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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | LOOKING AHEAD
/ MEN'S SOCCER SEMIFINALS, U.S. VS. SPAIN, TUESDAY,
2 A.M. PDT; TV: TUESDAY 3 P.M. MSNBC

Charles in Charge, but He Lets Kids Have Fun Too

September 25, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANBERRA, Australia — Little more than an hour into his team's quarterfinal game against Japan, U.S. soccer forward Josh Wolff scored a vital goal.

Afterward, he sprinted to the corner flag, bent down, shook his cupped right hand and then made a throw-away gesture with the same hand.

What on earth, Wolff later was asked, was that all about?

"The guys have seen some casinos," the Chicago Fire forward said, smiling. "I don't think anyone has really [been] to them. I was just making a little makeshift casino in the corner. Rolling the dice, having fun."

Yes, well. If the truth be told, a few of the U.S. players very definitely have been inside Australia's casinos and the fact that a blind eye has been turned by the coaching staff speaks volumes about why the U.S. has done as well as it has in these Olympic Games.

Coach Clive Charles, a professional player in England and the U.S. for 17 years, is treating his young players like the professionals they are and the players are responding in kind.

No U.S. men's team in recent memory has been as close-knit as the one that will play Spain on Tuesday night at the Sydney Football Ground with a place in the gold-medal game on the line.

"We're laughing off the field, we're laughing on the field," defender Frankie Hejduk said, voicing a sentiment broadly felt among the players. "For me, it's been a great experience being here."

No recent U.S. men's team has been as successful, either.

The American youngsters are playing a brand of soccer that would be the envy of the U.S. national team. They are consistently attack-minded, creative, inventive, entertaining and, above all, committed to winning.

For that Charles and his two assistants, John Ellinger and Peter Mellor, must get full marks.

The rapport between Charles, 48, and the 18 U.S. players, most of whom are less than half his age, is extraordinary. He respects their talent and their individuality and they respect his honesty and the fact that he allows them to enjoy their success instead of hogging the limelight himself.

"It's not about me," Charles said. "It's about them."

Mellor, like Charles, is a seasoned professional who actually played against Charles a couple of decades ago when both were at English clubs--Charles at West Ham United and Mellor at Fulham.

"We've fortunately had the opportunity to have been there at the top level of the game, not necessarily at an Olympics, and we know what we liked and what we didn't like from our coaches on the bench," Mellor said.

"We obviously try to use that as a guideline to what the players expect from us.

"Clive creates a very professional environment for the players and yet there is time for play and to get away from the game. He and other ex-professionals have learned over the years that you must do that.

"The boys respond magnificently in training. He just has man-management skills that are second to none."

Charles, who is the men's and women's coach at the University of Portland--the city has been his home since coming to the U.S. from England in 1978--has not put a foot wrong as Olympic coach.

Win or lose against Spain, the team has achieved more than anyone expected. After the U.S. had clinched a place in the semifinals, he was asked to put the feat in historic perspective.

"It is a major competition and the United States is still involved," he said. "Everybody's brought their best players here and we're still here, so obviously it must make some kind of a statement.

"We have a good team and the U.S. men are good players. It's nice that we can now prove that by our results. I've always believed that the U.S. has had good players and hopefully now everybody else will."

With only three older players on the squad, a calming influence is vital and Mellor said Charles is a master at keeping the temperature cool. In other words, he is the exact opposite of the Bobby Knight-type coach.

"Clive is extremely calm on the bench," Mellor said. "It's a nice change to be with somebody who isn't yelling and shouting and bawling. He's always in control of his emotions. It has a very calming effect.

"One of the things that he talks to us [the staff] about is that if we get hot under the collar and shout our feelings out, that can get onto the field and unnerve the players."

So far, the Czech Republic, Cameroon, Kuwait and Japan have all realized too late that this is no ordinary U.S. team. Just as Charles has realized that this is a special moment for himself.

"We were chatting the other day," Mellor said, "and Clive was saying how lucky he was to have gone to the World Cup as an assistant [under Steve Sampson at France '98] and now to be the head coach at the Olympics.

"It would mean a lot to him [to win a medal]. He's done quite a lot in his career. He knows how important it is to the game. Clive always puts the team before himself. That's one of his top qualities."

The last word belongs to Charles.

"I would like our team to go all the way," he said. "All the coaches will give you the same answer. We all want to be in the final and win a gold medal.

"I'm more concerned about what my players think. If they think they can win a gold medal, I'm right there with them."

On Tuesday, the dice will roll again, but the winner already is known.

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