New day dawns for soccer in United States

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- American soccer dawned on the longest day of the year.

Even though they were eliminated from the World Cup on Friday with a 1-0 quarterfinal loss to Germany, the Americans could leave Asia filled with pride, albeit with some frustration.

''It's nice to hear all the praise that we played well and we should have won, could have won, this call, that call,'' coach Bruce Arena said Saturday. ''But the bottom line is we should have won.''

On the day of the summer solstice, when the sun shines longest on the northern hemisphere, the United States shone brightest.

The Americans played their best game of the tournament, dominated the three-time world champions for long stretches, creating five good scoring chances. But the U.S. team couldn't connect and Michael Ballack's goal on a 39th minute header was the difference.

But for perhaps the first time, the skeptics who have spent decades looking down on American soccer, praised the United States, said they were surprised by its good play throughout the tournament.

''It's just a matter of respect,'' Arena said. ''We've earned a little bit more, but not enough. That's fine. We have to keep moving forward and try to get better. The one way you shut everyone up is you win. ... You've got to step on the field and just beat them. Period. Bottom line.''

The Americans, in their best performance in the tournament since 1930, did some winning, increasing the country's total of World Cup victories from four to six. They shocked Portugal 3-2 in their opener and upset Mexico 2-0 in the second round.

Landon Donovan, just 20, had a pair of goals -- he's the youngest player to score in this tournament -- and he could have had a bunch more. DaMarcus Beasley, also 20, was impressive, even though he was slowed by a knee injury.

Clint Mathis, with his Mohawk hairdo, proved he can score, but also, in Arena's eyes, showed he has to dedicate himself to get in better shape. Josh Wolff also impressed.

And all are 25 and under, seemingly putting the United States in great shape when qualifying for the 2006 tournament in Germany starts in two years.

''The next team, whoever coaches it, whether it's me or somebody else, it's a new team for the most part, start from scratch,'' Arena said. ''You can just look at the roster and look at the ages of players. This is a young man's tournament. This isn't for wise old veterans.''

Jeff Agoos, Cobi Jones, Carlos Llamosa, Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore, Eddie Pope, David Regis and Earnie Stewart probably were on the World Cup roster for the final time. Captain Claudio Reyna and goalkeeper Brad Friedel will take some time before deciding whether they want to keep playing on the national team.

''I just want to sit back, reflect on things and enjoy this,'' said Reyna, tired of the repeated travel from Europe to qualifiers in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

And Arena must decide his future, too. His contract expires at the end of the year, and he could return for four more years.

''That possibility exists,'' he said. ''That's a decision that more than one party would need to make.''

USSF officials have said they would wait until after the World Cup to discuss Arena's future, but there's a good chance they'd want him back.

Such a move, however, would be highly unusual in international soccer. Of the 32 coaches at the World Cup this year, none headed the same team at the 1998 tournament in France.

But for now, Arena and the players were wondering: ''What if?''

''We could be in the semifinals here,'' Arena said.

Four years earlier, the United States was eliminated from the 1998 World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Iran and ended up finishing last in the tournament.

The loss to Germany was actually a victory in some ways.

''This kind of game separates you from everybody,'' Arena said. ''To have won that game would have been a huge statement, and we didn't.''

He was ready to leave town. For the first time in nearly four years, his calendar was clear. So what did the coach of the best American soccer team in 72 years have on his agenda?

''My plans are to make this flight at 11 o'clock so I can get home and hit a golf ball,'' he said. ''I haven't golfed for a while.''

Notes: Former German greats Franz Beckenbauer and Juergen Klinsmann, according to Arena, both said the United States should have been awarded a penalty kick early in the second half for an inadvertent hand ball by German defender Tortsen Frings on the goal line. ''It wasn't called and that's life,'' Arena said.

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