ZARAGOZA, Spain -- After 90 minutes of exhausting soccer and with a 2-2 tie against Poland to show for their efforts, the young American players had to wait and agonize for two more hours in Zaragoza last night before knowing if they had an Olympic future.
Kuwait had to beat or tie Italy for the United States to qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time in 10 Olympic appearances. And the game was being played later in the evening in Barcelona, 200 miles northeast of here.
When the American players filed off the field last night, disappointment already hung heavily on their shoulders. They had needed to beat Poland to be sure of qualifying for
the next round. And they seemed to sense that an Italian victory over Kuwait was inevitable.
They were right. By beating Kuwait by just 1-0, Italy joined Poland as the two teams advancing to the last eight from Group A and the U.S. team was given its ticket home. With one victory, one defeat and one tie, it did as well as in the 1984 Summer Olympics. But it was still far from good enough.
"I'd like to say I'm very proud of our team," said the American
coach, Lother Osiander. "We did all we could considering the state of soccer in the United States."
Only creation of an American professional soccer league, he said, held out any hope for improvement.
OC Certainly, in none of its three preliminary-round games did the
U.S. team impress with much more than its fitness and determination. And it was probably lucky to come away with a tie against a rugged Polish team that must be considered a gold-medal contender.
The United States, in fact, scored first when Erik Imler beat a defender and drove the ball into the net with his right foot in the 20th minute. But Poland bounced back, scoring 10 minutes later when Marek Kozminski snatched a loose ball and edged it past goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
Ten minutes after that, Poland went ahead, 2-1, when Andrzej Juskowiak dribbled around Friedel and scored from a narrow angle. The American players had actually had more possession of the ball than the Poles in the first half, but they just had not known how to press the advantage.
In the seventh minute of the second half, the United States tied it when Imler centered the ball to Steve Snow, who timed his dive perfectly to score. But, while the United States needed at least one more goal, the Poles seemed happy with a tie.
"After our game against Italy," the Polish coach, Janusz Vojcik, said, referring to his team's 3-0 victory Monday, "we were kind of sitting back and didn't play aggressively. We knew we would qualify with a tie, so we played the counterattack to save energy."
Snow, the 22-year-old American striker who was left off the team that lost to Italy last Friday, felt the United States was the better team last night.
"We're as good as any team we've had," he said. "We just didn't have luck. The team that wins always needs an extra bit of luck."
While this team scored six goals, more than any other previous American Olympic team, the consensus among experts here was that the United States is still far from developing a pool of players capable of matching the best of Europe and Latin America, even in the under-23 age category that applies in the Olympic Games.
The American coach said his players were "too impatient" last night, trying to score "from ridiculous distances instead of working into the box." But he focused his analysis of the American performance on the broader question of soccer in the United States.
"Without a professional league, we cannot continue growing," he said. "My players don't go through the week-in, week-out grind of professional teams. At present this is the best we can expect. In the future, with a professional league, we can hope to improve the teams. And then we'll be able to compete."
The question now is whether the United States can do any better when it plays host to the 1994 World Cup finals. But its record to date against young and inexperienced teams in the succession of Olympic Games -- three victories, 11 defeats and five ties -- offers little reason for optimism.