Can't get worse
United States aiming to improve on last-place finishPosted: Saturday April 27, 2002 11:55 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- The United States will be guaranteed one thing at this year's World Cup: It won't finish lower than it did four years ago.
The one-time semifinalists will be competing in their fourth straight World Cup finals, and they hope to improve on their last-place finish from 1998 when they lost all three first-round games in France -- to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia.
"We're going to make believe it (the last-place finish) never happened," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said after announcing his squad. "It's a clean slate in 2002. They're going to be a better team than we saw in 1998."
This year, the Americans open the World Cup against European power Portugal on June 5, then play co-host South Korea on June 10 and unpredictable Poland on June 14. All three games are in South Korea.
"Obviously you go into these events with the idea to get through the first round," said forward Josh Wolff, picked for his first World Cup. "The U.S. doesn't have a staggering record of getting out of the first round, so that's our goal first and foremost."
The draw looks to favor the U.S., but home teams have traditionally done well at the previous 16 World Cups, and no European team can be taken for granted -- as Croatia proved at the last World Cup, beating Germany in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual-champion France.
The U.S. had a successful buildup to the World Cup, winning four of its first five games to take a commanding lead in the six-team qualifying group. That streak didn't last, but the Americans qualified comfortably along with group-winner Costa Rica and Mexico.
In February, it won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the region's championship, by beating Costa Rica 2-0 in the final.
Since then, the Americans' only losses are to three-time World Cup champions Italy and Germany, and Ireland -- all away. In other friendlies, the U.S. has beaten World Cup qualifiers Ecuador and Mexico, and Honduras to improve its 2002 record to 8-3.
The difference for the U.S. in the finals this time around may be stability.
Former coach Steve Sampson made several changes before the 1998 World Cup, including dumping veterans like captain John Harkes and benching Alexei Lalas.
Arena, who took over from Sampson shortly after the 1998 World Cup, has a proven record of winning in the U.S. college ranks and Major League Soccer. He has coached the national team 57 times, winning 29.
The U.S. team will be lead by captain Claudio Reyna. The midfielder, who is a veteran of top European leagues and plays with Sunderland in England, can control the flow of play and has the ability to see the field and distribute the ball.
Reyna's targets up front will be 1998 veterans Brain McBride and Joe-Max Moore, and newcomers Clint Mathis and Wolff.
McBride, who plays with the Columbus Crew in the MLS, scored the U.S. team's only goal four years ago, an 87th-minute strike in a 2-1 loss to Iran.
Along with Reyna in the midfield will be Dutch league veteran Earnie Stewart, Cobi Jones, Landon Donovan, John O'Brien, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Lewis and Chris Armas. In defense, the U.S. will field Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh, David Regis, Carlos Llamosa, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter, Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Agoos.
Arena's biggest decision may be who will start in front of the net -- Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller.
Friedel was a backup to Tony Meola in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, where the Americans reached the second round but got knocked out by eventual-champion Brazil 1-0. Keller, who backed-up Meola in Italy in 1990, started for the U.S. in France. Friedel was again the No. 2 netminder four years ago.
Both keepers are solid and almost interchangeable, creating a possibility that both will play. Meola will be team's third choice this time.
The United States' best finish in a World Cup came at inaugural event in 1930 in Uruguay, where the Americans reached the semifinals but lost to Argentina. Uruguay beat Argentina in the final.
But it's greatest victory came 20 years later at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil when it beat England -- which was making its World Cup debut -- 1-0.