BARCELONA, Spain -- One is a college dropout who plays for cash in Belgium and jogs around a soccer pitch like some sort of Lenny Dykstra in shorts -- snarling, brooding, demanding to be heard and seen.
The other is a college star who talks of politics and teamwork, and then turns a waltz of a sport into a 90-minute sprint.
Steve Snow and Dante Washington are opposites thrown together on the forward line of the U.S. Olympic soccer team. They may take different routes on the field, but their objective remains the same: scoring goals and lifting the United States from soccer's Third World to its first.
Tomorrow night, as the Olympic torch arrives in Barcelona, the United States will have an idea of how far it may advance in the Olympic tournament. Before the first dance of the opening ceremonies, before a caldron is ignited, the United States will meet gold-medal favorite Italy.
And, for the first time, the United States will be bringing home-grown scoring stars to an international match.
There is Snow, the 20-year-old from Schaumburg, Ill., who earns his living with Standard Liege, a first-division Belgian team, but who made his reputation in America with 19 goals in his past 18 international matches. And there is Washington, 21, of Columbia, Md., one semester shy of receiving a political science degree from Radford University, a part-time player with a world-class shot.
Together, they give the Americans a chance to break from a defensive shell and score goals.
"We're always the underdog, but we feel we can pull off an upset," Washington said.
As usual, the Americans bring a patchwork team into an international match. Their coach, Lothar Osiander, works as a host in a San Francisco restaurant. Five UCLA players form the core of the defense and midfield.
In the Olympics, an under-23 tournament, young Americans may be able to fend off young Italians. They may even be able to advance from a qualifying group that includes Kuwait and Poland to reach the quarterfinals.
But win the gold? Unlikely.
"The players read like a who's who in Italian soccer in the younger age group," Osiander said. "If you look at the front-runners, you have to be impressed. If you look at the midfielders, you have to be scared. And if you look at the defense and goalkeeper, you realize you won't score much. Hopefully, they'll be friendly with us. Hopefully, they'll remember Christopher Columbus discovered America, and we are discovering Italian soccer. So I hope they let us discover it without crucifying us."
Snow doesn't plan on backing down to anyone. Not the Italians. Not even his teammates. Once described as a "cocky little twerp" by Osiander, Snow has learned to modulate his on-field arm-waving and finger-pointing. Still, he demands the ball.
"My only role on this team is to score," said Snow, recovering from strained left knee ligaments. "If I play terrible for 89 minutes and score in the last minute, then I've had a good game."
The Europeans have noticed. Signed in Belgium two years ago after a spectacular appearance at the Under-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia, Snow has fought tenaciously to break out of a reserve role.
"There is a lot I miss being overseas," he said. "I miss home. Pizza. My family. My girlfriend. Speaking English. But when you're a soccer player in America, that's what you have to do to get good. You have to play in Europe."
Washington doesn't anticipate playing abroad. With the 1994 World Cup in America on the horizon, Washington, like the rest of his teammates, is hoping to parlay a starring Olympic performance into a slot on the U.S. National team.
"For all of us, this is the best opportunity we've ever had to prove ourselves," Washington said.
Washington nearly missed his Olympics debut after straining a groin muscle on a game-winning, goal-scoring play against Honduras March 21. Slowed for months, he just moved back into the starting lineup last week, and scored a goal against a French second-division team, Rodez.
"I'm feeling better and better," Washington said. "I haven't had any trouble getting in the proper mood for this. I'm excited."
He calls tomorrow night's game the biggest of his career.
"Everyone has been commenting on how far American soccer has come within the last 10 years," Washington said. "Maybe, years ago, teams would go in, and they would know they would be in for a large margin of victory against the U.S. Now, teams know there is a good possibility that we could beat them. We could win a medal. It could even be a gold."