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'In the end, it comes down to what we do'

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

Right around the time of the World Cup, Americans emerge from a four-year slumber and want to know why their team is still not a soccer power.

United States 3, Portugal 2 will make the question a little tougher to answer.

The players, coaches and officials involved in U.S. Soccer were flattered by the attention from a nation awakening back home Wednesday morning to one of the most stunning upsets in World Cup history. But they are tired of covering the same ground.

They wish their countrymen were paying attention in the meantime, when it's easier to chart the incremental progress, instead of looking in only during final exams. They wish they had a tradition to refer to, a shared past to celebrate, instead of always having to build a new one.

''You never want to make too much of one win and we still have two more games to play in this round,'' Robert Contiguglia, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, said during a late-night phone call Wednesday from a hotel in Seoul, South Korea.

''But we knew we had a good team, good enough to play with anybody. And so the wonderful thing about this,'' he added, ''is that we've proved it now to everybody else.''

Even though it's tempting, the fate of soccer in America should not be linked to the fate of the U.S. soccer team in this World Cup. Success or failure in a handful of matches won't change the fundamental attitudes about soccer in America. At least not anytime soon.

The U.S. team got waxed four years ago -- finishing last among the 32 teams that reached the finals -- and barely anybody noticed. The team could pull off a ''Miracle on Grass'' this time, advance further through the draw than even its biggest boosters dare dream, and draw only a slightly larger audience.

Kids in some cities and most suburbs will continue playing the game in ever-increasing numbers. Their parents still won't watch it on TV. Yet another plan to close the gap on the rest of the world will be proposed, but the debate won't be loud or last very long after the last ball has been kicked at this World Cup.

That's both a blessing and a curse. It's bought the U.S. effort time -- to benefit from the development of a league of our own, to benefit from the opportunities abroad afforded a few Americans playing in the top European leagues, time to scout, nurture and forge emerging talent into a cohesive unit.

But that lack of urgency is why U.S. coach Bruce Arena sounds conflicted much of the time. He is astute enough to know the impressive strides the U.S. program has made in the past dozen years. But he also knows better than anybody else how much further there is to go.

That's why one minute, Arena will complain about a lack of support, ''The magnitude of this event is not understood by the American public.'' Then, quickly, he will catch himself and add, ''If I say anything, it sounds like sour grapes.''

Arena understands what few of his countrymen do. This team is better -- better prepared, better coached, tougher, faster, more skillful, experienced and committed -- than any team the United States has fielded. But it will still need luck to enlarge the small dent it just registered in America's sporting consciousness.

Being a heavy underdog against Portugal was one thing. Catching a South Korean team on the rebound from an emotional first win over Poland and stoked by a chanting, flag-waving hometown crowd is going to be another.

The Americans arrived at the finals without a win in their last five World Cup games and know from their own experience in 1994 that no host team has failed to reach the second round. And now Poland, already embarrassed once by the South Koreans, will be in no mood to have it happen again.

None of this is wasted on Arena. He knows the folks back home won't be interested in the subtleties of how this team can adapt in ways that the 1994 team could not, how it has been hampered by injuries that the 1998 team escaped.

He lost Chris Armas, the defensive midfielder who was his one world-class player, to knee surgery just before the start of the tournament. Clint Mathis, his best scorer, and Claudio Reyna, his best passer, will probably be fighting nagging injuries for as long as the United States hangs around.

Neither made an appearance against Portugal. Arena covered their absence by trotting out Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, a pair of 20-year-old stars from Major League Soccer, and burning his more experienced and more skilled rival with speed. But that trick will only work once.

''Would we like to have Chris Armas here?'' Arena said. ''Yes. Not going to happen.''

He then listed all the stars missing from the all the other world-class contenders.

''It's not just the U.S. team,'' Arena concluded.

No, but it's the fans of the U.S. team who will look in on the tournament now and not know who was missing. They will only want to know whether their team will be around at the end.

It may not be fair, but for now, that's the way it's going to be.

Jim Litke is the national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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