SEOUL, South Korea -- The United States has been aching for four years to show the world it's no longer a last-place team. Now, on the eve of its World Cup opener, the United States is just plain aching.
Captain Claudio Reyna has a strained right quadriceps and star attacker Clint Mathis has inflammation in his left knee going into Wednesday's game against Portugal (1 a.m. ADT, ESPN2) in the Seoul suburb of Suwon. Reyna is unsure either of them will play.
''We will see how he feels today and tomorrow,'' coach Bruce Arena said Tuesday of Reyna. ''Whether you realize it or not, there are a lot of players in this tournament who are not 100 percent. I think he'll be able to make the adjustments that are necessary.
''If Claudio is on the field, we really believe he is going to help us win.''
Arena played down the severity of Mathis' pain, saying he was told Mathis could play. But he didn't exactly give Mathis a ringing endorsement Tuesday before the team worked out at Suwon Stadium.
''Clint's worked very hard with us the last 30 days,'' Arena said. ''He's going to position himself to help us at some point.''
Reyna's leg appeared more troubling. The midfielder missed the 1994 World Cup because a pulled right hamstring and has a history of health woes.
''We have been so used to injuries that we have rarely played with our whole starting group over the last few years,'' Arena said. ''One thing about this team is that we are always prepared to make adjustments.''
Even with everyone healthy, the United States would have a tough task against Portugal, ranked fifth in the world and led by stars it has dubbed the ''Golden Generation.''
In their final preparations for the World Cup, the Americans also lost Chris Armas, their best defensive midfielder. If Mathis can't start, the United States could wind up opening with its two youngest players, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, both 20.
Arena won't disclose his starting lineup, and players said they didn't know, including goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. Arena has rated them even, and following knee and elbow injuries to Keller in the past three weeks, Friedel appeared to be the favorite to get the start against Portugal.
The defense likely will have Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope in the center, with Tony Sanneh and either Frankie Hejduk or David Regis on the outside. John O'Brien and Earnie Stewart and probably Beasley will be in the midfield, with the other spot uncertain if Reyna can't play. Brian McBride is likely to start up front with Mathis or Donovan.
Reyna was hurt last week in one of the first practices after the Americans arrived in South Korea, but the severity of the injury wasn't clear. He resumed training on Saturday, but the leg still hurts when he shoots or makes long passes.
When he played in the qualifying rounds, the Americans were 6-1-2. When he was sidelined by injuries or suspension, the U.S. team was 2-3-2.
''I'm upset. I'd rather not be injured. I'd rather do everything 100 percent,'' Reyna said.
Arena said Sunday that Mathis had been slow to recover from tearing his right ACL last June 5. But the knee that is hurting now is his left, operated on after Mathis tore that ACL during an NCAA tournament game for South Carolina against Coastal Carolina on Nov. 19, 1995.
''He practiced briefly today. We took a precautionary MRI and found nothing,'' Arena said.
So, on the verge of their biggest game in four years, the Americans' lineup seemed just as uncertain as it did in France, where five starters were changed between the opening 2-0 loss to Germany and the 2-1 loss to Iran that eliminated the United States.
Back then, players blamed coach Steve Sampson, who quit four days after the U.S. team finished play. Arena, hired in October 1998, has the respect of the players, who are more self-confident.
Still, there is a danger in going with young players who never have been in a World Cup before. Since returning to the tournament in 1990 following a 40-year absence, the Americans are 1-8-1, and they've scored one goal in losing five straight since a 2-1 upset of Colombia at the Rose Bowl in 1994.
''Once you step on the field at the World Cup, it's even more nerve-racking,'' midfielder Earnie Stewart said. ''You're not live for ESPN or ESPN2, you're live for the whole world.''
Portugal is back in the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, led by players who helped it win the 1989 and 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship and advance to the semifinals of the 2000 European Championship.
Midfielder Luis Figo, who helped Real Madrid win the European Champions Cup, is the reigning FIFA player of the year. Forward Pauleta led the French League in scoring with 22 goals for Bordeaux, and is joined by such stars as midfielders Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Sergio Conceicao, and defenders Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa.
''This tournament is hugely important for the players of my generation,'' Pinto said. ''It's the competition we've missed out on. We don't want to waste our chance.''
U.S. coaches talk about how Portuguese players constantly switch positions during a game. Picking up loose attackers during transition has been a problem for the American defense.
Portugal's offense, which produced a 7-0-3 record in qualifying and a 33-7 goal difference, has created great expectations back home.
''If we beat the United States, our way is open for a long run,'' said Eusebio, Portugal's most famous retired player and regarded as among the greatest in the world.
The Portuguese will be without injured defender Abel Xavier and also might miss midfielder Paulo Sousa, who hurt his right thigh in the last warmup game. They say they are being cautious.
''The Americans have a very compact team,'' Rui Costa said. ''They're strong as a group and are physically powerful.''
To win, or even get a tie, the Americans have little margin for error. At least they head in much happier as a group. Reyna remembered that 1998 ''before we kicked our first ball was already a mess.'' This time, the United States thinks it can advance.
''We still have to do it on the field, though,'' Reyna said. ''That is what we're going to be judged on.''
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