World Cup warm-up boosts U.S.

June 06, 1994|By Jere Longman | Jere Longman,New York Times

PASADENA, Calif. -- This is how Joe DiMaggio must have felt when he went to dinner with Marilyn Monroe.

An audience of 91,123 showed up at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. It was the largest crowd to watch the U.S. soccer team in this country, even if almost everyone came to see Mexico.

The game had all the ingredients of disaster, but the Americans calmly brewed success, 1-0, in this final exhibition before their World Cup begins on June 18 against Switzerland.

For starters, Mexico is creative and willful, and always a threat to score three or four goals.

Second, this was a home game for the United States but it definitely was not a home crowd. During introductions, the Americans were booed in a stadium that sounded like an agitated hive, thanks to the bee-buzzing din made by thousands of plastic horns. Flags waved everywhere, but the tricolors were overwhelmingly red, white and green -- not red, white and blue.

Still, in a year when inspiration has been in even shorter supply than goals, the Americans came away with encouragement for their poise, offensive teamwork and defensive cohesion.

"You come onto the field in your own country and you get booed," said Eric Wynalda, who came on after halftime at striker and set up the lone goal on a deft dribble and pass sequence to Roy Wegerle. "It's weird."

Weird, but not unnerving. That's the important thing. The crowd figures to be hostile again when the Americans are hosts to Colombia on June 22 at the Rose Bowl.

"This is what it will be like in the World Cup, so it was a good win," said Tony Meola, the American captain from Kearny, N.J., who will almost certainly start in goal against Switzerland, even though Coach Bora Milutinovic will give only hints, not assurances.

If ever a team needed a psychological boost, it was the United States. The Americans had not defeated any of the World Cup finalists since January. Meanwhile, they had lost to two nonqualifiers, Iceland and Chile. Recent draws against Saudi Arabia and Greece, two of the weaker teams in the World Cup field of 24, had left the Americans unsettled and unproven.

"If we had been beaten today, people would have had doubts," said Wegerle, the attacking midfielder who scored the only goal. "If people have doubts, players have doubts. It just starts the downward slide."

The coach has made some tough, quizzical decisions, and, beginning in two weeks, he will be held accountable. He did not name his final roster until Wednesday. Many of his players have been competing against each other for jobs as much as they have been competing in unison on the field.

Milutinovic has dropped several key players with experience from the 1990 World Cup, including Peter Vermes, Desmond Armstrong and Bruce Murray, and he chose not to call up Kasey Keller, though some believe he is the most skilled of the American goalkeepers.

And midfielder John Harkes arrived only Thursday from England. He did not play in a single exhibition with the Americans.

Despite Saturday's general solidarity, the defense is still not always convincing. The offside trap has been shaky, the tackling sometimes overly aggressive, the coordination and communication breaking down too often. Defender Paul Caligiuri fell asleep on one dangerous throw-in on Saturday. For the World Cup, Milutinovic has not revealed whether he will employ four defenders or five.

"I've had a lot of pressure about Bora because we haven't had many victories," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director of the United States Soccer Federation. "But we're sticking to our plan and Bora."

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