Starting at The Top
The U.S. is unbeaten in World Cup qualifying. Why is the once-struggling team so torrid?
Five points. One win and two draws. After the first three games of the final round of qualifying for World Cup 2002, U.S. coach Bruce Arena would have settled for those results. Instead, the Americans' 1-0 victory over Costa Rica last week in Kansas City raised their record to 3-0, gave them an astonishing nine points and—barring a total collapse in their remaining seven matches-assured them a berth in next year's 32-team field in Japan and South Korea.
How have the whipping boys of World Cup '98 turned into the powerhouse of their region? (Sorry about that, Mexico.) Here are a few reasons:
? MLS is now an undisputed boon to the national team. Back in '98, Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach at the time, dissed the league mercilessly, arguing that it lured Americans back from European leagues where they would develop their skills more quickly. Three years later MLS stars Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff are the U.S.'s offensive MVPs, having combined for three goals and three assists in the three wins. "Our 18-man roster for Costa Rica had nine MLS guys," says Arena. "Where would those players be—and would they be the kind of players they are now—if they'd gone elsewhere?"
?The American talent pool has grown deeper than Foucault. MLS may be improving the domestic players' skill level, but Arena has also made sure to provide plenty of international experience, inviting 80 players to camp since he took over in November 1998. "In '98 we went 15 or 16 players deep," says play-maker Claudio Reyna. "Now we go 22 to 23 players deep, and that's a big difference when you get injuries."
?The back line has more backbone. In its last seven World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. has shut out its opponents six times and out-scored them 17-1. Veteran defender Jeff Agoos, 33, has done a masterly job, organizing a D that last week included French-speaking left back David R�gis, a native of Martinique; Spanish-speaking center back Carlos Llamosa, from Colombia; and right back Steve Cherundolo, 22, who was playing only his third game with the national team. Nor does it hurt to have a trio of goalkeepers with World Cup experience in Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tony Meola.
?The Yanks have learned to win without their A game, even on the road. During last year's semifinal qualifying round, the Americans outplayed Guatemala, only to draw, then suffered a last-minute loss at Costa Rica. This year, by contrast, they stole a qualifier at Honduras with Mathis's free-kick goal in the waning moments. "We're just a lot more professional now," says Agoos. "We understand what it takes to get a result."
?The coach is pushing all the right buttons. "A big part of this is psychological, soothing the players' egos," Arena says, citing a piece of advice from retired star J�rgen Klinsmann, who told him Germany's success had been a direct result of its team spirit. So when Arena benched No. 1 keeper Keller for Friedel against Honduras in March, he explained his decision at length to Keller. When he decided not to suit up striker Ante Razov against Mexico in February, Arena counseled Razov for an hour on the day of the game. Arena even brought in a sports psychologist to help midfielder Earnie Stewart overcome his fear of flying.
So smoothly have things been going for the U.S. that Arena felt compelled to cap the rising geyser of expectations last week. "We're not going to win the 2002 World Cup," he said, smiling. "You can put that in your headline." Fine. But it's hard not to be bullish on American men's soccer these days.
WUSA's Kelly Smith
Proving Herself On a Big Stage