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U.S. Seeking the Bronze to Show Off Its Mettle

An underdog in four of five matches, Americans can finish a surprising third with a victory against Chile.

September 27, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — Red, white, blue and bronze.

It doesn't quite have that solid gold sound, or even a silver lining, but think of what it would mean to an American men's soccer program much more accustomed to black and blue.

"It would mean everything," said Clive Charles, coach of a U.S. Olympic men's soccer team that ran into the rain, and Spain, and fell mainly all over the plain in a 3-1 semifinal defeat Tuesday.

"For our team, for our players, to play this hard and get this far and go home without a medal would be extremely disappointing."

Charles paused a moment, mulling over what he had just said.

"Here we are," he went on, eyes widening, "talking about a U.S. men's soccer team being disappointed not getting a medal. How far have we come?"

From the laughingstock of the 1998 World Cup to the out-of-left-midfield talk of the 2000 Olympics, that's how far. While U.S. teams in gymnastics and men's volleyball and men's tennis left ugly skid marks all over Olympic Park, Charles' crew of under-23 overachievers became that rarest of American tourists in Sydney: pleasant surprises.

Four times in five matches they took the field as underdogs.

Only once did they leave it in defeat.

They tied the Czech Republic, a country that took Germany into overtime in the final of the 1996 European Championships.

They tied Cameroon, a country that reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup.

They outlasted Japan, a country trying desperately to impress as it readies to co-host the 2002 World Cup, in a quarterfinal penalty shootout.

Finally, in the semifinals, they met their antithesis in Spain, the great unfulfilled promise of international soccer, the home of some of the most skillful players on the planet and nothing to show for it, aside from a 1992 Olympic gold medal.

Spain needs to win another gold here, or return home a failure.

The United States had traveled much farther than anyone could have reasonably expected and arrived at the Sydney Football Stadium for their Spanish inquisition running on fumes.

The final score accurately reflected the state of both teams as they met at the fork in the road.

"Our guys wanted to play, our guys were ready to go, but sometimes the legs don't cooperate," Charles said. "We just looked a little tired. We played 120 hard minutes [against Japan] in a game that was backwards and forwards the entire time. It took its toll tonight."

The U.S. defense, especially, had that marathoner-hitting-the-wall kind of look. Danny Califf, the Galaxy center back who had run from Melbourne to Adelaide chasing some of the best strikers in the tournament, simply couldn't keep up with Raul Tamudo, who burned Califf for assists on Spain's first and third goals.

Califf was also caught flat-footed in a whirlpool of activity that lead to Spain's second goal, although television replays technically absolved him. Califf's mark, striker Jose Mari, actually flicked theball to goal scorer Miguel Angulo with his right biceps--an illegal handball, except Tunisian referee Mourad Daami failed to notice.

A defender's hat trick--three goals scored on his watch. It was a dark and stormy nightmare for Califf, but Charles refused to assign blame.

"This game's gone," Charles said. "I wasn't going to discuss that with him, because he's been brilliant for four games."

Take another glance at the teams' rosters. Califf earns his paycheck from Major League Soccer, spending his weekends closing down Kansas City Wizards and Colorado Rapids. Mari plays for Italian power AC Milan. Angulo hails from the Spanish club Valencia, which reached the final of this year's European Champions League.

"Any time you have a striker from AC Milan," U.S. captain Chad McCarty mused, "they're going to get behind you a few times."

The Americans were stepping up against a different pedigree and, sloshing through pools of lactic acid, they found the footing just too treacherous.

So they're out in the semifinals.

So they're next set to play Chile Friday in the bronze-medal match.

"It's not over for us," U.S. right back Frankie Hejduk said. "We're still going for the bronze medal. We have to come out strong next game and show, hey, we belong in this tournament and there's a reason we outlasted teams like Brazil and Italy.

"We want a medal. We've come this far. I don't see any reason why we can't medal."

The medal would be a historic first for U.S. men's soccer, tangible evidence that in Sydney in 2000, Americans came, saw, got out of the first round for the first time, got into the final four for the first time, stole headlines from the U.S. women's soccer team for the first time.

OK, "Jeff the Golden Agoos" would have made a snappier final headline.

Still, the Bronze Age beats the Dark Ages (1924-1999) any way you want to look at it.

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