustled and outplayed in France.
They lost 2-0 to Germany, 2-1 to Iran and 1-0 to Yugoslavia. Some veterans spent much of their time sniping at coach Steve Sampson, complaining about their lack of playing time.
''I don't like to reflect too much on '98. I get ulcers when I think about it,'' said U.S. Soccer Federation president Robert Contiguglia. ''I try not to make predictions. I try to be pretty realistic. Our first goal is to get out of the first round. On the other hand, I think we can play well, and that may not happen because of the quality of the other teams in the group.''
The Americans struggled in both rounds of qualifying for 2002, needing a win at Barbados in the last game of the semifinals to advance. Then, after a 4-0-1 start in the final round, they lost consecutive games to Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica before beating Jamaica in their next-to-last game to clinch.
While they're ranked 13th in the world by FIFA (Portugal is fifth, Poland 38th and South Korea 40th), the Americans are far from a world power. They are 10-4 this year, but 0-4 against European opponents, with losses to Italy, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Still, they're among only nine teams to qualify for each tournament since 1990.
''When it's all said and done, we're still an outsider,'' Reyna said. ''We're still a nation no one is expecting anything from.''
The team is made up of 11 MLS players and 12 based in Europe, and the strength is in goal. Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller both start in England's Premier League.
Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos have been fairly solid in central defense, but Tony Sanneh and David Regis have struggled on the outside in recent months, failing to keep up with quicker opponents.
When defensive midfielder Chris Armas tore a right knee ligament in the May 12 exhibition game against Uruguay, Arena had to change plans. Reyna appears likely to take over that spot, with John O'Brien used at playmaker. Earnie Stewart will be an offensive midfielder behind the forwards, most likely Mathis and Brian McBride.
DaMarcus Beasley, 20 on May 24, put himself in contention for the fourth midfield spot with outstanding moves this month. Arena also could choose 20-year-old Landon Donovan, another of the bright, young stars who provide speed and spark. Cobi Jones, the U.S. record-holder with 155 international appearances, is another option.
Beasley believes he and Donovan bring a different attitude to South Korea than the veterans.
''It is just because we are young. We still play without fear,'' he said.
Also available on defense are World Cup rookies Gregg Berhalter, Steve Cherundolo (who got Armas' roster spot), Carlos Llamosa and Pablo Mastroeni (the only player not to appear in any qualifiers), and veteran Frankie Hejduk. Eddie Lewis is another backup midfielder, and Josh Wolff and Joe-Max Moore are likely backup forwards.
Tony Meola, the No. 3 goalkeeper after starting in 1990 and 1994, is the only player going in who knows he's not likely to play.
With their games starting at 5 a.m., 2:30 a.m and 7:30 a.m., the American team is unlikely to make much of an impact back home unless it comes up with a big win -- such as a victory over Italy.
Since the end of the 1998 World Cup, the national team's television ratings on ABC have ranged from 0.7 to 1.4 (739,000 households to 1.48 million), and its ratings on ESPN and ESPN haven't broken an 0.7 (606,000).
But for the players, this is what they've been looking ahead to for four years.
''There's no bigger stage in any sporting event, not just soccer,'' Mathis said. ''Take the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, multiply it by 10. Then you can get to the World Cup level.''
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