It's not every day that you see a Mexican man wearing a rojo,
verde y blanco headdress beating a giant bass drum in a chanting
sea of South Korean soccer fans, but the Gold Cup has a way of
evoking a spirit of international cooperation. So there was a fan
of the Mexican national team, keeping time for South Korea's Red
Devils during their first-round match against the U.S. at the
The real purpose of the Gold Cup, though, is not global harmony
but the crowning of the champion of North America, Central
America and the Caribbean, which made the presence of the
Koreans--who were invited to fill out the field before they were
drawn into the same World Cup group as the U.S.--puzzling to
some. "It is not a true continental competition, because there
are outside teams," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "It is still
our confederation championship, though, any way you look at it."
Confederation championship, however, sounds like something from
an old episode of Star Trek, and a few of the participating
coaches have accorded the 12-team tournament, which runs through
Feb. 2, about as much respect. Mexico brought its B team, and
Arena went with a roster composed primarily of MLS players. (The
only European-based players recalled were goalkeeper Kasey
Keller, midfielder Eddie Lewis and defender Frankie Hejduk, none
of whom are playing much with their clubs.) "Part of the
exercise in the Gold Cup is to move our team along and prepare
for the World Cup," says Arena. "We're looking at a bunch of MLS
players and evaluating them, and that's what I'm learning: how
some of these players perform at the international level."
Those MLS players are competing for a half dozen or so spots on
Arena's 23-man World Cup roster. In last Saturday's 2-1 win over
South Korea, Arena, who was without four of his top five
defenders due to injury or overseas club commitment, gave three
youngsters a chance to prove their mettle in the team's
least-settled area. Hejduk, who started at right back--probably
the most wide-open spot on the roster--and Carlos Bocanegra, who
played left back in his second national team appearance, had
shaky moments but were otherwise solid. Central defender Dan
Califf had a tougher time. He was given his first cap, and as
international debuts go it ranked up there with Euro Disney. In
the first 17 minutes Califf conceded a penalty kick (by pulling
down a Korean player in the box), which Keller stopped, and
picked up a yellow card on another rash challenge.
While none of the bubble players went so far as to solidify a
place on the team, two accounted for big plays. Midfielder Manny
Lagos cleared a South Korean shot off the line in the midst of a
mad scramble in the 54th minute to keep the score 1-1, and
19-year-old midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who came on as a late
sub, scored in stoppage time to break that tie and give the U.S.
its first win in five games against South Korea.
The significance of that victory is debatable. The undermanned
Americans beat a Korean side that will closely resemble its
World Cup team. (The U.S. will face South Korea in the second of
its three Group D games next June, and both countries consider
the match a must-win to advance to the round of 16.) On the
other hand, Korea outplayed the U.S. for long stretches, even
after defender Choi Jin-Cheul was sent off with more than a half
hour left for taking down midfielder Landon Donovan (left) on a
breakaway. "The United States had a lot of problems with the way
we played," said South Korea's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink. "But
we didn't finalize our superiority on the pitch."
The Koreans were fast and aggressive. Speedy forward Choi
Yong-Soo gave Califf & Co. fits, and Choi's mates showed a knack
for handing out knocks. "We got pushed off a lot of balls," said
Arena. But it wasn't because his guys didn't push back. Referee
Richard Samuel entered more names in his little black book than
Sam Malone on an especially good night. Five players got yellow
cards in the first 37 minutes.
Arena conceded that a tie might have been a more fitting
outcome, but the win, which comes six weeks after the U.S. lost
1-0 to the South Koreans on their home soil, makes the rubber
match all the more intriguing. "Obviously the third one is the
most important," says Arena. "I believe we can beat Korea in the
World Cup, and Korea thinks it can do the same to us."
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO
The Koreans were fast and aggressive. Said Arena, "We got pushed
off a lot of balls."