Much ado in Daegu
Reyna expected to return; Stewart remains doubtfulPosted: Monday June 10, 2002 2:02 AM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
In addition to coming back to earth after stuffing Portugal, 3-2, to open their 2002 World Cup quest on an historic note, the U.S. players have dealt with being thrust into the role of political pundits.
Coach Bruce Arena and his players have been questioned about disqualified Olympic speed skaters and the behavioral tendencies of Korean sports crowds.
Come Monday at 3:30 p.m. local time (2:30 a.m. Eastern/USA), the soccer match and the points at stake take center stage.
"That will be a tough game," says defender Eddie Pope, who was a rugged defensive force against Portugal. "South Korea looked so good in their first match. They're going to be extremely difficult."
Extreme conditions make the task more difficult. South Korea swept past Poland, 2-0, for its first World Cup win to rekindle hopes of reaching the second round, which no host country has failed to do in the previous 16 tournaments.
Nationalistic fervor swept the country and crowds estimated as large as 150,000 poured into the streets to celebrate. Dutch coach Guus Hiddink is being hailed as a national hero and was cheered wildly at the USA-Portugal game.
More than 60,000 fans will jam the World Cup Stadium-not a terribly original name but that's what it is-in this southern city for the Big Do in Daegu.
Temperatures and humidity in the high 80s, a sea of screaming red-clad fans, and 11 swarming opponents add up to another severe test.
"The Korean team has a lot of momentum," says Arena of a squad that went unbeaten in seven games before narrowly losing its final warm-up match, 3-2, to France in late May.
"They've played quite well over the past four weeks and have a lot of confidence. However I feel our team has a lot of confidence as well going into the game."
As usual, the U.S. lineup is shrouded in secrecy. Midfielder Claudio Reyna is expected to return to action after missing the Portugal match with a sore quadriceps but Earnie Stewart's groin pull may keep him out.
Reyna could replace Pablo Mastroeni in central midfield or take Stewart's spot on the right. Joe-Max Moore, a sub against Portugal, is another option in Stewart's slot.
Arena also dropped hints about David Regis returning at left back and moving Frankie Hejduk, whose staunch defending was a key factor in nullifying the Portuguese attack, to the right side.
Brad Friedel will likely keep his place in goal. Speculation about Kasey Keller and Friedel splitting the first two games has subsided.
Conditions and the expected furious pace might prompt Arena to rest Brian McBride and save his strength for the rugged Polish defense the United States will face Friday in its final group game.
McBride's aerial dominance produced a pair of goals against the Portuguese.
Regardless of personnel, the Americans will be chased across every inch and surrounded in every tight spot. The return of Reyna enhances their ability to retain possession, which is sure to be a critical element as the game unfolds.
"We're just going to have to be real disciplined and keep them in front of us," says right back Tony Sanneh. "Hopefully we can wear them out. They like to run and be active but we hope we can hold the ball for periods of time and use our experience in that respect."
Experience is one ingredient the South Koreans have added since the teams split a pair of games last winter.
Defender Hong Myung Bo, who is playing in his fourth World Cup, was out with an injury when South Korea beat the Americans, 1-0, and lost, 2-1, half a year ago
The pace and zeal of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley must be measured out carefully. Beasley may be busy tracking Song Chong Gug, who often runs the entire right flank as South Korea shifts from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 shape. He will also dart inside and switch sides on occasion.
"If the pressure is so quick we'll play over the top," says assistant coach Dave Sarachan. "We'll pick our spots with that."But the main thing is trying to keep the ball and make them chase the game."
Midfielders John O'Brien and Reyna will be buffeted by challenges from all sides. Their interplay and how crisply they link with teammates will determine if the Americans can set the tempo or must scramble to keep up.
"Korea will play with a lot more energy from the first minute than Portugal did," says Reyna, whose training time has been limited. He isn't likely to last 90 minutes.
"They'll come into this game not taking us as lightly as Portugal did. They're really athletic, they work hard and of course they have the advantage of the home crowd, which always gives players a lift."
Donovan flourished against Portugal with O'Brien and Pablo Mastroeni as central midfielders behind him, which is not unlike the role he plays for San Jose. "It is similar to the way we play, very similar," says Donovan.
"But it helps the entire team to have two guys back there. When Chris [Armas] was there by himself we struggled sometimes to get our attack going."
Both teams have another group game remaining and a loss wouldn't extinguish their chances of advancing. A win would only guarantee qualification if Poland and Portugal play to tie Monday night.
But this has become the dream matchup of the first round, at least in South Korea. The U.S. contingent has dismissed fears of rioting if the home team loses.
"We were not aware of the political climate and don't understand what all the curiosity and tension is about," says Arena, whose sister-in-law and her husband sparked some curiosity by bringing their two adopted Korean children to the World Cup.
The children, their parents and their story was a big hit with Korean journalists.
"The South Koreans are our friends and allies," says Arena. When we step between the lines our concentration's on the game."
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.