Going for gold, American team misses the point U.S falls to Romania, 1-0, still can land in 2nd round

June 27, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, Calif. -- This was the day that a new question was added to America's sports vocabulary: Who won the soccer game?

But what the U.S. team really needed was a tie.

After years of abuse and disdain, soccer was a genuine consideration for Topic A in the toy department yesterday. The United States was playing Romania. The Rose Bowl was filled. The game was on network television, with millions expected to watch. The United States, coming off a stirring upset of Colombia, had a chance to establish itself as the surprise team of the World Cup

Finally, people across the country were watching, caring about soccer. This was it, the moment for which the sport had waited for years, the opportunity to convert skeptics into flag-waving fans. A big win and a couple of thrilling goals would do wonders.

But this was the mantra the U.S. players needed to chant as they took the field: Just tie, baby.

Talk about bad luck. On a day when style points mattered, the Americans would be smart if they played conservatively. Did the dull thing.

dTC

A tie would assure them of advancing to the second round of the Cup, their stated goal. And they would win their round-robin group if they tied and Colombia beat Switzerland in a game being played at the same time.

It was quite a dilemma. Would the Americans try to win new fans, play attacking soccer and jeopardize their chances of advancing to the next round? Or would they play it safe, make sure they advance, and bore America when America finally was watching?

Their intentions became obvious in the first 10 minutes on a miserably hot afternoon, when they had no less than three scoring chances, one that hit the post. They were going for it. They were going to try to win and put on a show at the same time. They were still high from beating Colombia four days earlier. They were on too much of a roll to slow down.

"In the beginning, it felt just like the Colombia game had never ended," forward Ernie Stewart said. "We definitely had them on the run."

Indeed, the Romanians were stunned, reeling. But they're a skillful, experienced team that scores on counterattacks, when their opponent gets caught with too many defenders in the offense. The fired-up Americans played right into their hands.

In the 17th minute, the United States threatened to score with a corner kick, then a crossing pass into the box. The U.S. defenders were upfield, looking to score. Romania got the ball out on what amounted to a fast break, with the U.S. defenders racing back to fill the open spaces.

They were too late.

The Romanians passed the ball across the field and found the open man, defender Dan Petrescu, whose shot slipped underneath U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola and into the net.

Too much offense had cost the United States. From there the Romanians packed the defensive end and pitched a shutout.

"I don't know if we did the right thing," said U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos. "I know the crowd came to see something, but [we should] play for a tie in that situation. If we had played for a tie, [Romania] would have done the same thing and we'd be in the second round."

As it is, the Americans finished third in Group A and won't know for several days if they have advanced to the second round. They probably will, but they also probably will have to play Brazil or Germany. Had they tied yesterday, they'd be playing Bolivia, South Korea or another less-formidable team.

"We showed our inexperience," Ramos said. "We forgot that we're still the underdogs and that our first priority is to defend. We got caught going forward, being too aggressive."

The loss shouldn't detract from what has been a surprisingly solid U.S. performance, basically a coming-out for the Americans as major players on the global soccer stage. In round-robin play, they scored three goals and allowed three, played consistently solid defense and showed far more creativity on offense than they'd ever shown before.

Playing for the win yesterday was not necessarily wrong, considering how long soccer had waited for such a forum in this country. It was admirable, undoubtedly the tack most Americans would have wanted them to take. But it cost them, cost them dearly. They'll realize how much when they find out who they're playing in the second round.

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