Four years later, Team USA is World-class

June 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, CALIF. — `TC PASADENA, Calif. -- The biggest win in American soccer history? Sure. Of course it is. Shoot, it's practically the only win in American soccer history.

Before yesterday's 2-1 defeat of Colombia at the Rose Bowl, the United States had won only three World Cup games -- two when Herbert Hoover was president. The only U.S. win since 1930 was a 1-0 defeat of England in 1950 that is considered one of soccer's greatest upsets.

Beating Colombia is bigger. More important. Sure. Of course it is. It happened at home, with millions watching on television, with the United States actually paying a little bit of attention to soccer for the first time.

As soon as the game was over, Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, was on the podium talking about how more kids would play the game now and how the sport would get bigger and all that. Whoa, big fella. Let's not get carried away. Let's just contemplate a win that seemed absolutely impossible at the last World Cup four years ago in Italy.

I covered that Cup. I was there to see the United States get blasted by Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria. It wasn't pretty. The young U.S. players were woefully out of their league. Boys among men. Didn't belong. The citizens of the soccer world laughed them out of Italy and back to these primitive soccer shores.

"Those of us who went through that experience have a real appreciation of what a day like this means," said midfielder John Harkes yesterday.

How did the Americans improve so much in four years? How did they go from a laughingstock to a team capable of beating one of the Cup favorites, Colombia?

For starters, many of the top players from the 1990 team signed with European pro teams and spent four years honing their skills. Harkes became a star in England. Tab Ramos played in Spain. Eric Wynalda played in Holland.

"We worked hard, real hard," Harkes said. "We all went over there with the idea of building to a better U.S. performance in 1994. A lot of sweat and tears went into this day."

Then, the U.S. soccer front office succeeded in signing up several "passport Americans," basically legal ringers, who had played in Europe. Ernie Stewart was a foreign-born son of an American serviceman who became a starting forward and scored a goal yesterday. Thomas Dooley, another serviceman's son, reared in Germany, is a backbone of the defense.

The end result was a far more solid, professional team. The Americans' competency was evident in their Cup-opening 1-1 tie with Switzerland last weekend. But they also were plainly nervous, going around talking about how soccer was going to die in America if they didn't do well. They needed to relax. They also needed someone to explain to them that soccer already was dead in America as a spectator sport. They had nothing to lose.

Whether they figured that out or just relaxed is unclear, but they were much looser and more creative from the start yesterday. They caught a huge break when a ball deflected by midfielder Mike Sorber bounced off the post instead of going into the goal in the fifth minute. A goal there would have lifted Colombia, changed the game and possibly altered the result. But the Americans steadied themselves, started attacking and controlled play.

Even though the critical first goal was an own goal, knocked into Colombia's net by a Colombian defender, the United States deserved the lead. Then Stewart scored in the 52nd minute, and the celebration was on.

"We showed the world that we can play at this level," Wynalda said. "That's what we accomplished today."

Before yesterday, the U.S. players just wanted to do well enough in their round-robin group to advance to the second round and avoid becoming the first host Cup team to get eliminated in the first round. That looks like a done deal now. Now, they want more.

"We're going to try to beat Romania Sunday and win our [round-robin] group," defender Alexi Lalas said. "Why can't we do that?"

There is no reason why they can't. Not now.

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