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FRANCE '98 / 4 DAYS UNTIL THE WORLD CUP

U.S. Team Hoping to Prove Head of the Family Wrong

Soccer: Americans arrive in France intent on dispelling Rothenberg's doubts about squad.

June 06, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Having left the United States with the less-than-optimistic prediction of Alan Rothenberg still an annoying note in the background, the U.S. national team arrived in France on Friday to set off on its improbable quest.

Not to win the World Cup, but simply to survive the first round.

According to Rothenberg, that probably won't happen. U.S. Soccer's president--and the very person you would think would be touting the American team more than anyone else--says it will fall at the first hurdle.

"I think the goal is to make the second round," Rothenberg told the Washington Post last week. "Realistically, I don't expect to achieve that goal."

Was Rothenberg low-balling his prediction to look good later? Perhaps. Either way, the U.S. players don't care. They would like nothing more than to prove him wrong.

Even Coach Steve Sampson was not upset at Rothenberg's remarks, although he had every right to be.

"On paper, I think the entire world would agree with him," Sampson said. "That Yugoslavia and Germany are the two teams that would go forward out of our group.

"But that's only paper. I think this U.S. team can surprise some people."

Midfielder/forward Ernie Stewart was even more dismissive of Rothenberg's comment.

"I don't read any of the papers because some people don't even know what they say," he said.

"But everybody has the right to their own opinion. We believe that we can do better than that. . . . We're a better team than we were in '94, so I'm not too worried about anything."

The journey to France did not get off on exactly the right foot. The team practiced--or at least went through some light exercises--in Central Park on Thursday before flying from New York to Paris. But a softball diamond in Central Park is a long way from the Parc Des Princes in Paris, where Germany and thousands of its fans await June 15.

For the time being, the U.S. team is comfortably ensconced at the Chateaux de Pizay in Saint-Jean-D'Ardieres, 30 minutes from Lyon and in a bucolic forest-and-vineyard setting. Of course, the Beaujolais region will be appreciated to a fuller extent by the writers covering the team than by the players. There's much to be said for a World Cup in France, striking pilots and baggage handlers, snarled traffic and rising tempers and temperatures notwithstanding.

Security was tight from the moment the U.S. team arrived at Satolas Airport in Lyon about midday. Heavily armed police were conspicuous, and the team bus was escorted to Saint-Jean-D'Ardieres by police on motorcycles and in half a dozen vehicles.

No amount of security, however, can protect the players from the quotes uttered by those who doubt their ability to defeat Iran and, with a modicum of luck, upset Germany or Yugoslavia.

For some, like 31-year-old midfielder Tab Ramos, this is the third and very likely final World Cup. Italy in 1990 was a disaster; the United States in 1994 was vindication because the team reached the second round. France in 1998 has to take that progress a step further.

"I think eight years ago we went to the World Cup more as tourists than anything else," Ramos said. "I mean, we were taking pictures everywhere.

"This time we want to win games and do well. I think 1994 was a transition to get where we are. The team has improved. We're ranked 11th in the world. I don't know how much that means, but we're there.

"I think we're definitely a team that every team in the world knows if they don't play their best game [against], they can lose."

So the Americans are not here to sightsee. They have a point to prove--to Rothenberg, if no one else.

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