A cheeky reserve got the U.S. off to a fast start in World Cup qualifying
The young guns of U.S. soccer may not know exactly what they're doing yet, but this much is true: They pull things off that Americans have seldom dared to try in international competition. Take 24-year-old striker Josh Wolff. When two Mexican defenders converged on Wolff late in last week's World Cup qualifying opener in Columbus, Ohio, he could have held the ball in the right corner, protecting his team's one-goal lead. Instead, Wolff used a back-heel to split the Mexicans, drove the touchline like an NBA small forward and fed Earnie Stewart for a sitter that sealed a solid 2-0 victory.
It was a breathtaking play, the kind of soccer that fires the imagination. "Both of them came at me, so I just gave it a try," Wolff said, in the manner of a fearless young skateboarder who had discovered a new trick. As a delighted U.S. coach Bruce Arena said, "The story is, Josh went past two guys, whether he knew what he was doing or not."
With the win, the Americans beat their biggest rival for only the third time in 20 Cup qualifying matches dating back to 1934. They also took the early lead in the six-team regional tournament that will run through November and send three countries to World Cup 2002. The game-clincher capped a breakout night for Wolff, who had a goal and an assist in only his second U.S. qualifier after coming on in long relief for the injured Brian McBride. "I like to call Josh a sheer," says Arena. "He cuts through defenses. We have plenty of guys who can run fast, but we don't have guys who can run fast at the right times, who understand how to run off the ball and who can go by people with the ball. Josh does."
What's more, the beetle-browed Wolff brings a youthful swagger to the lineup. At the Sydney Olympics he twice drew game-tying penalty kicks on bold runs. When he scored his first international goal, in a friendly against Mexico last October, Wolff had the audacity to taunt the overwhelmingly Mexican crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum. After earning a corner kick on his first run last week, he playfully slapped the butt of his Mexican defender. "You have to respect your opponent, but there's a big difference between respect and fear," Wolff says. "We don't fear the Mexicans anymore."
Wolff's feats were all the more remarkable considering that he had hit a low point in January. After getting married in November and taking 10 weeks off from soccer, he was admittedly unfit upon reporting to the U.S. camp. Shortly after he began training, he needed surgery to remove pins that were protruding painfully from his lower abdomen, the remnants of a hernia operation. Four days after the surgery Wolff was back on the field. "When he went in tonight, I didn't think he would make it through the game," Arena said after the Mexico victory. "And yet in the 87th minute he was still able to get by people and create the second goal."
Who knows? Even though it's the year of the snake in China, it may well be the year of the Wolff in American soccer. For the first time he will be counted on as a 90-minute man and primary scorer for the MLS-favorite Chicago Fire. With the departure of former Fire striker (and U.S. teammate) Ante Razov to Spain's second division, Wolff has a golden opportunity to play up front with Bulgarian star Hristo Stoitchkov, the 1994 European player of the year. The Wolff-Stoitchkov axis worked wonders in limited time last season, most notably in Wolff's four-goal performance in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against the Dallas Burn.
After Wolff's play last week, it won't be easy for Arena to keep him out of the starting lineup when the U.S. travels to Honduras for its next qualifier, on March 28. "That's the kind of pressure I like," says Arena, who must pick between Wolff and veterans such as McBride and Joe-Max Moore. "Having a lot of choices is a good thing."
Return of a Rising Star?
MLS Likely to Land Donovan
At 19, striker Landon Donovan is the most accomplished teenage soccer player the U.S. has ever produced. He started up front in the Yanks' 2-1 exhibition loss to Brazil last Saturday at the Rose Bowl. He won the Golden Ball award at the under-17 World Cup two years ago. He has signed a six-figure deal with Nike. Now it appears that Donovan will rectify an unhappy situation—he's been languishing for two years with the reserve team for German club Bayer Leverkusen—by coming home to MLS this season.