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Agoos Finally Gets a Field Day

Soccer: After 14 years with U.S. national team, 34-year-old is expected to play in World Cup for first time Wednesday.

June 03, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — The moment is almost here for Jeff Agoos. Unless disaster strikes in the next 48 hours, on Wednesday the United States' oldest and second-most experienced player will step onto the field for the first time in a World Cup.

It has taken him 14 years to get here.

To put that in perspective, when Agoos, 34, first put on a U.S. national team jersey, World Cup teammates Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were 6 years old.

To call Agoos the grand old man of U.S. soccer might be pushing it a little, but if anyone deserves to play here, it's the San Jose Earthquake and former D.C. United defender who has racked up more than 10,000 minutes of playing time for the national team.

And not one of those minutes was on soccer's grandest stage.

Eight years ago, Agoos was the last player cut by then-coach Bora Milutinovic before the USA '94 World Cup. He reacted by setting fire to his training gear and reconsidering his future.

"What did I burn? It was just a pair of shorts and a shirt, that was it," he said Sunday. "It was nothing more symbolic than that."

Four years ago, Agoos was selected for the France '98 World Cup by then-coach Steve Sampson but didn't see any playing time. Not one second. While others lashed out at that 0-3 debacle, Agoos reacted by biting his tongue and reconsidering his future.

And in both instances that reconsideration led to the decision to carry on, to keep plugging away until he had proven that he should have been there all along.

And now that he's here, poised to be a part of Korea/Japan '02, the surprising thing is that he doesn't view it as a great accomplishment.

"I don't look at this as an individual thing where the spotlight's on me," he said. "I think it's more important to focus on what my job is within the team and how I'm going to go about accomplishing that.

"Maybe once the tournament's over I'll look at it in a different light, but right now my focus is just on what my duties and responsibilities are."

But isn't there a sense of satisfaction to reach a goal he had set when he made his U.S. debut, against Guatemala in 1988? Not so, said Agoos.

"It wasn't an issue for me whether I played or didn't play," he said. "It wasn't that big of a deal. I've been in the national team for 14 years now and if I am able to step on the field, then I think that will be a great thing. If not, then I think I've still contributed to the national team program. It's not a do-or-die situation for me."

It is a do-or-die situation for the U.S., which opens in Suwon, South Korea, against a Portugal team that is viewed as one of the tournament's strongest. Agoos' role is clearly defined, although it remains uncertain whether he will play as a central defender or at left back.

"Simply put, it's to stop them from scoring goals," he said. "Playing against any team, but especially Portugal, it's not a very simple job. They've got such a wealth of talent that you've got to be ready to do a number of things.

"I mean, we've got an idea of how they're going to play, but when it comes down to the day, everything could be different, so we just have to do the problem solving on the field. They're a pretty creative and talented bunch of players."

Agoos has played 130 games for the U.S., a total second only to Cobi Jones on the all-time list. He has a couple of Gold Cup victories on his resume, along with a record four Major League Soccer titles.

"His greatest quality that he brings to our team is his consistency," Coach Bruce Arena said Sunday. "Wherever we've played him, he's been pretty consistent throughout the years .He brings a lot of quality to the field and certainly some experience as well with our group. So I'm hopeful that this is a good World Cup for Jeff."

It was because Arena took over as coach in 1998 that Agoos decided to stay with the national team.

"It was a big factor for coming back and trying for another four years," he said. "I have a long history with Bruce all the way to [the University of] Virginia and I knew what kind of coach he was, what kind of person he was, his expectations, and I knew I could fit that role whether it was on or off the field."

Shortly before leaving for the World Cup, Agoos bought a house in San Jose. It will come in handy for displaying the national team jerseys that players traditionally swap after games.

"I've got a home in D.C. and they're all over the place," Agoos said. "I think I've only got about 15 up [framed and hung on the wall] and I've got another hundred or so in a bag somewhere. Quite a lot of Guatemalan and Costa Rican ones. We see those guys quite a bit. This will be a little bit different."

"This" is the World Cup, where Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and others await on Wednesday. Beyond that are South Korea and Poland in the first round. And beyond that, who knows?

"There are quite a few [player jerseys] that I would like here, some that we're going to be playing and some that we're not going to be playing," Agoos said. "It's great to play against some of the best players in the world. The nice part about it is being able to get their jersey. The challenging part for any good player is playing against the best, and that's what we're doing here."

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