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Out Of The Shadows In Confederations Cup, the U.S. showed it's the most improved team in the world


The Guadalajara cab driver would have none of it. "!Estas
bromeando!" he roared while speeding through this Mexican city
last Friday night, his head swiveling toward his passenger in
amazement. You're joking! Strange things happen in soccer, sure,
but now some yanqui was telling him that the U.S. had just used
its B team to beat Germany 2-0, eliminating the three-time world
champions from the Confederations Cup. "You're sure that Germany
didn't win 2-0?" he asked in Spanish, his head still turned, the
cab swerving as wildly as a wayward corner kick.

Si, hombre, just as sure as we are that the U.S. men's soccer
team last week went through the most mesmerizing five days in its
history. Facing three world powers and brutal conditions--hostile
crowds, lung-crushing altitude and only one day's rest between
each game--the U.S. attacked Brazil as it never had before in an
undeserved 1-0 loss and embarrassed Germany with its second
string before it finally succumbed to Mexico, 1-0 in sudden-death
overtime, in the semifinals in Mexico City on Sunday.

The win against Germany was only one of the remarkable
developments for the U.S. last week. There was the fact that the
Americans, missing five starters (including defender Eddie Pope
and midfielders Chris Armas and Claudio Reyna) because of
injuries or club commitments, even reached the semifinals of the
eight-nation tournament. There was U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who
had so much faith in his players that he used all 20 of them.
And there was former captain John Harkes, who wore the national
colors for the first time since being famously thrown off the
team by then coach Steve Sampson shortly before last year's
World Cup.

With a 6-3-1 record in 1999--including wins against Germany
(two), Argentina and Chile--the Americans are the most improved
team in the world this year, a unit that constantly applies
pressure on offense and defense. After beating New Zealand 2-1
in its July 24 Confederation Cup opener, the U.S. outplayed
Brazil, which was missing three of its stars, including Ronaldo,
four days later. But Brazil won on a goal by its newest wonder
child, 19-year-old Ronaldinho, who headed home a splendid cross
off the right post in the 13th minute. Unable to otherwise crack
the American defense, the Brazilians jumped offside 17 times and
didn't take a single corner kick.

The Americans would almost certainly have earned a tie had
midfielder Joe-Max Moore not scuffed a penalty kick that was
easily saved by Brazilian goalkeeper Dida late in the second
half. So impressed was Brazilian coach Wanderley Luxemburgo that
he proclaimed the U.S. tougher than any opponent his team had
faced in winning last month's South American championship. "They
closed down space and pressured us defensively better than any
of those teams," he said.

Such tight marking saps energy, a fact that prompted Arena to
take a leap of faith in his bench against Germany, which also
was without a couple of its top players, including star striker
Oliver Bieroff. Having learned from last year's MLS Cup and this
year's U.S. Cup that his players struggle whenever they don't
get more than two or three days' rest, Arena chose to sit nine
starters, hoping his reserves could get the necessary tie to
eliminate the Germans and thereby keep the first string fresh
for Sunday's semifinal.

The gamble worked. Despite some shaky defense in the opening 15
minutes, the Americans took the lead when midfielder Ben Olsen
scored off a clever interior pass from forward Paul Bravo. Then
early in the second half, Moore redeemed his blown opportunity
against Brazil with a 22-yard free kick that swooped like a
kingfisher into the German goal. The Americans won going away,
establishing beyond a doubt that they possess their deepest
talent pool ever.

Still, several U.S. players conceded afterward that they
initially had been stunned by the boldness of Arena's decision.
"You put in all those new guys, and to think it's going to work
out is crazy," said defender Frankie Hejduk. "Now the coach
looks like a genius."

When Arena took over the U.S. team last November, one of the
biggest misconceptions about him was that he was rebuilding the
roster by using only players in their early 20s. While it's true
that Arena plans to build upon youth--most prominently
midfielders Olsen, 22; Reyna, 26; and Jovan Kirovski, 23--it's
also true that seven of the 20 men Arena took to Mexico were in
their 30s. What's more, Arena has shown a keen eye for older
players who are newcomers to the international level. Bravo, 31,
and defenders Robin Fraser, 32, and Carlos Llamosa, 30, all
contributed heavily last week, even though they entered the
tournament with a mere 23 caps among them.

"We are starting over, but the idea is that we're balanced,"
says Arena, who also took over-30 veterans Harkes, Jeff Agoos,
Marcelo Balboa and Ernie Stewart to Mexico. "You can still play
soccer at 30. What you have to look at is whether the player can
help you win now, next year and the year after."

Of all the U.S. graybeards in Mexico, the most unlikely was
Harkes, 32, the former "captain for life," as Sampson called him
a few years back. Harkes was a late replacement for injured
defender David Regis. Upon phoning his wife, Cindi, after
arriving in San Diego on July 15 for the MLS All-Star Game, John
was shocked to learn of his recall. "Bruce wants to call you
in," Cindi said.

"For the Confederations Cup?" John replied. "That's only two
days away!"

But there was Harkes, after a week of training with the team,
starting against New Zealand and looking like the cocky
midfielder of a decade ago. Against Brazil, he was the best U.S.
player, even directing the offense for spells from his defensive
midfield spot. "He's passing over distances well, which is
something we lack with this group of players," said Arena. "John
believes he's the best player on the field every time he steps
on it. If we can corral those energies in the right manner, he
can help us."

Nobody in soccer knows Harkes better than Arena, who also
coached him at Virginia and with D.C. United. It was Arena who
recommended that Harkes leave the Cavaliers after his junior
year and turn pro, a suggestion for which Harkes says he's
eternally grateful. Arena also wrote the forward for Harkes's
recent autobiography, Captain for Life: And Other Temporary
Assignments, and they speak to each other often. Yet their
relationship is more complicated than it might appear. The
two--both proud and stubborn--occasionally clashed at United.
"We've always been good friends," said Harkes, "but the
challenge was when I came back from Europe [in '96] and had him
as my professional coach. He probably still looked at me as this
punk from Virginia."

Says Arena, "Away from soccer, John is one of the nicest people
you'll ever meet. But our player-coach relationship has been on
and off. A lot of times there have been arguments about where he
plays, what his role is."

While Arena warned there's no guarantee Harkes will be recalled
again, that didn't keep him from playing Harkes for all 97
minutes against Mexico. In a taut if not entirely entertaining
game, the U.S. maintained a scoreless tie until Mexico's
Cuahtemoc Blanco scored on a scramble in front of the Americans'
net. "It's disappointing, because we really thought we were
going to be in the final," Harkes said, "but we showed that we
have a lot of depth on this team. We've done a good job of
erasing all the bad memories of 1998."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Accustomed to altitude as a Colorado Rapids player, Matt McKeon soared in Mexico City.

"John Harkes believes he's the best player on the field every
time he steps on it," says Arena.