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Beyond the Galaxy

Former St. Francis High and UCLA Star Vagenas Among Major League Soccer Stars Who Opt for Olympic Team

September 15, 2000|DAVE DESMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pete Vagenas could be hours away from accomplishing a huge G-O-O-A-A-L-L.

The St. Francis High graduate and his teammates on the U.S. Olympic men's soccer team play Cameroon on Saturday in their second preliminary game.

A victory would likely assure the Americans a quarterfinal berth, the country's first.

Vagenas, a 22-year-old midfielder, is proud to be wearing the red, white and blue.

"It's a great feeling to wear your country's colors," he said. "When you are in the moment, you really don't think about it."

A big moment occurred Wednesday night, when the U.S. battled the pool favorite Czech Republic to a 2-2 tie at Bruce Stadium in Canberra, Australia. Vagenas didn't factor in the scoring, but played every minute.

Cameroon defeated Kuwait, 3-2, in the other pool game. The top two teams in the four-team pool advance.

Vagenas, an All-American who led UCLA to a national championship, is one of 10 Californians on the 18-man roster.

He is also one of three members of the L.A. Galaxy on the Olympic team.

That's bad news for the Galaxy, which opened the Major League Soccer playoffs Thursday night in Tampa at less than full strength.

"The three Olympians are three important players," said Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid, who coached Vagenas at UCLA. "Other teams may have lost players to the Olympics, but we lost three full-time starters."

Vagenas scored three goals for the Galaxy but isn't as concerned with scoring in Australia.

"Personally, my goal on this team has been to get the ball in the midfield and get it to others when they need to get it and do a lot of the battling there," he told U.S. Soccer. "Assists are probably my greatest reward after a game. Of course, besides the win. I'm hoping to get a few assists here and there."

Success has followed Vagenas wherever he has played.

At St. Francis, he scored a school-record 21 goals and was named All-American after leading the Knights to the Southern Section Division III title.

He had 60 career points at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to two Final Four appearances, including the title in 1997.

Vagenas also was the leading scorer for the U.S. under-23 team last year at the Pan American Games, where it claimed a bronze medal.

At 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds, Vagenas isn't going to intimidate anybody. At least, not until he takes the field and shows his passing ability, lateral movement and overall heady play.

"Peter has shown that he's a good player," Schmid said. "He's a player with a good soccer brain. He can play the game. People sometimes think he's not big enough or strong enough, but he's crafty, he understands the game, he's got good quickness."

Vagenas and his teammates met last week in San Diego, then flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, a 14-hour flight.

From there, it was a four-hour bus ride to Canberra, their home for the next two weeks.

While most of the other Olympic athletes are staying at the Olympic Village, the U.S. soccer teams are stationed at a hotel near their venue.

At the hotel, players and coaches have enjoyed lavish food, Internet access to keep in touch with friends and family, and a players' lounge, complete with an arcade that includes a virtual soccer game.

Now that the Games have begun for soccer, Vagenas and Co. are focused on the goal at hand.

The Pasadena native remembers hearing the national anthem played after his team's strong showing at the Pan Am Games.

"I stood there during the national anthem and felt something you can't explain to someone," Vagenas said. "It's an amazing feeling."

Hearing it again in Australia might be asking a bit too much from Vagenas and the Americans.

But making history by advancing beyond the preliminary round might be attainable.

"I think we're all pretty equally matched and it will come down to those game-day competitions," he said. "Anything can happen, but I figure if we bring our best and the others bring their best, then I think we will get out of the group."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PROFILE

PETE VAGENAS

Age: 22

Birthplace: Pasadena

Residence: Los Angeles

High School: St. Francis

College: UCLA

Honors: Starting midfielder for the Galaxy. Leading scorer this past year on U.S. under-23 national team. Helped U.S. to a bronze medal in 1999 Pan Am Games. Has played in 14 international games, most of any under-23 national team member. All-American at UCLA, helping Bruins to NCAA title in 1997 and final four in 1999. All-American at St. Francis High, where he had a school-record 21 goals.

SYDNEY SCHEDULE

What: Men's soccer

When: Sept. 13-30

Where: Various stadiums in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney

Qualifying: Group play through Sept. 20, then top two in each of four groups advance to quarterfinals on Sept. 23; Semifinals on Sept. 25; Bronze-medal game on Sept. 29; Gold-medal game on Sept. 30.

Medal Favorites: Brazil, Nigeria, Spain, Italy and Japan.

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