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U.S.'s New Goal: Reaching Second Round of World Cup : Soccer: Bob Gansler, coach of the team facing odds of up to 1,500-to-1, says Americans won’t simply be tourists in Italy this summer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I don’t see how anybody gets any work done out here,” Bob Gansler said. “It should be snowing or something.”

Gansler, who lives in Milwaukee, was sitting next to the pool at a La Jolla hotel, appearing more relaxed than he has at any time since he accepted the job last January as coach of the U.S. national soccer team.

He had less than three months to prepare his team for the first of eight regional qualifying games as it attempted to become the first U.S. entry in the World Cup since 1950.

The team achieved its goal, earning a berth among the 24 teams that will play this summer in Italy, but it took a dramatic 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the final game last November to do it.

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Along the way, Gansler, 48, became a lightning rod for criticism of the team as its struggling offense scored only six goals in eight qualifying games. The U.S. Soccer Federation was second-guessed for choosing Gansler, formerly the coach at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, for such a high-profile job. Media speculation was that his contract would not be renewed if the team did not qualify.

Now the pressure is off. According to London bookmakers, the odds against the United States winning the World Cup are anywhere from 500-1 to 1,500-1. So all the team has to do is play respectably in its three first-round games against Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria to consider the tournament a success. But as Gansler opened a two-week training camp here last week, he said during an interview that his goal in Italy is to reach the second round.

Question: Five important players are not here. Midfielder Hugo Perez and forward Peter Vermes are playing in Europe. Goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder John Harkes have tryouts in England. Goalkeeper David Vanole is a holdout. Is that disruptive?

Answer: I’m just too old to be looking for the ideal day in and day out. It doesn’t happen. You just try to squeeze the ultimate out of the situation. That’s what we’re doing here right now.

Q: If Meola and Harkes sign contracts in England, they might not join the national team until April or May. Can the national team make allowances for that?

A: Once again, it’s not the ideal situation. They will miss being with the team and fitting into a cohesive unit. Sometimes it’s tough to get back into things. But it’s what other national teams have to contend with on a regular basis. We’ll just have to take a look at the situation and get them in at key times, just like we’re going to get Hugo and Peter in once we have our schedule in place.

Q: Vanole is your most experienced goalkeeper, even if he did finish last year on the second team behind Meola. How much will you miss him if his contract situation isn’t resolved?

A: Obviously, I wanted him to be here. That’s why he was invited. We have three talented, young (goalkeepers) here. As I always say, if one man is absent, it presents an opportunity for someone else.

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Q: The Olympic team captain, Ricky Davis, didn’t play last year because of injuries. But it was assumed by many that he would be invited to camp this year because of his experience. Why wasn’t he invited?

A: I’ve had the same conversation with Rick for almost a year now. What he needs is to play and be competitively fit. He still hasn’t played a serious game since the Olympics. It’s really a decision he has made along the line. I do not think this should be a rehabilitation camp.

Q: An English First Division player, Roy Wegerle, attended college in the United States, married an American and wants to play for you in the World Cup. Could that happen?

A: He’s indicated his inclination to play, and certainly we’ve encouraged him to get his citizenship situation cleared up as quickly as possible. I’ve not seen him play since his University of South Florida days, but obviously we know he’s doing well in England. I would think that he knows no one on this team, and no one knows him. So we’d have to work him in as often as possible in order to get a feel of what he can contribute.

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Q: Last year at this time, your team was established as a clear favorite to advance to the World Cup from the Central and North American and Caribbean region? Yet, it barely qualified. Were the expectations too high?

A: When it all started, very few people paid notice to us. A couple of individuals decided we should be among the favorites. As we got the snowball effects in terms of media coverage, everyone plugged into what one or two or maybe half a dozen individuals decided early on. I didn’t agree with it from the start.

I looked at the situation, I looked at the teams involved, I looked at my team, and I didn’t think we were a favorite. I didn’t think there was a favorite at all. I knew we were very vulnerable in terms of depth and that we had a lot of inexperienced players. Talented, but inexperienced at this kind of competition. To their credit, yes, they had their ups and downs, but they persevered.

I wasn’t trying to talk my team into having some lackluster performances along the way and come up with a Hollywood finish. I wouldn’t mind if I had a few less gray hairs. It’s always very important to set realistic goals. We had set a realistic goal of qualifying. I didn’t think it was a realistic goal to say we’re going to blow everybody’s keisters off.

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Q: Because the team had difficulty scoring last year, you were labeled as a conservative coach. Yet, the team created many opportunities that it couldn’t convert. What was the problem offensively?

A: There wasn’t one game where we didn’t have more opportunities and more shots. The opponents had more fouls, which means we had the ball more. This is why I think there were some inaccuracies in the reporting. They’re constantly saying, “Gansler has this defensive style.” Well, no. We had more possession (time) than the other teams. It’s just that we weren’t doing the thing that ultimately stamps you as an offensive powerhouse, and that’s to put the ball in the back of the net.

Q: Why not?

A: If the offensive part doesn’t click, the net starts to shrink. That’s what happened to us. Yes, we weren’t getting the bounces and skips. But all you can do is go again and demand another skip out of the next situation. I think sometimes we let our heads go down a little quick. Our daubers were sagging. We didn’t psychologically handle those things as well as we should have.

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Q: With the victory in Trinidad, the criticism of you and the team all but stopped. How much did that game mean to you?

A: I’m too old to do physical, and I’m not inclined to do emotional, cartwheels no matter what happens. I just feel satisfied. People asked me down in Trinidad whether I feel vindicated. I never think in terms of that. I feel satisfied. Why? I met my goal.

Now, there were all sorts of intermediate steps, the eight (qualifying) games. I look at them as eight hurdles. No, we didn’t clear them all in Edwin Moses style. We knocked some over, we kicked some over. But we won the race.

Q: Did you feel your job was in jeopardy before then?

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A: I made no plans for anything but this job. Even if we did not win, I felt I would have the job.

Q: As the host country, the United States automatically qualifies for the 1994 World Cup. Do you believe it will still be your job then?

A: Right now, I’m focusing on the 1990 World Cup. But if I have to give you an answer, yes. I took this job to be able to play in the World Cup, and I can’t think of anything better than playing in one World Cup unless it’s two.

Q: What is your goal this year?

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A: Once again, we have to set a realistic one. I am of the conviction that we have to shoot for the second round. We have to be confident that we have the potential to reach that second round. It’s going to take five months of hard work. I’m not naive enough to say we’re going to walk onto the field as the favorites in any one of those games. Certainly, in the one against Italy, people are giving us no chance at all.

Q: You were quoted by a wire service after the draw last month as calling the United States “dead ducks” against Italy. One newspaper called that a great psychological ploy because it would make the Italians overconfident.

A: I did not say that we’re dead ducks. I like puns. The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that I used no fowl language of any kind. It’s just not a term that I use. My phrase in something like that would be Daniel walking into the lion’s den. I’m sure it’s not going to be the last time someone is not going to be able to handle my Wisconsin accent.

Any game can be won. It’s just the likelihood that changes. We do not want to go to Italy as tourists.

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