U.S. Soccer Team Peaks a Year Late

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The legacy of World Cup ‘94, one year after the fact, is that we as hosts now know we had the cart before the horse, the landing before the takeoff, the climax before the prologue, the round of 16 before the American 11 realized they were worthy of breathing the same air as Romario.

In short, our timing was abysmal.

In 1994, we hosted the biggest tournament in international soccer.

In 1995, we finally learned how to play international soccer.

USA 3, Argentina 0.

Where was this result last summer, when most Americans stopped channel-surfing long enough to check out Alexi Lalas’ goatee and Tony Meola’s Spiderman shirt, only to have their suspicions confirmed--that the only way we beat a South American team in soccer is when one of their players kicks the ball into his own net?


USA 3, Nigeria 2.

Where were these goals last July 4, when an entire nation wanted to be convinced soccer was not a sport played with a large white sleeping pill, only to watch the United States attempt one real shot in 90 minutes and lose, numbingly, 1-0, to Brazil--perpetuating the more-snoring-than-scoring stereotype?

USA 4, Mexico 1 on penalty kicks.

Where was this drama when ABC had its cameras following Mike Sorber’s every move, when kickoff times were listed in the TV Guide, when the play-by-play announcers spoke English, when it didn’t cost American television viewers $19.95 to watch the home team get shut out by Romania?

By all accounts trickling north from Paysandu, Uruguay--where Copa America game results, I have heard, are stuffed into a bottle and tossed hopefully into the Uruguay River--Team USA has been kicking the absolute Copa out of the Americas in the world’s oldest international soccer tournament.

In terms of prestige, only the World Cup and the European Championship are bigger than Copa America, which is played every other year to determine, basically, the best soccer team in North and South America.


Argentina, two-time holder of the World Cup, won Copa America in 1991 and 1993.

Last week, Argentina lost to the United States by three goals.

Chile and Mexico were runners-up in two of the last four Copa America tournaments.

In this Copa America, the United States has beaten both Chile and Mexico to advance to Thursday’s semifinals, where the opponent will be Brazil, the San Francisco 49ers of world soccer.

Before this, the United States won its own four-team invitational, the U.S. Cup, by beating 1994 Africa champion Nigeria, trouncing Mexico by four goals and holding Colombia to a scoreless draw in the final, which gave Team USA the title on overall points.

Throw in a 1-0 loss to Bolivia in Copa America group play and the United States is 5-1-1 this summer against some of the heaviest weights in the sport.

This is the kind of soccer Americans needed to see last year, when they had the chance. Now, unless you have cable access to Prime Deportiva and a sizable disposable income, the only way to follow Copa America is word-of-mouth. U.S. games in group play were televised on Deportiva free of charge, though you had to invite an interpreter over to the house to decipher the play-by-play. From the quarterfinals on, everything is pay-per-view. Monday’s quarterfinal package--U.S.-Mexico, followed by Argentina-Brazil--could be had for $19.95, or slightly more than the standard signing bonus being offered by MLS.

This push to popularize soccer in the United States--who’s running it, Bud Selig? The greatest month in the history of American soccer is playing out before the eyes of whom?

The already converted.

Where’s ESPN2 when we really need it?

ESPN can’t bump a few jet ski episodes? A hydroplane race or two? Monday Night Rodeo?

It’s just the latest bobbled opportunity for soccer in this country. Never mind the sport; what fan couldn’t dig into a plot line featuring a longtime weakling rising up to clock one giant after another, a controversy at the most important position on the team and a maligned interim coach shoving the noses of the skeptics into a pile of unprecedented upsets?


There are two significant differences between last year’s U.S. soccer team and this year’s. Their names are Steve Sampson and Kasey Keller.

Keller, possibly the best goalkeeper the United States has produced, was blackballed from the World Cup team by Bora Milutinovic, the former U.S. coach known for moving in mysterious ways, such as keeping his top players out of the lineup.

When the U.S. Soccer Federation fired Bora over the winter, the job fell, by default, to assistant coach Sampson, with a mandate: We’re going to hire a big-name coach, but until we do, please hold some practices and try to remember to keep 11 players on the field.

So the USSF wined Carlos Queiros, the former Portuguese national coach, and dined Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil’s 1994 World Cup coach. Both listened, nodded, looked over the U.S. roster, and immediately signed new contracts with European club teams.

In the interim, the interim coach won some games. This he did by bringing back the prodigals, Keller and striker Frank Klopas, who led the U.S. in scoring before the World Cup, but never played in any games because Bora viewed him as a defensive liability.

In Uruguay, Sampson has alternated Keller and Brad Friedel at keeper, and the “creative tension” has produced a shocking shutout of Argentina (by Keller) and two crucial saves (by Friedel) in the penalty-kick shootout against Mexico. In both games, the winning goal was scored by Klopas.


Now, Sampson has all but forced the USSF to hire American, and if he adds Brazil to the hit parade Thursday, term of contract ought to read “Lifetime.”

Halfway around the world, a great American sporting achievement is going down. You won’t see it on mainstream television; I believe roller hockey’s on the tube Thursday night. But be patient. Maybe the carrier pigeon will bring good news.