In qualifying for the World Cup, U.S. coach Bruce Arena pushed
all the right buttons
So remote were the U.S.'s chances of clinching a fourth straight
World Cup berth that when it actually happened on Sunday, team
officials had to hunt down four bottles of champagne in a
catering supply room at Foxboro Stadium to celebrate. "We
couldn't believe it," said defender Jeff Agoos after the Yanks'
2-1 victory over Jamaica, combined with a tie by Mexico and an
upset loss by Honduras, earned the U.S. a spot in Japan and South
Korea next June. "Nobody in our locker room thought we were going
to qualify today."
Staggered by three consecutive losses, coach Bruce Arena
challenged his players before the match by reading an inscription
from the plaque he had received as a 50th birthday present from a
friend: "What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?"
Duly emboldened, the Americans played without fear, riding the
unique playmaking skills of captain Claudio Reyna, who returned
after missing three games because of injury and suspension. "He's
phenomenal," says striker Landon Donovan. "It takes pressure off
people when he holds the ball. He does a lot of the work [so]
that we don't have to."
Adds Arena, "When you add Claudio to the mix, you can get players
forward and create chances. We sorely missed that."
In qualifying, Arena displayed an uncanny talent for player
management, massaging bruised egos with a masterly touch. Within
an hour of the U.S.'s 2-0 loss at Costa Rica last month, Arena
held a heart-to-heart in the bar of the team hotel with forward
Joe-Max Moore, who had been unhappy coming off the bench in the
last two matches. "I told him that he had been productive in
those games," Arena recalls, "and that he should be ready to
start in Foxboro." Sure enough, Moore was in the lineup on Sunday
and scored both goals--on a diving header early in the first half
to put the U.S. ahead, and on a penalty kick in the 81st minute
to break the tie.
In June, Arena defused the biggest personnel crisis of his
three-year tenure with a dose of welcome patience. According to
two players, at the end of the bus ride to the hotel following
the Americans' 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, goalkeeper Brad
Friedel, disgruntled at backing up Kasey Keller, announced to his
teammates that he would no longer play for the U.S. After meeting
with Arena, however, Friedel left for Bora-Bora on his honeymoon
and soon decided to rejoin the team. Because Keller is riding the
bench for the English club Tottenham Hotspur while Friedel starts
for Blackburn Rovers, Arena has used Friedel in the last two
games, and he's played solidly.
The challenge now is for the U.S. team to rebuild in the coming
months as a host of attackers--Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Ben
Olsen and Josh Wolff--return from long-term injuries to the active
roster. "We told the players that if we could get through this
stretch when we're not at our best, we'll bring some players back
and get better over the next six months," Arena says.
There's certainly room to improve on the U.S.'s last-place finish
at the World Cup in France. "Our goal is to play better and to
get better results than we did in '98," Arena says. "But you
never know what the draw will bring. We could open with France,
and Brazil could be a Number 2 seed in the same group."
On a memorable afternoon in New England, Arena could afford to
leave those worries for another day--and maybe even enjoy a swig
or two of victory champagne.
Miami's Scoring Sensation
MVP in MLS, but Left Out at Home
It's a bittersweet time for first-year Fusion midfielder Alex
Pineda Chacon. Sure, Chacon has been the revelation of MLS this
season, earning SI's MVP vote by scoring a league-leading 19
goals. So why on Sunday did Chacon, one of Honduras's best
players, have to watch on television from Miami while his country
played its most important World Cup qualifier in 20 years?
"Good question," Chacon said last week, laughing ruefully, before
Honduras suffered a shocking 1-0 home loss to Trinidad and
Tobago, jeopardizing its chances of reaching the World Cup for
the first time since 1982. (Honduras must win at Mexico on Nov.
11 to qualify.) Chacon, 31, hasn't played for Honduras since last
year because of a simmering feud with coach Ramon Maradiaga. For
months Maradiaga refused to include Chacon on the roster, never
giving a reason, and on June 30 the two men stood 10 feet apart
at an MLS-Honduran doubleheader in the Orange Bowl without saying
a word to each other. A week later Maradiaga tried to call up
Chacon when Honduras needed players for the Copa America, but
Chacon refused, citing his commitment to Miami.
"It's difficult," says Chacon. "I am a patriot, and it has always
been a dream of mine to play in the World Cup. I will always
support Honduras, whether Maradiaga is the coach or not, but I
can't play for him right now."
Fortunately for Chacon there's no confusion when he's con Fusion.
While MLS has several strong MVP candidates, from Fire midfielder
Peter Nowak to Miami forward Diego Serna and midfielder Preki,
Chacon has earned SI's nod with his remarkable consistency.
"Goal-scoring is the be-all and end-all," says Fusion coach Ray
Hudson. "We play beautiful possession soccer, but if it weren't
for Alex's being so clinical up front, it would be like sex
without the orgasm, you know?"
Chacon won more titles (16) in 12 years with his club, Olimpia,
than any other Honduran player. But when his agent worked out a
deal with MLS last spring, Chacon eagerly accepted the new
challenge. The Honduran magazine As Deportiva recently named him
the best Honduran playing abroad. If the Fusion can get by the
Earthquakes in its playoff semifinal series this week, Chacon
will have a chance to add another championship to his resume on
Oct. 21 in MLS Cup 2001. "I'm trying to enjoy things with the
Fusion because you only have one career, one life," Chacon says.
"There are good times and bad times, and these are very good
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Moore made the most of his return as a starter, scoring both U.S. goals in the 2-1 win over Jamaica.
While plans for soccer-only facilities for the Fire and the
MetroStars are stuck in the talking stages, crews are scheduled
to break ground in mid-November on a 20,000-seat soccer stadium
for the Galaxy, part of a $112 million complex in Carson, Calif.,
set to open in 2003....
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry regained her splendid form of 1999 for
the WUSA's Atlanta Beat last season, yet U.S. women's coach
April Heinrichs didn't include her among the three keepers she
brought in for last month's U.S. Cup--after Scurry declined to
play in two friendlies against Canada in July....
U.S. teams will switch to blue jerseys next spring after having
worn red since 1998, according to sources at Nike and the U.S.
Soccer Federation. Will Yanks fans switch as well? "We're gonna
keep plugging away with the red," says Mark Spacone, cofounder
of the fan club Sam's Army, which forms a sea of red at U.S.
games. "White and blue tend to get lost in the stadium."