A Very Fine Line
A retooled defense is spearheading the U.S.'s strong run in World
Welcome to the world of big-time soccer, where a scoreless draw
can provide reason to celebrate. When the U.S. team left
Kingston, Jamaica, last Saturday with a 0-0 tie, the Americans
weren't bemoaning their lack of goals. Instead they were taking
pride in their suffocating defense, which has vaulted them to the
top of their regional qualifying group for the 2002 World Cup,
with a 3-0-1 record. The U.S. was to play last-place Trinidad and
Tobago on Wednesday in Foxboro, Mass. A victory would almost
guarantee the team one of the region's three qualifying spots.
The U.S. has emphasized defense for a dozen years. At first this
strategy seemed hopeless and even un-American--a concession that
the U.S. couldn't win at the highest level and was merely trying
to avoid embarrassment. (In a 1-0 loss to Brazil in the second
round of the '94 World Cup, for instance, the Yanks hardly
advanced the ball past midfield.) Now the plan looks brilliant.
The U.S. has built a back line strong enough to frustrate the
opposition, dictate the tempo and allow one of the team's snipers
to win the match. Despite having scored only five goals in its
four games, the U.S. has dominated its six-team group; in fact,
the Americans picked up a point in Jamaica even though two of
their top scorers, Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, were injured and
"We're not blessed with great attacking players," says coach
Bruce Arena, who was hired after the U.S. was outscored 5-1 in
three losses in the 1998 World Cup. "We have to be solid in the
The team's most glaring need when Arena arrived was at right
back. After toying with the notion of playing only three
defenders, Arena believes his back four has been made whole by
the ascension of Steve Cherundolo, 22, who played in only his
fifth national team match last Saturday. "The first time I put
Steve in at right back," Arena says, "it was as if he'd been
playing the position for 15 years."
The 5'6" Cherundolo may be undersized, but he has overcome
greater obstacles. While training in Germany with the under-20
team in the summer of '99, he drew the attention of Hannover 96
and signed with the second-division club that winter. Five days
before he left for Germany his father, Richard, died of cancer.
"My family told me to go because they understood it was the kind
of chance not everybody gets," says Cherundolo, who was raised in
San Diego. "The first six months were hard. Every day I wanted to
come home. But things happen for a reason, and it's your job to
figure out what that reason is."
Cherundolo showed his versatility at Hannover, playing both
flanks in defense and midfield. He was arguably the best player
on the U.S. under-23 team that qualified for the 2000 Olympics,
but he missed the trip to Sydney when he tore his left ACL during
an April 2000 practice. As a result of his hard work during
rehab, Cherundolo is faster now than he was before the injury.
Cherundolo is learning by studying the strengths of his fellow
defenders. Carlos Llamosa is the team's most accomplished man
marker, and Jeff Agoos, who joins Llamosa in central defense, is
the unit's leader. Left back David Regis is the best at going
forward into the attack. Pushing them for playing time is Eddie
Pope, a World Cup '98 starter who is near full strength after
knee and foot injuries over the last two years.
Like a good NFL cornerback, Cherundolo can track the ball without
letting his man sneak behind him to receive a pass. Arena
believes Cherundolo will continue to improve his positioning
while defending against crossing passes into the box, where he is
vulnerable to taller attackers. "In five years he could be our
most complete back," says assistant coach Dave Sarachan.
Cherundolo takes nothing for granted--not even his starting
position for the final six qualifying matches. "I'm not quite
there yet," he says. "I like to put pressure on myself."
WUSA's Great Haul from China
When 7'1" Wang Zhizhi joined the Dallas Mavericks in April and
earned international attention for becoming the first Chinese
player to enter the NBA, Tony DiCicco, chief operations officer
of the WUSA, got an even greater sense of accomplishment. "People
were making a big deal out of one Chinese player coming over,"
says DiCicco, "and we had six of them."
Unlike Wang, many have had an immediate impact. Through Sunday
goalkeeper Gao Hong had four shutouts in 10 games for New York;
San Diego's Fan Yunjie had established herself as possibly the
best defender in the league; and Philadelphia midfielder Liu
Ailing had been named WUSA player of the week twice in a row.
DiCicco is gratified by their success on and off the field. "In
China they made practically no personal decisions because the
team handled almost everything," he says. "Now they have to
decide everything for themselves."
Among the most independent is Sun Wen, whom FIFA named
co-player of the century, with Michelle Akers. At week's end Sun
had started only two games for Atlanta because of knee and ankle
injuries, but she has earned her driver's license. Says DiCicco
with a laugh, "Some players have told me that when she's driving,
they don't want to be on the road."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Though he's only 5'6", Cherundolo (2) has fit right in at right back.