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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

U.S. Men Close In on History

Soccer: A 1-1 tie with Cameroon puts Americans one game away from their first Olympic quarterfinal appearance.

September 17, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANBERRA, Australia — The smile that plays around the corners of Clive Charles' eyes is growing more noticeable with each game.

The coach of the U.S. men's Olympic soccer team is enjoying this little jaunt to Australia, and if things keep going the way they have been, he soon will be making history.

All it will take is a U.S. victory over Kuwait on Tuesday night in Melbourne.

That would put the Americans through to the quarterfinals for the the first time. In 11 previous Olympic appearances, dating to the 1924 Games in Paris, the U.S. men have never advanced that far.

Now, Charles' chargers are only 90 minutes away.

They got to this point by producing another scintillating performance Saturday night, this time running Cameroon ragged and earning a 1-1 tie in front of an appreciative crowd of 22,379 at Bruce Stadium.

Had they taken full advantage of all the scoring chances they created, they might easily have won.

"I thought the team showed a lot of courage tonight," the 49-year-old Charles said, his Cockney accent as thick as it was when he left his native London to play in the old North American Soccer League 22 years ago. "It showed a lot of character, playing against a team that is extremely dangerous."

Galaxy midfielder Peter Vagenas was the hero, although any of the American players could have been singled out for praise, especially Vagenas' Galaxy teammate, Danny Califf, who superbly marshaled the U.S. defense.

Cameroon's pedigree is unquestionable. Most of its team members play for leading clubs in Europe, and in the early moments of the match, they looked bigger, faster, fitter and more likely to carry the day.

"To be honest, the first 20 minutes they had us on our heels," Vagenas said. "They were coming at us from all angles."

Among the "Indomitable Lions" are such gifted players as Patrick Mboma from Parma in Italy, Lauren Etame from Arsenal in England, Geremi Njitap of Real Madrid in Spain and Samuel Eto'o of Real in Spain.

Etame, who has scored 20 goals in 36 games for Cameroon, was the most valuable player at the African Nations Cup earlier this year. Mboma's scoring feats are equally impressive; he has 31 goals in 66 international games.

"They are always going to create opportunities," Charles said. "Every single one of them is a tremendous athlete. They have pace, they're technically very good and they love to take you on."

The U.S. was not to be intimidated, however. After absorbing some early pressure, it managed to turn the direction of the game and Cameroon never regained the initiative.

The African team did take the lead when U.S. defender Jeff Agoos brought down Etame in the 15th minute and Mboma scored on the resulting penalty kick awarded by Chilean referee Mario Fernando Sanchez Yanten, who kept a tight rein on the game.

That could have caused the U.S. to buckle, but instead the players fought back and finally were rewarded in the 64th minute when Daniel Bekono, Cameroon's goalkeeper, upended Josh Wolff as he was sprinting through the box and the referee again pointed to the penalty spot.

There was no question about who was going to take the kick. Vagenas strode up, grabbed the ball and said he would take it.

"I don't designate a penalty-taker," Charles said. "Whoever feels it is the one who takes it."

Vagenas, a 22-year-old former UCLA standout, felt it.

His kick flashed into the lower left corner of Bekono's net and from then on the Americans dominated, time and again coming agonizingly close to scoring the game-winner, only to be denied by the goalkeeper, a last-minute tackle or a near miss on a shot.

"There will be times when everything they hit will go in," Charles said. "I will only be concerned if we stop creating opportunities."

On Tuesday, against Kuwait, 1-0 will be enough.

"Obviously, we're a little disappointed we didn't win the game," Vagenas said. "But at the same time the loftier goal is to get through to the next round."

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