U.S. team works to tidy act Scrimmage will test World Cup readiness

June 09, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The U.S. World Cup team is to scrimmage a second-division French squad today, akin to the Orioles playing the Bowie Baysox before the playoffs. But this workout is unusual in that it will be closed to the public and media.

Not that the guys from Gueugnon pose a threat. But with the 16th quadrennial World Cup opening on the outskirts of Paris tomorrow, every little thing is serious business for the 32 best national teams on the globe chasing soccer's biggest prize.

And U.S. coach Steve Sampson, seven days from his team's opening Cup match against powerful Germany, has a long list of "little things" that need to be gussied up.

Among them, this secretive scrimmage may be the first time in months that the coach can test his intended starting team, hampered by injuries to key players. Plus, beating up a low-octane team might be a confidence-builder.

For Sampson's team has its doubters, not the least of whom is the team's boss, U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan I. Rothenberg, who said in Washington before the squad's send-off tie against Scotland on May 30 that he doubted the U.S. team would advance past the Cup's first round.

Sampson, ever optimistic, promptly applied damage control, guessing that Rothenberg was parroting world opinion, meaning that was "just on paper." And he added: "I wouldn't put it beyond this team to get into the quarterfinals. I remain a firm believer that we can do something exceptional in this World Cup."

More than anything else, serious injuries have kept the U.S. team jury-rigged in four friendlies scheduled to mimic the play of the team's three opponents in its World Cup group -- Germany and Yugoslavia, two of the Cup's strongest entries, and Iran, likely a tough game for political reasons.

Two of those injuries, April knee surgery and a concussion in May, were, respectively, to forwards Eric Wynalda, the all-time American scoring leader, and Brian McBride, touted as the next big-time Yank scorer. Another was to Joe-Max Moore, a sometime forward. Veteran Roy Wegerle, the resulting starter recently, has had questionable knees for years.

Sampson surely wants game-like verification today that Claudio Reyna, anointed as his central, play-making midfielder, can play. One of the coach's motivations in designing the team's three-defender, six-midfielder, one-forward system was to exploit Reyna's creative abilities by bolstering the defense behind him. And Reyna was brilliant in the system's debut, against Austria in April.

Since then, though, the German-based, ex-Virginia star from New Jersey has been on the bench. He and team officials insist the reason is just a pound of prevention to help him heal from -- first, a hamstring problem, and more recently, a flare-up of an old groin pull -- in time for the World Cup.

Those players seem essential to another "little thing" on Sampson's punch list, drilling players to score rather than hit posts, crossbars and miss high and/or wide, albeit handsomely.

In the Cup, goalkeeper Kasey Keller will be the leader of the back, no doubt. Since starring in the Americans' stunning, 1-0 upset of Brazil in February, Keller has attained celebrity status as one of the world's best keepers.

Experienced Thomas Dooley, team captain and leader, continues solidly at sweeper despite his years. His two man-markers are likely to be Eddie Pope, in his first World Cup just 2 1/2 years out of college, but clearly ready to play internationally, and David Regis, the Martinique-born, French-speaking American since May 20, a German Bundesliga starter.

Sampson's checklist includes his biggest gamble, favoring youth at defensive midfield. He favors Chad Deering, Pope's ex-North Carolina teammate, who has been laboring anonymously in Germany with Reyna, and Major League Soccer's quiet, solid Brian Maisonneuve. Between them, they have 17 caps, some say not enough experience for World Cup-quality speed and skill.

But Sampson has experienced defensive options in Mike Burns and Jeff Agoos, both top MLS defenders tried recently at defensive midfield, American favorite Alexi Lalas, and Marcelo Balboa, the most-capped U.S. player.

Also on Sampson's list is identifying other midfield starters from among Cobi Jones and newcomer Frankie Hejduk (if a hamstring lets him play); Dutch-pro Ernie Stewart, and Moore, all of whom have speed, and inspirational veteran Tab Ramos, back after having the same knee rebuilt twice in 18 months.

Off the bench, Preki Radosavljevic seems likely to get time as a late-game attacker.

Secret scrimmage and more secret practices to come aside, the U.S. team is, all involved agree, stronger and much more experienced than the 1994 squad.

As Ramos, who suffered a serious head injury in that competition, put it: "This team has 22 good players for the first time, where in the past we struggled to fill in the final six or seven spots."

U.S. team at a glance

Alphabetically by position, here's a look at the 22-man U.S. World Cup team:

Goalkeepers

Player .. .. .. .. .. ..Age .. .. ..Skinny

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