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U.S. hopes to impress Germans

Posted: Thursday June 20, 2002 12:38 PM
Updated: Friday June 21, 2002 6:41 AM

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  • By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America

    SEOUL -- Many American soccer players have tried their luck in Germany with varying degrees of success.

    The barriers -- language, culture, climate, acceptance -- are foreboding. The German approach to professionalism is rigid, uncompromising, and demanding, especially for foreigners and particularly for Americans.

    Those who have done well -- Tony Sanneh, Steve Cherundolo, Claudio Reyna -- gained grudging respect for their accomplishments.

    "I think I'm respected more by the players than the media," says midfielder Tony Sanneh, who left MLS in 1998 to join Hertha Berlin and now plays for Nuremberg in the Bundesliga.

    "The players have to play against you, they have to try to run around you, they know what you're about. The media want to make one guy a hero and another guy a goat."

    Yet the perception of American soccer itself in the German press and society -- and perhaps in the United States as well -- won't change without some seminal event. The event may be at hand.

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    "It's definitely the biggest soccer nation as far as their history we're playing up until now," says Reyna of the quarterfinal meeting with the Germans on Friday in Ulsan. "So it would be a great achievement to beat one of the real giants in the history of the World Cup."

    A World Cup quarterfinal is the highest stake a U.S. men's team has ever played for. Germany has won the competition three times and its record in reaching the later stages is unmatched.

    But the Germans -- by their stratospheric standards -- have stumbled in the past two World Cups after winning it all in 1990.

    Crashing out to Bulgaria and Croatia in the 1994 and 1998 -- quarterfinals fueled panic and recrimination. Losing to a power like Argentina or Brazil or Italy is failure enough, but succumbing to European neighbors perceived as inferiors was cataclysmic.

    "There's been talk about a drop-off in talent the last four years and you look up and they're in the quarterfinals," says midfielder Earnie Stewart. "The most important thing is being there every single time and they are there every single time.

    "They're ready to compete and they have a great mentality. Maybe not as talented as Brazil, but they get the job done and that's difficult to play against."

    Prior to the start of the 2002 tournament some pundits questioned whether Germany could survive a group with Cameroon and Ireland. It did, after thrashing Saudi Arabia, 8-0, by tying Ireland (1-1) and beating Cameroon (2-0).

    With three starters suspended the Germans ground out a 1-0 win over Paraguay in the round of 16. To call the game sterile would be an insult to hospitals.

    The United States has also come under criticism at this World Cup -- despite its results and having scored seven goals -- for a reliance on counterattacking play. In beating Portugal and Mexico the U.S. took leads and nursed the advantage.

    These two teams are more similar than either cares to admit. There are skillful players on both squads, but the Germans flair is muted by injuries and the U.S. style is subservient to substance.

    "The one thing you start off is them being aggressive, physical players," says midfielder Claudio Reyna, who played with two German clubs before heading to Britain. "Technically they're pretty good, but their power and strength is probably their plus point.

    "They've had some injuries to Mehmet Scholl and Sebastian Deisler. Some of their real flair players aren't there because of that, but they're always robust, powerful players."

    A robust, powerful German team blasted the U.S., 4-2 in Rostock three months ago, much as had been the case at the 1998 World Cup when the Germans rolled to a 2-0 win.

    But in between came two U.S. wins by shutout. The U.S. won 3-0 in Jacksonville, Fla. and won again 2-0 at the Confederations Cup in Mexico.

    The results may have changed but perceptions have not.

    "But '98 really hurt us on the world scene and that's how the Germans remember us, as the worst team in the World Cup," says Sanneh.

    "When we beat them twice in '99 they said, 'We're a tournament team' and they are. But when they beat us in March they said they did it with their third team.

    "Well, probably seven of that third team will start in the quarterfinal."

    Not in the Rostock lineup was striker Miroslav Klose, who stung the woeful Saudis with a hat trick and then banged in goals against Ireland and Cameroon.

    As the tournament's leading striker with five goals he's an obvious threat. He's quick, nimble and sharp.

    Not so obvious is his striking partner. Coach Rudi Voeller, a German icon as a player with 47 goals in 90 internationals, can choose the hulking Carsten Jancker or the speedy, tricky Oliver Neuville.

    Neuville tormented the Americans in Rostock and scored the goal that put Germany ahead to stay.

    How and whom the United States plays could be determined by whether Coach Bruce Arena wants a big body to thwart Jancker and thus would keep defender Gregg Berhalter in the lineup, or if he prefers a quicker option for Neuville, which might be Frankie Hejduk.

    Or he could compromise with Carlos Llamosa. Pablo Mastroeni is another possibility.

    Regardless of who the Germans deploy up front, the United States is in trouble if it can't shut off service from the flanks. Christian Ziege and Bernd Schneider are both quick into the attack and accurate crossers.

    A tender groin could sideline DaMarcus Beasley, who, if he plays will track Schneider on Germany's right flank. The speed of Beasley would enable the U.S. to unhinge the German defense.

    "I think we have more team speed but size-wise no chance," says Beasley, who has to realize he personally has a speed advantage over 99 percent of the population of this planet. "They are some big boys. I've never played against them but I've seen them walk out. They are twice my weight but I can push the with the best of them.

    "I can be feisty and be like a little ant running around. I just try to do what I can."

    The German lineup is also missing defender Jens Nowotny, who like so many other internationals fell victim to the injury curse.

    His replacement, Bayer Leverkusen teammate Carsten Ramelov, is a quality defender but not as good a leader.

    The height and strength of the German players are critical factors on set plays. Midfielder Michael Ballack often pulls the strings in attack, yet at 6-foot-2 is as tall as any U.S. field player.

    As usual, the U.S. lineup and formation are shrouded in secrecy. Arena switched from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 for the Mexico victory and because the Germans have preferred a 3-5-2 since long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he may keep it to match their numbers in midfield.

    Clint Mathis, who sat out the Mexico victory, scored both U.S. goals in Rostock. His sense of space and knack for the unexpected could earn him a start in the biggest game an American team has ever played.

    "We've won some games and gotten through, but if we get to the semifinals of the World Cup, everyone around the world will wonder 'What's going on?"" says midfielder John O'Brien. "[It will have] global impact.

    "You have pioneers like myself who go to Europe and gain some respect. But this is the biggest stage for that to happen. By winning games that's how you're going get people's respect. "

    Especially in Germany.

    Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.

    Related information
    Soccer America: How the U.S. frustrated Mexico
    SI's Grant Wahl: German studies
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