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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS

Americans Barely Held in Check

Soccer: U.S. earns surprising 2-2 tie with Czech Republic and opposing coach's respect for its ability to attack.

September 14, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANBERRA, Australia — Karel Bruckner looks as if he should be conducting the Prague Symphony, what with his stylishly long white hair and his aquiline features.

Instead, what he conducts is the men's Olympic soccer team from the Czech Republic, a team strong enough to have finished second to Olympic gold-medal favorite Italy in the recent European Under-21 Championship.

But not strong enough to defeat the United States.

In an extraordinary admission after the Americans and Czechs had played to a 2-2 tie in front of a chilled gathering of 24,800 at Canberra's Bruce Stadium Wednesday night, Bruckner said the U.S. had forced his team to accept a stalemate.

"I have seen the Americans play two or three times, but today they were a wonderful team," he said. "We were defending with all our might.

"They [the U.S. attackers] managed to get through all our defensive formations no matter what we tried, and ultimately we were left having to play for an even score. I have to congratulate our opponent for an excellent result."

It was certainly that.

The U.S. and Czech Republic are in a four-team group with Cameroon and Kuwait, with the European and African teams, on paper, expected to advance to the Olympic quarterfinals.

But although Wednesday's tie caught many unaware, it was no surprise to Bruckner's counterpart, U.S. Coach Clive Charles.

"Sometimes the United States is considered a basketball country and a gridiron country, but I tell people all the time that we have players who can play very well in any arena," Charles said. "I just think the guys proved that tonight."

It was an entertaining as well as uncompromising game. Both teams gave it all they had and the end result was probably a fair one, although the U.S. had the greater share of the offensive play.

Charles started Brad Friedel in goal, behind a back line of Frankie Hejduk, Chad McCarty, Danny Califf and Jeff Agoos. His midfielders were John O'Brien, Peter Vagenas, Ben Olsen and Chris Albright, and his forwards were Conor Casey and Josh Wolff.

"They all played well," Charles said. "We didn't have one player who had an average game, they all played very well."

True, but certain players stood out.

* O'Brien, the Ajax Amsterdam midfielder from Playa del Rey, was in masterful form, time and again splitting the Czech defense with well-timed and well-placed passes.

* Wolff, the speed-burning Chicago Fire forward, whose explosiveness caused the Czech defense all sorts of difficulties.

* Casey, the 19-year-old from the University of Portland and the only college player on the team, who worked tirelessly up front and created one of the U.S. goals.

Charles elected to leave his starting 11 on the field for virtually the entire match. The only substitution came when Ramiro Corrales was sent on in place of Albright with five minutes remaining.

"I learned a long while ago that if things are going well not to mess around with them," Charles said. "I brought Chris off because he was cramping up. He'd done a lot of work.

"I didn't see a reason to make a change. I felt that we probably had more of the game than they did and I felt we were creating chances, so I wasn't going to mess with anything. They were all doing their jobs so they stayed out there."

After showing some early nerves, the Americans settled into the game and began dictating its pace. In the 21st minute, they were rewarded.

Wolff collected the ball on the left wing and raced past defender Adam Petrous before crossing the ball into the goal area. Casey made a sliding lunge for it, thereby distracting Czech goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny, and the ball continued through to Albright, who directed it into the net at the far post.

After scoring, the Washington D.C. United forward sprinted to the corner and made a headfirst slide on the wet grass to the corner flag, where he was immediately engulfed by the rest of the U.S. players.

"I think we caused some problems for them out wide," Wolff said. "I think we took advantage of our speed. I think our strongest suit in the game was our ability to get behind them and our ability to run at them on the counter. I definitely think they were surprised."

But the Czechs are an inexperienced team, not easily rattled. Seven minutes after Albright's goal, they tied the score when the U.S. defense, despite having three or four players around the ball, was unable to prevent Marek Jankulovski from getting off a 19-yard shot that eluded Friedel at the right post after the goalkeeper slipped going hard to his left.

Undeterred, the U.S. continued to press forward. One minute before halftime, the Americans again shook the Czechs by regaining the lead.

A powerful header by Agoos found Casey out on the left and he cut the ball back across the face of the Czech goal, perfectly placed between goalkeeper Drobny and his defenders.

This time it was Wolff who sprinted in and knocked the ball into the net.

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