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One thing that American soccer fans tend to do is overestimate
the ability of their national men's team. And heading into last
night's Olympic opener against Argentina, there were great
expectations, as usual. "We're at a point in American soccer
where it's not enough for us to compete and play a good game
with any team in the world," U.S. defender Alexi Lalas said last
week, echoing the sentiments of his country's soccerphiles.
"With the training we're getting and the international
experience we have, we have to start winning games like this."

Says who? Argentina, so deft and quick and skilled, overcame a
stunning U.S. goal 30 seconds into the game and rallied for a
3-1 victory at Legion Field in Birmingham. The boost that
American players hoped would come from a capacity crowd of
83,810 never materialized. For most of the night the crowd
behaved in much the same fashion that Alabama fans do in the
fourth quarter of a blowout of Southwestern Louisiana. Truth is,
the Americans gave their fans little to cheer about. Argentina
could have won by four or five goals, blowing three breakaways
against U.S. goalie Kasey Keller before settling into a
defensive posture for most of the final 30 minutes.

At the outset the U.S. team's biggest offensive threat,
midfielder Claudio Reyna, a New Jersey native of Argentine
descent, celebrated his 23rd birthday in a big way. He broke up
a routine Argentine pass 20 seconds into the game and deflected
the ball to teammate Imad Baba deep in the opponent's end. Then
he left-footed Baba's return pass cleanly past shocked Argentina
goalie Carlos Bossio.

Claudio Lopez tied it for Argentina midway through the first
half, netting a crossing pass cleanly past Keller from five
yards out. And Hernan Crespo made it 2-1 just 11 minutes after
intermission, scoring on a perfect breakaway pass from Fabio

With 15 minutes left, Reyna came within a gloved fingertip of
tying the game. He took a crossing pass from 15 yards out and
again with his left foot rocketed a shot toward the top right
corner of the goal. But Bossio leaped and tipped the ball just
wide. A Diego Simeone garbage goal with three minutes left
sealed it.

"Now," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said afterward, "we've got to be
careful we don't make this game too important." Indeed, the
Americans, who have never advanced past the first round in the
Olympics, will probably need a win and a tie in their remaining
first-round games with Tunisia (Monday in Birmingham) and
Portugal (Wednesday in Washington, D.C.) to reach the second
round. But if the U.S. doesn't come up with more offense in
those games, it'll be another short Olympics for the Americans.

"Physically, we're there," said Keller. "Technically, we're
close. But most of our guys play three months a year. Their guys
have been pros for three or four years, and that's one hell of a
thing to compete with. What we need is an Olympic team with
players who play in a pro league for several years. And that's

Not soon enough for American soccer fans.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVE MARTIN/AP With an early show of hands, Baba (7) and Eddie Pope of the U.S. held Crespo in check. [Eddie Pope, Hernan Crespo, and Imad Baba in game]