America's quest for soccer respect at next June's World Cup will begin against a team led by the man whom U.S. coach Bruce Arena recently voted for as the 2001 world player of the year. On Saturday in Busan, South Korea, the U.S. drew a frightening opening game against Portugal and its superstar midfielder, Luis Figo, followed by matches against South Korea, the tournament cohost, and Poland. By winning the last two games, the U.S. would in all probability reach its goal—the second round—by finishing in the top half of its four-team group. "We have a chance to advance," Arena says. "The draw gives us some optimism."
The Americans have a slightly more favorable draw than they had for the 1998 World Cup, in which they lost all three games (to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia) and scored only one goal. Expect a defeat by Portugal, perhaps the world's most explosive attacking team, but the U.S. should match up well with South Korea (0-10-4 in five World Cups) and with the Poles, who won a mediocre European qualifying group but are competing in their first World Cup since '86.
In FIFA's notoriously screwy world rankings, the Americans are tied for 20th, behind Portugal (4th) and ahead of Poland (33rd) and South Korea (43rd). However, a host nation has never failed to get through the opening round. For its part, British oddsmaker Ladbrokes rates the U.S. last in its group, as a 151-to-1 long shot to win the Cup. "The American team has a very high fighting level of spirit," says South Korea's Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, which is a nice way of saying he doesn't think the U.S. has any skillful players.
That view is understandable considering how poorly the Americans did in 1998. The current U.S. side is different, though, with younger, cockier attackers such as Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff and Landon Donovan; a veteran core led by midfielder Claudio Reyna; better coaching; and a solid tune-up schedule that includes games against Italy and Germany. It says here that barring injuries, the U.S. will do no worse than beat South Korea and tie Poland, which (with a favorable goal differential) should qualify the Yanks for the elimination round.