Euphoria out of place for Cup-bound U.S. team Yanks have work cut out to be competitive in France

November 15, 1997|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

That big, happy picture of the U.S. national team qualifying for next June's World Cup finals in France blurred some images that ought to be kept in focus.

First, the U.S. team qualified Sunday with only its second win in eight months -- and third in nine games; that, while competing against five other national teams, only one of which, Mexico, is a bona fide world soccer power.

(OK, those who see the glass as half full, you're right, too: The team lost only one qualifier, in March, and no qualifiers were scheduled in May, July and August.)

It's also true that serious injuries dogged U.S. forwards all year. But is this country really so thin in striking talent and/or tactical ability that it took a 33-year-old veteran of nine knee surgeries (and seven seasons in England's top division) to be the first U.S. forward to score off the flow of play since June?

Now, don't read that as a dig at Roy Wegerle. In fact, the wily Wegerle provided first-rate minutes in midfield in Mexico and then, at forward, scored twice and set up the third goal against Canada.

Wegerle feared he was career-dead in early July, when Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids traded him to D.C. United as, it was announced, a backup player who couldn't last 90 minutes.

But from the moment he scored in his first start with United, he's been an inspiration, both in Washington and for U.S. coach Steve Sampson, who, desperate for an attack in early September, called him on short notice for his first national-team duty in three years.

On Thanksgiving, don't forget to give thanks for Canada. Because without the Canadians, the U.S. team would be going nowhere.

The Yanks' only other qualifying victory was a 1-0 squeaker over Costa Rica in front of the largest (99 percent) pro-U.S. crowd ever.

Canada's players and coach were widely quoted last week as saying MLS has a "thing" against them. Their evidence: Three of four Canadians in the league were cut early this season by the weak New England Revolution.

Two found their levels with five others on the Canadian roster on teams in the A-League, pro soccer's top U.S. minor league. The third, ex-Blast defender Iain Fraser, went to the Continental Indoor Soccer League. Fraser says his baggage is being a key player suing MLS over its single-entity ownership structure.

Maybe. But the point is, all those players contributed to Team Canada's two losses -- by six goals -- to an American team loaded with MLS and foreign-based, first-division starters.

Now, a couple of questions:

What does it say about the quality of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean that, out of 27 final-round regional World Cup qualifiers, the visitors have won only two? (Mexico edged El Salvador and the U.S. team beat Canada.) Parity? Players' timidity? Weak skills? Or conservative coaches paid to advance, no matter how?

Finally, U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan I. Rothenberg and general secretary Hank Steinbrecher hugged, playfully jostled and laughed with Sampson immediately after Sunday's U.S. win.

Talk about blurry images. That's the same Rothenberg who fought hiring Sampson and who, after the U.S. team's dreadful tie with Jamaica at RFK Stadium pretty much threatened his job.

Despite Sampson getting the team to France and the public hugs and backslaps, Rothenberg still wouldn't say clearly, elsewhere Sunday, that Sampson will coach in France.

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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