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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | SOCCER

Weary U.S. Can't Keep Up With Spain

September 27, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — The glint of gold that has so tantalized the U.S. men's soccer team for the last two weeks has disappeared.

It vanished into the gloom of a rain-drenched Tuesday night, snatched away in unceremonious fashion by a Spanish team intent on adding a second Olympic title to the one it won in Barcelona in 1992.

From the moment the teams kicked off in front of a sodden but ultimately satisfied crowd of 39,800 at Sydney Football Stadium, it was obvious that the Spaniards were a cut above the Americans in the speed and precision of their play.

In the end, even the U.S. players could not argue against the 3-1 loss that consigned them to the bronze-medal game Friday.

Spain and Cameroon, a surprise 2-1 winner over Chile in the other semifinal in Melbourne, will play for the gold medal Saturday.

"We got outplayed a little bit," U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk said. "But we still fought hard and we fought the whole time and we were still in the game until they scored their third goal, in the 85th minute or whatever.

"So we gave ourselves a chance. We hung in there. I thought we played well."

The U.S. team fell behind by two goals in the first 25 minutes and was never able to fully recover against a Spanish side that was quicker in speed of foot and speed of thought.

Spain's two forwards, Jose Mari and Raul Tamudo, caused havoc in the U.S. defense, with Galaxy defender Danny Califf victimized on both early goals.

Up in the stands, one of many Spanish fans had the word "Spain" painted in red across her forehead and the word "goal" across her chin. It wasn't long before she got her wish.

In the 16th minute, Jose Mari got past Califf on the right flank and crossed the ball into the goal area, where Tamudo was lurking near the far post. The striker, who plays for Espanyol in the Spanish league, dodged past Hejduk and slammed the ball into the net just inside the left upright.

Nine minutes later, Spain doubled its advantage.

This time a long ball flighted into the goal area was controlled by Jose Mari, who appeared to do so with his upper arm, an infraction that was not spotted by Tunisian referee Mourad Daami.

Califf slipped on the wet grass and fell while trying to tackle Jose Mari, who passed inside to Miguel Angulo. The Valencia player beat U.S. keeper Brad Friedel from close range before being taken down hard by Califf.

"Those first 20 minutes they were taking it to us," said Califf's Galaxy teammate, midfielder Peter Vagenas.

"The first goal wouldn't have been a problem [but] the second goal kind of broke our backs. After that, it's easy to play when you're two goals up."

Califf, who has been the best U.S. defender in the first four games, and Chad McCarty tried to hold the defensive line together but, along with Jeff Agoos and Hejduk, were hard pressed throughout the 90 minutes.

"They were in for a tough time," U.S. Coach Clive Charles said. "They were playing against two quality strikers. Dan and Chad have been chasing world-class strikers around for the last 10 days and doing very, very well.

"We were just a half-step slower all the way round and we were playing against a very good team, a brilliant team. On the night, the best team won."

Califf explained what had happened on the first goal.

"The ball skipped past me," he said. "I was in a position, I thought, to win it on the sideline and then it took a skip and I wasn't able to catch him [Jose Mari].

"On the second goal, I slipped. I was backing up so maybe my positioning wasn't right, but I definitely would have won the ball if I hadn't slipped.

"They were saying that maybe he brought it [the ball] down with his arm, but we made two mistakes and they scored on both mistakes. That's what good teams will do--punish you."

Like other players, Califf appeared fatigued after playing in a grueling two-hour quarterfinal against Japan in Adelaide on Saturday. Charles said the entire team was feeling the effects of that match.

"We just never got out of the starting blocks," he said. "We were just a tad off in basically everything. The gas was out the tank.

"We played a very good team tonight. I think the last game took its toll a little bit on us. . . .

"After the game I told them to keep their heads up because now we have to prepare to try to win a bronze medal."

The U.S. managed to cut the deficit to one goal in the 42nd minute when Hejduk was upended in the penalty area by Angulo, with Vagenas scoring on the resultant penalty kick. It was his third goal of the tournament.

From then on, the U.S. struggled to tie it up, but the odds were always long. They became impossible after Jose Mari scored Spain's third goal, in the 87th minute, knocking in a rebound after Friedel had made a full-length diving save off Tamudo.

Josh Wolff and Conor Casey worked tirelessly up front, but the goals would not come for the U.S.

"They only got two or three chances and that's all it took them," Wolff said. "They were very classy finishers. They got down the flanks, put balls in and their guys tucked them away."

Charles sent Landon Donovan on in place of Ramiro Coralles and Sasha Victorine on in place of Chris Albright, both in the 39th minute, but Spain's defense was as solid as it was rugged.

"There were holes in there, but they closed fast," the Galaxy's Victorine said. "That's the difference at this level. Whenever you get time on the ball, they close you down fast. You've got to play quicker."

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