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Victories Aside, U.S. Men Still Have Their Share of Memories


CANBERRA, Australia — Ah, Olympic memories.

Alexi Lalas remembers 1992, when he played with a broken foot and in a shoe two sizes too large. You do whatever it takes to get on the field, he said.

Paul Caligiuri remembers 1988 and giving the Soviet Union the fright of its soccer life before the USSR went on to win the gold medal. That, he said, is the attitude that is needed.

John Doyle remembers scoring a goal in that U.S.-USSR game in Taegu, South Korea, but just as vividly recalls having breakfast with Stefan Edberg or bumping into Steffi Graf or Carl Lewis while wandering around the Olympic village. It's about more than a particular goal or a particular game, he said.

For U.S. soccer players--U.S. male soccer players, that is--the Olympic Games have long been an exercise in frustration. Unlike the U.S. women, who are the defending gold medalists, the U.S. men have never advanced beyond the first round.

Yet that has not diminished the indelible memories etched by the Olympics, and Sydney 2000 will be no different, even if Coach Clive Charles' team goes three and out.

Wednesday, the U.S. plays the Czech Republic at Bruce Stadium in Canberra in its opening first-round game. After that comes Cameroon, also in Canberra, followed by Kuwait in Melbourne.

But it's the opener that is the real test.

"At a minimum, you need a point in the opening game," said Bruce Arena, the U.S. national team coach and Charles' predecessor as Olympic coach. "After the first game, the leaders kind of dictate the tempo of the second and third games. . . . Game 1 is critical, no question about it, in terms of positioning yourself to advance."

The U.S. players have had about a week to get ready for the Czechs. If they have failed to do so, Sydney 2000 could boomerang on them.

Lothar Osiander, who coached the 1988 U.S. team at Seoul and the '92 team at Barcelona, believes the U.S. should be able to get to the quarterfinals.

"Kuwait is not a bad side," he said. "It wasn't a bad side then [in 1992, when the Americans won, 3-1]. It's just a small country, but there soccer is No. 1 and they have the financial resources to back up their program. So they'll give us a run, but we shouldn't lose.

"We shouldn't be losing to the Czech Republic, either. Then we have Cameroon, they'll be a handful. So I don't know how that will work out.

"On paper, we should make the second round this time, especially with all the development we've had over the last few years."

With the exception of University of Portland forward Conor Casey, the U.S. squad is composed of professional players, either from Major League Soccer teams or from European clubs.

"They've got a good group," Lalas said. "I think they can definitely get through. This is without a doubt the best Olympic team that's ever gone in terms of experience."

Lalas had more than a few experiences of his own while competing at Barcelona '92 and Atlanta '96. There was that injury in Spain, for example.

"As soon as I broke my foot, my Olympic goals totally changed," he said. "I just wanted to get on the field . . . and prove to Lothar that I could do it. He had me out there running sprints in this cast, it was crazy."

The U.S. finished 1-1-1 in 1992, just as it has done in three of the last four Olympic tournaments.

"Looking back on it, '96 was neat because once again you're in satellite cities and going to a place like Birmingham , Ala., where they grow up with a football in their hands," Lalas said.

"It was full-on American football territory and here we were bringing in soccer and the town totally shut down and received us with open arms. That was wonderful to see. We really enjoyed it. You got to see the power of the Olympic spirit. They really didn't care what the hell was going on, but they knew it was the Olympics and they were up for that."

The current U.S. team will have to find such moments too, because it is playing a long way from Sydney. So far, the closest it has come to the Olympics has been picking up the Sydney Morning Herald or switching on the television.

Some members of the U.S. women's team will be taking part in the opening ceremony on Friday evening, but the U.S. men play Cameroon on Saturday and therefore will have to be content watching it on TV.

That's too bad, said Lalas, who recalled how the Americans had fought in '92 to be allowed to take part.

"We made a big point that we really wanted to walk in the opening ceremony," he said, "and Lothar was saying we've got to be training and all that sort of stuff, but he acquiesced. So that was wonderful, to walk out there with Magic Johnson. And you're sitting under this tarp, hanging out with everybody. Nelson Mandela was up there and [Fidel] Castro."

Osiander remembers no confrontation.

"They all wanted to go," he said, "so I said OK and I did the laundry with the swimmer from Stanford, the girl swimmer, I can't remember her name [Janet Evans]. She won seven medals or six. She and I did laundry and watched the parade on TV.

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