Starting at The Top
The U.S. is unbeaten in World Cup qualifying. Why is the
once-struggling team so torrid?
Five points. One win and two draws. After the first three games
of the final round of qualifying for World Cup 2002, U.S. coach
Bruce Arena would have settled for those results. Instead, the
Americans' 1-0 victory over Costa Rica last week in Kansas City
raised their record to 3-0, gave them an astonishing nine points
and--barring a total collapse in their remaining seven
matches--assured them a berth in next year's 32-team field in
Japan and South Korea.
How have the whipping boys of World Cup '98 turned into the
powerhouse of their region? (Sorry about that, Mexico.) Here are
a few reasons:
--MLS is now an undisputed boon to the national team. Back in
'98, Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach at the time, dissed the
league mercilessly, arguing that it lured Americans back from
European leagues where they would develop their skills more
quickly. Three years later MLS stars Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff
are the U.S.'s offensive MVPs, having combined for three goals
and three assists in the three wins. "Our 18-man roster for
Costa Rica had nine MLS guys," says Arena. "Where would those
players be--and would they be the kind of players they are
now--if they'd gone elsewhere?"
--The American talent pool has grown deeper than Foucault. MLS
may be improving the domestic players' skill level, but Arena
has also made sure to provide plenty of international
experience, inviting 80 players to camp since he took over in
November 1998. "In '98 we went 15 or 16 players deep," says
playmaker Claudio Reyna. "Now we go 22 to 23 players deep, and
that's a big difference when you get injuries."
--The back line has more backbone. In its last seven World Cup
qualifiers, the U.S. has shut out its opponents six times and
outscored them 17-1. Veteran defender Jeff Agoos, 33, has done a
masterly job, organizing a D that last week included
French-speaking left back David Regis, a native of Martinique;
Spanish-speaking center back Carlos Llamosa, from Colombia; and
right back Steve Cherundolo, 22, who was playing only his third
game with the national team. Nor does it hurt to have a trio of
goalkeepers with World Cup experience in Kasey Keller, Brad
Friedel and Tony Meola.
--The Yanks have learned to win without their A game, even on
the road. During last year's semifinal qualifying round, the
Americans outplayed Guatemala, only to draw, then suffered a
last-minute loss at Costa Rica. This year, by contrast, they
stole a qualifier at Honduras with Mathis's free-kick goal in
the waning moments. "We're just a lot more professional now,"
says Agoos. "We understand what it takes to get a result."
--The coach is pushing all the right buttons. "A big part of this
is psychological, soothing the players' egos," Arena says, citing
a piece of advice from retired star Jurgen Klinsmann, who told
him Germany's success had been a direct result of its team
spirit. So when Arena benched No. 1 keeper Keller for Friedel
against Honduras in March, he explained his decision at length to
Keller. When he decided not to suit up striker Ante Razov against
Mexico in February, Arena counseled Razov for an hour on the day
of the game. Arena even brought in a sports psychologist to help
midfielder Earnie Stewart overcome his fear of flying.
So smoothly have things been going for the U.S. that Arena felt
compelled to cap the rising geyser of expectations last week.
"We're not going to win the 2002 World Cup," he said, smiling.
"You can put that in your headline." Fine. But it's hard not to
be bullish on American men's soccer these days.
WUSA's Kelly Smith
Proving Herself On a Big Stage
Before the WUSA's launch last month, more than one pundit
(including this one) called the Philadelphia Charge's selection
of English striker Kelly Smith over Brazilian playmaker Sissi
with the No. 2 pick a boneheaded move. After all, Sissi was the
co-leading scorer of World Cup '99, while Smith, 22, had never
even qualified for the NCAA tournament at Seton Hall, much less
for the World Cup during her six years with the English team.
Well, call off the naysayers. With her jackrabbit pace and
one-on-one skill, Smith had already scored one goal and created
another at week's end for the 1-0-1 Charge, becoming the WUSA's
biggest surprise--to some folks, at least. "I was skeptical too,
before I saw Kelly play two years ago," recalls North Carolina
and former U.S. coach Anson Dorrance. "But then I coached her in
a college all-star game, and in the first five minutes of our
first practice I was stunned. This was one of the best players I
had ever seen. Anywhere. I think she has a chance to be MVP of
A native of Watford, Smith grew up idolizing Arsenal striker Ian
Wright while playing for the local boys' team, but when rival
parents discovered that the spiky-haired lad scoring all those
goals was really a lass, they had her removed from the league.
"They didn't want me embarrassing their boys anymore," says
Smith. After she signed with Seton Hall, Smith faced barriers of
another sort: Though she led the NCAA in goals her senior year
(the second time she had accomplished the feat), coaches voted
Smith a third-team All-America.
One coach who did believe in Smith was the Charge's Mark
Krikorian. "She was the best player I saw in my five years of
top-level college soccer," says Krikorian, who coached at
Hartford. "Kelly can take a situation that's not dangerous [to a
defense] and make it dangerous very quickly."
Smith, the WUSA's only Brit, is helping distaff soccer gain
respect in the nation that invented the sport. "We're finally
getting paid for national team games [$220 a day], and they hope
to have a league by 2003," says Smith, who'll miss a few Charge
games next month to play in the European Championship.
In the meantime look for Smith to keep turning heads--and changing
minds--in the WUSA.
U.S. Tribute to Tab Is Overdue
The feel-good story of the young MLS season has been the rebirth
of MetroStars playmaker Tab Ramos, who has recovered from left
ACL operations in 1996 and '97 to become one of the most
dangerous on-the-ball threats in the league. So it's worth
asking: Would Ramos, 34, reconsider his decision of last November
to retire from the U.S. team? "No, my decision is final," Ramos
says. "I still get the urge, but I realize my time is done at the
international level. We have great young players who can take the
team higher than we ever did."
In that case it's time for U.S. Soccer to give Ramos a
testimonial match, the worldwide custom for honoring a nation's
retiring stars. No player has done more to advance American
soccer than Ramos, the finest attacker the U.S. has produced and
one of three Yanks (along with Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda)
to have played in three World Cups. Our idea? Turn the
U.S.-Ecuador friendly in Columbus, Ohio, on June 7 into Tab Ramos
Appreciation Night. While U.S. Soccer wouldn't have to give Ramos
the gate receipts (as tradition dictates elsewhere), it could pay
for Ramos's longtime U.S. teammates to fly in for the occasion.
Last November, U.S. Soccer president Bob Contiguglia promised to
honor Ramos, but Ramos hasn't heard from him since. "It hasn't
been on the front burner with all the World Cup qualifiers and
the federation's budget cuts," says Contiguglia, "but Tab
deserves something, and he'll get it."
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Half the U.S. roster plays in MLS, including Wolff (15), who scored the lone goal against Costa Rica.