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SOCCER

U.S. Officials Still Clueless, so Stars to Miss Australia

January 04, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES

There were no screaming girls, no giddy boys holding up "We Love You, Mia" signs, no hordes of youngsters clambering for autographs.

Instead, the U.S. women's national team was able to slip into and out of Los Angeles International Airport in relative anonymity Sunday.

That's because few fans yet recognize Susan Bush, Aleisha Cramer, Aly Wagner, Michelle French, Mandy Clemens and the rest of the 18 players who in the next nine days will be representing the United States in the four-nation Australia Cup tournament.

They are the next generation of U.S. stars, a collection of more-than-promising players who have been thrown into the deep end to see how well they can cope with top-level international competition.

Mia Hamm and the other world champions are on strike, embroiled in an unnecessary contract dispute with U.S. Soccer, which should have signed on the dotted line the moment Carla Overbeck was handed the Women's World Cup trophy at the Rose Bowl last July 10.

Instead, the federation, under the less-than-decisive leadership of Bob Contiguglia and his coterie of clueless advisors, allowed matters to slide.

So, the U.S. understudies are Down Under, where they will play twice in Melbourne--against the Czech Republic on Friday and Sweden on Monday--before facing host nation Australia on Jan. 13 in Adelaide.

The Czechs are an unknown quantity, but the Swedes and Australians are gearing up for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and will field close to their strongest teams.

It's possible, therefore, that the U.S., which has lost three consecutive games only twice in the team's 15-year history and never since 1993, might do so again.

More ominous, unless U.S. Soccer settles the contract dispute, it might lose four in succession for the first time, because former world champion Norway is the next opponent, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 6.

That the team's proud record is being jeopardized because of a few bruised egos at U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago is ridiculous.

Federation officials don't like the women's team using the power it has accumulated through its on-field success, but if Contiguglia weighs the cost of settling the dispute against the continued bad publicity for his federation, he might see the light.

He could do worse than remember what Hank Steinbrecher, U.S. Soccer's general secretary, said when the women's team won the world title for the second time in July.

"The Queen Mother doesn't have enough money to pay these women what they deserve right now," Steinbrecher said.

Why doesn't the same thing apply now?

REVAMPING, AS IT WERE

There are a few other words it might be wise for Contiguglia to recall when the results from Australia start coming in:

"We know we must be better in 2000 to win the gold again and we've got to identify everyone who can help us achieve our goals."

That's what Tony DiCicco, then the women's coach, said three months ago, indicating that he knew very well that the national team would have to be revamped despite its success in winning the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics and the World Championship last summer.

But there are those in the federation who didn't like the way the U.S. won either time. It wasn't dominating enough, they claimed. It wasn't exciting enough, they argued.

Having almost forced DiCicco out in 1996, those officials finally succeeded this time around. He was pressured into stepping down at the very moment he was looking forward to melding the present with the future and building a team that would keep the U.S. at the forefront of the women's game.

DiCicco resigned Nov. 3. Two months later, no successor has been found--or at least named.

The man who could get the job, Clive Charles, is being interviewed this week. The woman who should get the job, Lauren Gregg, has joint charge of the team in Australia, along with another of DiCicco's former assistants and candidate, Jay Hoffman.

Meanwhile, the lawyer advising the world champions in their dispute with the federation says the veteran players wish nothing but success for the U.S. team in Australia.

"Our position regarding the players who will go is that they should go without any consternation, concern, guilt or anything like that," John Langel said when the world champions last month announced their unavailability for the tournament.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Gregg, who has coached most, if not all, of the new group of players while winning two Nordic Cup titles with the U.S. under-21 team, believes they are up to the challenge.

"This is an exciting young group of players," she said. "Most will be competing for the first time in full international competition. Two of the three teams [Sweden and Australia] are among the elite eight of the 2000 Olympic Games. It will help our young stars see and experience all of what the next level entails.

"Without question, it will be a wonderful investment for our short-term goal of winning the Olympics and long-term preparation for the next World Cup [in 2003]."

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