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U.S. Is Showing It Can Play With the Boys From Brazil

March 04, 2001|GRAHAME L. JONES

Two soccer coaches spent a frigid night in Columbus, Ohio, last week watching Americans beat the gooseflesh off the Mexican national team--2-0, in short pants, in 29-degree weather--and then went their separate ways.

Mexico's Enrique Meza left to face the music back home, a hysterical soundtrack that figures to conclude with his swan song as national coach, any day now.

The United States' Bruce Arena flew out west, to Pasadena, to bask in a sun that failed to show and a post-victory honeymoon that didn't make it to 72 hours.

Saturday afternoon, shortly after watching a squad of prospects, projects and reserves lose, 2-1, in a scruffy performance against Brazil, Arena was asked by a reporter why these matches against the International Gods of Football are always so close.

Arena's right eyebrow shot up.

"What were you expecting it to be?" he wanted to know. "You want me to be honest?" the reporter countered.

Arena didn't wait for a projection, didn't dare the questioner to pick a number between 4-nil and 10-nil.

"We're not stepping on the field to be a punching bag for Brazil," Arena said.

"We're an adequate team, we're going to give them a hard game."

Still, this essentially was Arena's B team trading punches at the Rose Bowl with the No. 1 team in the world. Midfielder Claudio Reyna and forward Brian McBride were hurt. Defender Jeff Agoos was out with a viral infection. Forward Joe-Max Moore, midfielder Earnie Stewart, defender David Regis and goalkeeper Brad Friedel all had returned to their European club teams.

Only two starters from Wednesday's victory against Mexico were in the lineup for kickoff against Brazil--defender Eddie Pope and defensive midfielder Chris Armas.

And in the familiar yellow jerseys was a healthy portion of Brazil's regular first-team--six players who started Brazil's most recent World Cup qualifier against Colombia, along with rising star Ronaldinho, who scored Saturday's first goal on a looping free kick into the upper corner.

To put it another way:

Brazil has four small stars in its jersey, one for each World Cup it has won.

The U.S. has 50 small stars on its flag, one for each state that has yet to produce a soccer player with half the reputation of Romario, who also started for the Brazilians in this one.

Yet in their last six meetings, beginning with their Fourth of July clash during the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. and Brazil have not been separated by more than a goal. Four have resulted in 1-0 Brazilian victories. In 1998, the Americans upset Brazil in the Gold Cup at the Coliseum, 1-0.

And in front of 45,387 jacketed fans on a blustery day in Pasadena, the U.S. JVs were even with Brazil until Silvinho danced around Frankie Hejduk in the 56th minute and sent a hard grounder across the goalmouth for Euller, who slammed home the game-winner--and no small reputation saver.

"The result itself speaks to how difficult the task was," Brazil Coach Emerson Leao said through an interpreter. "The opposition was very motivated to play this game."

Romario was at the Coliseum three years ago for the Americans' lone victory in the series. Or, as it should more accurately be labeled: Kasey Keller's victory. The U.S. keeper turned back wave after wave of Brazilian assaults, turning in a performance Romario then called the best he had ever seen by a goalkeeper.

He was asked how this effort by the U.S. compared to that of '98.

"The game at the Coliseum, Brazil was the superior team," Romario said. "The U.S. had one chance, and they scored.

"Today, the game was more balanced. But, Brazil was luckier."

Brazil caught a glimpse of the future of American soccer, with teenagers Landon Donovan, who turns 19 today, and Bobby Convey, all of 17, starting at forward and left midfield, respectively. Joining Donovan on the forward line was 24-year-old Josh Wolff, the lean green sprinting machine who replaced McBride in Columbus and scored the game-breaking goal against Mexico.

Their youthfulness showed. Aside from a 75th-minute chip that freed Tony Sanneh for a volleyed shot knocked away by Brazilian keeper Rogerio Ceni, the 5-foot-8, 148-pound Donovan was rendered a nonfactor by Brazil's physical, seasoned backline. "I think Landon learned a little bit about what it's like against the big boys," Arena said. "Their center back kind of dominated him."

Convey drifted here and there for 67 minutes before being substituted. And Wolff, showing signs of fatigue after his 75-minute stint Wednesday, "hit the wall in the second half," as Arena worded it.

For them, Arena called the experience to scrap against the likes of Cafu and Emerson and Romario "invaluable . . . You learn in games like this. There aren't many better players in the world than the ones we've seen today."

This was on-the-job training against some of the best in the business. Having looked them over, Romario gave the young Americans a passing grade.

"The U.S. team today is at the same level as others throughout the world, a team that deserves respect," Romario said.

A team that, by now, ought to be able to play 90 minutes against Brazil and not have to explain why it lost by only one goal. But, as Arena is learning by the day, these things take time.

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