In the 73rd minute of the friendly between the U.S. and Scotland last Saturday in Washington, D.C., Eric Wynalda, the American team's alltime leading scorer, tried to hook a little left-footed shot around Scottish goalkeeper Jim Leighton. As the ball sailed just outside the far post, it resembled a good putt that refused to break. The match, America's last before the team headed off to France for the start of World Cup action on June 10, ended in a 0-0 tie, continuing a scoring drought that has frustrated the U.S. team for the last month.
American coach Steve Sampson isn't ready to panic...yet. He says his new 3-6-1 formation—three defenders, six midfielders and a lone striker—has created "dozens and dozens" of chances in the U.S.'s last three matches. The formation, installed in April, is designed to stifle the opposition at midfield and provide scoring opportunities with quick counterthrusts.
When the U.S. really needs a goal, it looks to Wynalda. "Eric is one of the few players on the team who has that bit of magic, who can make a difference in one moment," Sampson says. "He constantly puts himself in position to score and win games for us."
One problem has been that Wynalda, 28, underwent surgery April 16 to repair a small cartilage tear in his left knee and played only 73 minutes in the U.S. team's last two matches. In Wynalda's absence the U.S. experimented with Brian McBride and Roy Wegerle as the lone striker. Wynalda believes, however, that he will be close to full strength for the games in France. "Four weeks ago I had doubts I would be ready," he says. "But I know now that I'll be all right."
The new formation worked brilliantly during a 3-0 upset at Austria on April 22, in which the U.S. scored more goals than it did in its next three home matches against Macedonia (0-0), Kuwait (a 2-0 U.S. victory) and Scotland.
Ironically, the U.S. might be more productive against stronger teams like Germany and Yugoslavia, the favorites in the U.S.'s first-round bracket. "We're a counterattacking team," says midfielder Ernie Stewart, who scored the winning goal when the U.S. upset Colombia 2-1 in 1994 for the American team's only World Cup victory in the last 47 years. "We're not a playmaking team. When we have to impose our game on the opponent, it's more difficult for us."
For a half hour on Saturday, before heat exhaustion set in, the Americans controlled possession and varied the rhythm of play as they could not have done just four years ago. Sampson believes goals will come as Wynalda and other key players recover from injuries: speedy winger Frankie Hejduk (strained hamstring), midfielder Brian Maisonneuve (strained right foot) and playmaker Claudio Reyna (strained right groin). All are expected to be ready for the U.S.'s World Cup opener, against Germany on June 15.
"This [drought] is good because it's making everybody anxious," Wynalda says, straining to put a positive spin on the recent paucity of American goals. "This gives us a little edge."
"One of the best things to come from these matches," adds Sampson with a big smile, "is that none of our World Cup opponents have truly seen us at our best."