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Americans Kick Off With Familiar Foe

Soccer: U.S.-South Korea Gold Cup game today at the Rose Bowl is an opening act to their World Cup meeting.

January 19, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fewer than five months from today--on June 10, to be exact--the national soccer teams of the United States and South Korea will square off in front of a capacity crowd of 68,014 in Daegu, South Korea.

The stakes in that game will be enormous. The outcome almost certainly will determine whether either country has a chance to advance to the second round of the 2002 World Cup.

Today, far less will be on the line at the Rose Bowl, where the teams will stage a dress rehearsal of sorts.

Their 3 p.m. game--which follows a 1 p.m. game between El Salvador and Mexico--marks the opener for both teams in the sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup. It provides U.S. Coach Bruce Arena and South Korea Coach Guus Hiddink another opportunity to scout one of their World Cup opponents at close range.

On Dec. 9, just days after they had been drawn into the same World Cup group with the U.S., Portugal and Poland, the South Koreans defeated the Americans, 1-0, in front of a sellout crowd of 42,256 in Seogwipo, South Korea.

That was the fourth game between the countries, and the U.S. has yet to win. South Korea leads the series, 3-0-1.

"It is a little strange, certainly, that this will be the second time we'll play Korea in about the last six weeks," Arena said. Regardless of the results, both games are more valuable to the Americans than the Koreans.

That's because Hiddink is fielding what will be close to his World Cup lineup. But as many as half of Arena's probable starters are in Europe and not taking part in the Gold Cup.

Among those missing are goalkeeper Brad Friedel and playmaker Claudio Reyna, both in England; defender Tony Sanneh, who is in Germany, and midfielders Earnie Stewart and John O'Brien, both in the Netherlands.

Several other first-choice players are injured, including central defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa.

"They're not going to see the real U.S. team," Arena said. "On the other hand, we get a pretty good feel for what Korea's about.

"[South Korea is a] very fit and tenacious team. They defend quite well and that's probably their strength."

South Korea lost, 1-0, to the Galaxy in a scrimmage on Wednesday, and afterward, Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas and defender Alexi Lalas provided more insight.

"What they do very well is they fight for every loose ball, they've got tremendous energy," Vagenas said. "Technically, they all seem to be very skilled. It's a team that's very organized and tough to break down."

Lalas, a veteran of the 1994 and 1998 World Cup tournaments, offered a different perspective.

"Well, they're not going to win the fair-play award," he said after watching several Galaxy players being roughly shoulder-charged off the ball.

"It's so hard to judge this far out [from the World Cup] and everyone's keeping everything pretty close right now. Even in this [Gold Cup] tournament, no matter how many wins you get, the only thing that matters for them is that first game against Poland [in Busan, South Korea, on June 4] and for us against Portugal [on June 5 in Suwon, South Korea].

"Asian countries on the whole have improved their soccer, especially tactically. They've brought in foreign coaches and a lot more [Asian] players are playing overseas.

"It used to be the knock was, 'Yeah, they're fit and yeah they're really, really quick, but they have absolutely no idea what to do with that.' That's definitely started to change and will be reflected in the years to come, if not this summer."

In Gold Cup openers: Canada's Kevin McKenna scored twice in a 2-0 win over Haiti in front of 14,508 at the Orange Bowl in Miami. In the first game, Costa Rica beat Martinique, 2-0. Hernan Medford and Rolando Fonseca scored goals.

*

TODAY'S GAMES

What: CONCACAF Gold Cup

When: El Salvador vs. Mexico, 1 p.m.; U.S. vs. South Korea, 3 p.m.

Where: Rose Bowl

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