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U.S. Olympic Misstep Had Plenty of Causes

Wednesday morning there appeared on the front page of Mural, one of this city’s more prominent newspapers, a color photograph of Gonzalo Pineda, Rafael Marquez Lugo and Jaime Duran celebrating a momentous victory.

Superimposed on the photo of the three soccer players were the five Olympic rings and -- in Mexico’s national colors of green, white and red -- the words, “Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!”

One “yes,” in fact, for each of the goals Mexico’s under-23 national team had slammed past the United States the night before in a 4-0 victory that qualified Mexico for the Athens Olympics as the U.S. fell by the wayside.

It all went right for Mexico, just as it all went wrong for the U.S. The question is: Why?

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Why did a country that had played in the men’s soccer tournaments in each of the last five Olympics, fail so spectacularly this time around?

The answer goes deeper than the obvious fact that Mexico fielded a much better team. There were other, equally important factors, controversial and tragic, that contributed to the U.S. downfall.

What follows, then, is a breakdown of the breakdown, a look at precisely why it will be up to the U.S. women to carry the American soccer flag in Greece in August.

The Osama Factor

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Much has been made of the chants of “Osama! Osama!” by Mexican fans when the American team was on the field.

It was not 60,000 people at Estadio Jalisco singing the praises of terrorist Osama bin Laden, though. It was a few hundred fans at 10,000-seat Estadio Tres de Marzo, and, later, not many more than that at the larger stadium.

Some of them might have been protesting U.S. foreign policy, but for the most part it was done in jest, primarily by teenagers trying to show off in front of their peers. Was it in bad taste? Certainly. But it was not ugly. American players and coaches said that during their three weeks in Mexico they had been treated warmly and well.

Not that they were not upset by the reminders of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath.

“I think the fans here in Mexico are terrific,” U.S. Coach Glenn “Mooch” Myernick said after the loss to Mexico. “I think their patriotism and their support of their team is terrific.”

So what about the chants?

“The world’s a political place,” Myernick answered. “I think there are inherent jealousies between Mexico and the United States, and some people choose to use sport [as] their platform. It happens over in Europe too.

“For people to be calling me, the coach, Osama bin Laden ... there’s no place for it anywhere, and particularly in sport.”

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The Donovan Scandal

If Americans were angry over the Osama business, Mexicans were equally irate at U.S. forward Landon Donovan, who was widely reported here to have urinated on the field at Estadio Jalisco the day before the Mexico match.

“It’s a myth. It never happened,” U.S. Soccer spokesman Bryan Chenault replied when first asked about it Tuesday.

By Thursday night, however, the story had gained momentum and was even being talked about on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles.

Jon Sutcliffe, a television reporter covering the tournament for ESPN Mexico, said he had viewed videotape of the incident taken by Televisa, Mexico’s powerful television network.

“It’s 100% [accurate]. I have seen it myself,” he said of the video.

Estadio Jalisco, used in the 1986 World Cup tournament, is one of the nation’s sporting shrines and is home to one of its most popular teams, Chivas of Guadalajara.

Asked again about the incident, U.S. Soccer’s Chenault said at the stadium Thursday night that he still doubted it had occurred.

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“As far as I know, it didn’t happen,” he said. “I know that we didn’t train on the field, it was just a walk-through.... Players looked at the field. Landon went out to midfield, walked around.... We had just gotten off a 30-minute bus ride from the hotel to here, and we were about to get on another 30-minute bus ride back.”

Chenault said that for that reason, several players had made use of a restroom in one of the stadium tunnels.

Donovan, on his way to Europe for the U.S. national team’s game against the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Wednesday, was unavailable for comment.

Tragedy Strikes

On Monday morning, less than 36 hours before the deciding game, the U.S. team received tragic news.

Nicole Marie Megaloudis, the 19-year-old stepdaughter of Thomas Rongen, the team’s assistant coach, had been killed in a car accident in Virginia. A freshman soccer player at Virginia Commonwealth University, she was on her way to school when her car veered off the road and struck a tree.

She was a friend of most of the U.S. players, especially Bobby Convey and Alecko Eskandarian.

Rongen flew home. The American players were told the news at their evening meal. Many were in tears. A prayer was said.

The next day, game day, Rongen sent the team a message, saying that he could think of no better way for the players to honor his stepdaughter, who was of Greek ancestry, than by qualifying for the Olympics to be held in Greece. Again, there were tears.

The players wore black armbands for the game.

Missing Pieces

For various reasons, the U.S. team was missing four or five potential starters when it played Mexico.

Under FIFA rules, clubs are not obliged to release players for qualifying, only for the Olympics themselves.

Louviere in Belgium would not release defender Oguchi Onyewu. And Karlsruhe in Germany would not release forward Conor Casey, who had helped the U.S finish fourth at Sydney in 2000.

Shortly before the tournament began, defensive midfielder Ricardo Clark of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and forward Edson Buddle of the Columbus Crew were sidelined by injuries. And in the opening match against Panama, defender Zak Whitbread of Liverpool tore a thigh ligament. Losing such players was a blow from which the U.S. could not recover.

“Certainly in a game [against Mexico], if there was one guy we truly were missing, it was Ricardo Clark and the engine that he has to track people and close people down and add an element of speed to our team,” Myernick said.

“And then in terms of some physical presence and more pace at the back, Oguchi Onyewu would have been a nice choice to have.... When [Whitbread] got hurt and went out of the tournament, that didn’t help either.

“But those are not excuses, those are realities. You have to play what you have and we did that, and I’m delighted and proud to have been the coach of this team for the last two years and I wish all of them well.”

Is MLS to Blame?

The one glaring factor that ultimately undid the U.S. team was its lack of experience.

The team had not played enough games together as a unit and the individual players, with notable exceptions, had not had enough playing time with their Major League Soccer clubs.

“We have players starting on our team who are substitutes in MLS, who don’t get the match experience that they require to play at this level,” Myernick said. “I think you saw some of that exposed [in the loss to Mexico].”

Establishing a reserve-team system in MLS was, Myernick said, “absolutely essential if the U.S. is to continue to progress as a soccer nation.”

“For eight years we’ve been talking about why we bring kids out of college soccer if we’re not going to provide them with a competitive environment,” he added. “If tonight is not an example of it, I don’t know what is.

“We have players playing international soccer who aren’t getting enough time with the club soccer. That’s a reality of our system that we have to address and find a way to improve it.”

The only alternative to selecting MLS players was to dip into the college ranks, but Myernick said that would not have helped, pointing to the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the U.S. failed to make it out of the first round, as an example. Myernick was an assistant to Coach Bruce Arena on that team.

“The next choice is to go to college soccer, and if our guys in the professional environment in MLS [are not] good enough, then the college thing is not going to be good enough,” Myernick said.

The bottom line was that a depleted, inexperienced and possibly demoralized U.S. team needed to lift its game far higher than was possible.

The Final Word

The U.S. team had been together for two years. Now it will break up, and a new team will be formed in 2006 that will try to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008.

“We had a good ride,” said Eskandarian, the D.C. United forward who, along with teammate Convey and Honduras striker Emil Martinez, finished as the tournament’s leading goal scorers.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re not going to the Olympics. I believe in all these guys. I had a great time with all of them. I really wish things could have turned out different.”


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