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Counterpunchers always have a chance

Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2002

A few words for friends and foes alike when the U. S. soccer team beats Germany in Friday's quarterfinal:

Relax.

We're not on our way to world domination.

Yet.

Fans of American soccer haven't had a team in a World Cup semifinal since Herbert Hoover was in the White House. During the first Cup in 1930, only 13 teams traveled to Uruguay and a U.S. side with a few former British pros nearly ran the table. There haven't been many highlights since.

So beating Germany qualifies as an upset.

But it won't be a ''Miracle on Grass,'' or whatever phrase Jack Edwards, ESPN's hyperventilating announcer, has planned to mark the occasion. He's already ended one U.S. game with, ''Mine eyes have seen the glory,'' and another with, ''The land of the free and home of the brave is moving on.'' Fortunately, TVs come equipped with volume control, because the chances are good you'll need it at the end of this one.

A few of the Americans play or have played -- most of them sparingly -- in the Bundesliga, Germany's top pro circuit. Another 10 or so play -- again, most of them sparingly -- in top divisions in England, the Netherlands and France. The rest play in Major League Soccer.

U.S. Soccer Federation people have said for years that opportunities like those would close the gap between the Americans and the rest of the world. Finally, they're right.

The U.S. players are smaller than the Germans, but faster. The Germans are more experienced, but not as adventurous. The German goalkeeper has the best reputation; the American goalie has been the hottest. The U.S. players are carrying the future of a sport on their backs. Still, it must feel light compared with the expectations of a whole nation.

Most important: In soccer terms, the Americans have become accomplished counterpunchers, which is good for two reasons: Counterpunchers always have a chance. And, it's a marked improvement over having no punch at all, which was the case when the two nations last met in the 1998 World Cup.

Soon after he took over, U.S. coach Bruce Arena said the national team wouldn't climb to the next plateau until it could dependably finish scoring chances. It's his luck to be in charge -- and our good fortune -- at the moment it finally became possible.

Any team gets lucky enough to scavenge the occasional goal. Finishing is more than that. It's the ability to hit back, to consistently punish teams who attack without taking the proper precautions.

Like every other team game, soccer is about numbers. The more attackers committed to each attack, the better the scoring chances. The flip side is that more men forward means more open space behind them.

Arena's genius, covering his successful stays at Virginia and D.C. United, was assessing his players' strengths and devising lineups and game plans to maximize them. At the World Cup, that has translated into a campaign of counterattacks orchestrated by skilled midfielders John O'Brien and Claudio Reyna, and finished by a corps of fast, opportunistic forwards.

These U.S. players still don't have the collective skill to play keep-away end to end, like the Brazilians. They can't string passes together with speed, the way the Spanish do. They don't have the work rate of the Germans, the athleticism of Senegal, the set-piece skills of the English ... and so on.

But both goals in the 2-0 win over Mexico demonstrated that the Americans have learned to cobble together bits and pieces very well.

Reyna, who's played soccer's version of point guard for clubs in Germany, Scotland and now England, carried the ball up the right side and deftly delivered it to Josh Wolff on the touchline. From there, the 25-year-old MLS product cleverly flicked it back to a wide-open Brian McBride, whose well-placed shot found the back of the net.

O'Brien, who left home at 16 to play with Dutch club Ajax, split Mexico's defense for the second score. He hit winger Eddie Lewis in full stride, and Lewis, in turn, fired a low swerving pass across the goal mouth for Landon Donovan to head home.

Lewis learned how to deliver a cross with perfect pace while trying to get a job in England's Premier League. Early exposure to the international game and an increasingly strong development program taught Donovan to see the play coming together.

But there are limits. Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both 20 and full-time professionals in MLS, are further along than any of their predecessors at this age. But they don't have the size, strength or skill of the top European players.

The next plateau won't be scaled until U.S. soccer siphons off some of this country's best athletes. That day isn't here yet, but it's coming.

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



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