Wings and A Prayer
U.S. midfielders, like many around the world, struggle to learn
the lost art of the cross
Never leave your wingman, Tom Cruise learned in Top Gun. But
what if you're the sport of soccer, and all your wingmen have
left you? Anyone who has grown tired of watching teams spray
crossing passes from outside the penalty box that go over the
touchline or off defenders' legs can tell you: Outside
midfielders--and, more to the point, those who can serve
dangerous crosses--are a dying breed. "It's a lost art," says
U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "A lot of players aren't patient enough
to learn the position because they don't hit a good cross. With
a guy hanging all over you, it can be pretty difficult." It's
instructive to note that while the U.S. scored eight goals in
three games to win last week's U.S. Cup, not one of the scores
resulted from a cross that originated outside the box.
A sign of the times: Though the U.S. has only one 100% pure
winger (Eddie Lewis), the team's flank play is considered one of
its strengths. During the U.S. Cup, in which the Yanks beat
South Africa (4-0) and Mexico (3-0) and tied Ireland (1-1),
Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones turned into a dangerous
combination on the right side, alternating between the interior
forward and wing positions. Lewis, on the other hand, ranges
from the left-side touchline about as often as a monk leaves his
monastery, and his superior crosses show why. "Everybody on the
team knows that Eddie is our best crosser of the ball," says
forward Brian McBride, Lewis's most frequent target. "He has
great touch, and he can drive the ball, with pace, on the run."
One reason for the scarcity of good wingers is the unique set of
skills the position requires: speed and ball control as well as
the ability to deliver accurate crosses. "I've been hitting
crosses my whole life, and the only way I've learned is through
repetition and experience," Lewis says. What's more, Arena
reasons, many teams have stopped using wing players in the
midfield. "Brazil doesn't have any," he says while diagramming
the Brazilians' 4-4-2 alignment. "They play with two central
attacking midfielders and two holding midfielders and let their
outside backs, Roberto Carlos and Cafu, go forward."
What's the difference between a good crosser and a great one?
Consistency and an ability to see the field while under pressure
of the sort Brett Favre faces when he's throwing out of the
pocket, according to U.S. assistant coach Dave Sarachan, who
considers England's David Beckham the best server in the world.
"Anybody can do it when you can take a touch and then look and
serve," Sarachan says. "But Beckham can do it on a dead run, and
he can do it from angles where his body's still facing the end
The perfect cross happens about as often as the perfect storm,
since it requires exactly the right moves at exactly the right
time by server and receiver, all in a split second. For starters,
merely getting free to deliver the cross can be an overwhelming
challenge. When MLS defenders began overplaying Lewis to his left
side two years ago, he spent every day for six months learning
how to cut the ball back on the run and start swinging with his
right foot. "As the cops get smarter, so do the thieves," says
Lewis, 26, who left San Jose this year to join Fulham of the
English First Division.
Once a winger creates some space, either through guile or speed,
he faces an entirely new set of decisions. "There are tons of
variations, whether that means just getting the cross up above
the first defender and then down in front of the box, or laying
it up a little bit, or just whacking it in there," Lewis says. "A
lot of times, I'll hit crosses into places that I know are
dangerous, even if the forwards aren't necessarily there yet.
Their defenders will start closing in on them, and in the process
holes develop. The forwards' first reaction is to get into the
open spot, so you try to hit them there, and if they can make
contact and put the ball in the net, that's a pretty special
Not coincidentally, a pretty rare one these days, too.
Catch the Foreign Stars
WUSA's Master Plan
Part of the appeal of WUSA, the women's pro league that begins
play next April, is the promise that it will showcase the top
players in the world. Now that WUSA has assigned the stars of
last year's World Cup-winning U.S. national squad to its eight
teams, the league will begin negotiating with agents, clubs and
federations to land the 32 best international players. Perhaps
taking a cue from Noah's Ark, WUSA acting commissioner Tony
DiCicco hopes to sign 16 foreign stars this summer and--when
possible--place them in pairs, by nationality, before
September's Olympics. Each team would then select two other
internationals in drafts of domestic and foreign players held in
October and December, which would be followed by a college draft.
The most delicate negotiations will take place with China. When
DiCicco and WUSA consultant Lauren Gregg made up a list of the
25 internationals he wanted most last month, it included four
Chinese players, headed by World Cup '99 MVP Sun Wen. Mindful
that the Red Army still refuses to release basketball player
Wang Zhi-Zhi, a 1999 draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks, DiCicco
plans to meet this month with the head of the women's program
for the Chinese soccer federation. IMG, which represents Sun,
could intervene if the talks bog down.
Other foreign stars on WUSA's radar screen are Germany's Bettina
Wiegmann, Brazil's Sissi and Norway's Hege Riise and Marianne
Pettersen. Surprisingly, flamboyant Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong
was not on the wish list, partly because organizers want to leave
spots open for U.S. keepers.
WUSA isn't likely to have the playing field all to itself,
however. England, which didn't even qualify for the Cup in 1999,
is planning its own women's league, and UEFA, the European
governing body, recently announced it will hold a women's
tournament for the continent's top clubs. "At some level the
federations are going to be protective of their players, but
they also know that this is the next step for the women's game,"
says DiCicco. "Their players now have the opportunity to play
the game they love where women's soccer means more than it does
anywhere else on the planet."
D.C.'s D Gets an F
The Struggles of United
Nobody denies that D.C. United has the best collection of
defenders in MLS, including two players (Jeff Agoos and Carlos
Llamosa) who excelled on the American back line during the U.S.
Cup and another (Eddie Pope) who will rejoin the national team
next month after recovering from surgery on his left knee in
April. So why has United's defense been so horrid this season,
allowing 31 goals through Sunday (tied for second most in MLS)
while the team limped to a league-worst 3-9-3 record?
"It's a fallacy that because you have good defenders, you're
going to allow fewer goals," Agoos says. "It certainly helps, but
you have to defend well as a team, and we haven't done that. A
lot of our goals are coming against set pieces and on freaky
plays like own goals and penalty kicks."
He's right. At week's end D.C. led MLS in own goals (three) and
penalty-kick goals allowed (five), and it had given up a
remarkable 10 goals on set pieces, including all three in a 3-1
loss to the New England Revolution on May 13. Those numbers
suggest a lack of discipline across the board, which will have to
be corrected if United is to challenge for a fourth MLS title in
Last Saturday, D.C. got its first shutout, a 0-0 tie against the
Kansas City Wizards, but that can't exactly be seen as a positive
sign. The game was called at halftime because of a lighting
malfunction at RFK Stadium.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Stewart stormed in against Mexican goalkeeper Sergio Bernal without benefit of a crossing pass.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER WUSA hopes it can persuade China to let Sun shine in the States.