A Meaningless Game? It Doesn't Have to Be


It is doubtful whether the fresh sea breezes that swirl around their Atlantic coastal hotel in Pornic have yet cleared the minds of the American players, but surely the depression of losing their first two World Cup '98 games must be ebbing.

The focus of immediate attention is Yugoslavia, which the United States will play Thursday night in nearby Nantes.

But already there are those who should be looking ahead to 2002. Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach, might bear that in mind when he looks down his roster to decide who plays in the final France 98 game.

There are only five players on the 22-man U.S. roster who have not been on the field in France: goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Juergen Sommer and defenders Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas.

Because there is nothing at stake but pride for the team Thursday, Sampson might consider putting aside fears about his own future and rewarding those who have given him years of loyalty.

On Tuesday, there already were indications that Sampson might allow Friedel his World Cup debut. And if Sommer gets a few minutes near the end, what harm would that do?

Similarly, it would be a sporting gesture to allow Agoos the opportunity to say he played in a World Cup. He was one of the final cuts from the 1994 team and has spent six years trying to earn his chance.

But the most crying need for playing time comes from the twin towers of Balboa and Lalas. Both have been exceptionally good-humored in what surely has been a difficult time for them.

While the U.S. defense has leaked goals, including two on almost free headers, the two tallest and most experienced U.S. defenders have sat on the bench and remained silent. Inside, they must have been torn apart.

Balboa has played 126 games for his country, a record among the U.S. men. This is his third and final World Cup. He deserves the chance to play against Yugoslavia. He has paid his dues for 10 years.

Similarly, Lalas, with 98 games, has not changed personality in France, although he could easily have gone into a sulk. He might be slow of foot, but he is quick of quip, and there's a lot to be said for that.

In any case, the fact that Yugoslavia is an offense-minded team and was able to pull Germany apart for an hour before tiring suggests that some new options on defense would not hurt the United States.

Why not allow the old gang one final fling, a last hurrah from the class of 1988?

Certainly, by 2002, the familiar faces from the past decade--Balboa, Lalas, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda and the rest--will have faded from the scene.

In fact, looking at the U.S. roster, there are perhaps only eight players who figure to be in the mix when Japan and South Korea co-host the next World Cup.

Three, of course, are Keller, Friedel and Sommer. Goalkeepers only improve with age and experience, so their future is relatively secure. The others are Frankie Hejduk, Brian Maisonneuve, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and Claudio Reyna.

But on Tuesday in Pornic, the next World Cup seemed eons into the future. The Americans were still trying to digest what went wrong at this one.

As McBride had said: "That's so far away. I'm sure there will be a lot of changes between now and 2002."

One can only hope.

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