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Tie Is a Great Gift for U.S. Soccer

June 11, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAEGU, South Korea — History beckons.

Whether it will be goalkeeper Brad Friedel who answers the call with another standout game against Poland, or the Mohawk-cropped Clint Mathis who replies with another goal out of nowhere, only time will tell.

What is known is that the United States battled South Korea to a 1-1 tie Monday in front of an enthralled throng of 60,778 at the Daegu World Cup Stadium, where Friedel saved a penalty kick, Mathis scored in his World Cup debut and each team walked out of the stadium with honor satisfied.

When Portugal plundered Poland, 4-0, in the rain in Jeonju, South Korea, later Monday night, the U.S. was positioned to reach the second round--if it can tie or beat the Poles in Daejeon, South Korea, on Friday.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 215 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S.-South Korea soccer--In Tuesday's Sports story on the World Cup soccer game between the United States and South Korea, the player who missed a shot late in the match that would have given South Korea a 2-1 lead was Choi Yong Soo, not Choi Sung Yong, as was reported.

The Americans have visited that lofty plateau only twice before in their soccer history--in 1930 and 1994.

"We're feeling good," said captain Claudio Reyna. "Our spirits were high in the locker room. We were really happy with that point. We have one more [first-round] game left, and we're in a great position to get through.

"But it's definitely not over. On the last day, in the third game, strange things happen. So until it's over, we have to keep going."

The Poles will have nothing to lose because Monday's loss ended their hopes of advancing. "We've got a hard game against Poland, and we know that," Friedel said. "We'll have our heads screwed on straight and be ready for that."

Friedel was more than ready Monday. He faced a barrage of 19 shots from the South Koreans, 10 of them on target, but it was his save on Lee Eul Yong's 40th-minute penalty kick that kept the U.S. in control. The kick was awarded by Swiss referee Urs Meier, who ruled that defender Jeff Agoos had fouled South Korean forward Hwang Sun Hong. Lee stepped up to take the shot but failed to hit it where Friedel wasn't.

"I just had a feeling he was going to go that way," Friedel said. "I think they switched shooters. That always makes me feel a little better because it tells me one of them wasn't really looking forward to taking a penalty.

"When he was stepping up to the ball, I thought he was going to go to that side. I gave a little bit of a fake, like I was going left, and returned back to the middle. I was fortunate enough that he put it in my reach."

Mathis had made no such mistake when presented with a scoring opportunity in the 24th minute.

The U.S. goal was created out of almost nothing by midfielder John O'Brien, who took possession at midfield, made a run toward the South Korean net and then lofted a perfect pass over the head of defender Hong Myung Bo and into the path of Mathis, who timed his run perfectly.

Mathis controlled the ball with his right foot, allowed it to bounce once and then unleashed a left-foot shot that flew straight and true into the lower right corner of the South Korean net.

Defender Choi Jin Cheul arrived a split second too late.

"I didn't even know there was a defender coming in on the blind side until I saw the replay," Mathis said. "I didn't know if I was offside, you couldn't hear the whistle blowing or anything. I wanted to finish the play off just in case.

"Luckily, I was able to get a good shot and put it in the corner. I took the shot off my first touch, else I probably would have lost the opportunity to shoot."

The praise was swift in coming.

"It was a great finish," fellow striker Brian McBride said. "All around. His run to stay on side, the ball from Johnny [O'Brien], his first touch and then the calmness and coolness [of the finish].

O'Brien was quick to agree.

"He's a clinical finisher," he said. "If you look at the replay, it was just a great goal. He touches it with his right foot, it bounces once and he strikes it right in the corner with his left foot.

Like the rest of the U.S. players, O'Brien was delighted that the U.S., after losing all three games at the France '98 World Cup, is unbeaten after two games at Korea/Japan '02.

"Four points after two games, that's not a bad situation," he said. "We felt during the game we could maybe have six, but we've got to be happy with four."

U.S. Coach Bruce Arena certainly was.

"If you had asked most people months ago whether the U.S. would have four points after its first two matches, I think 100% of them would have said no," he said.

"I'm going to take it and get out of town real quick and get our team prepared for a very difficult opponent in Poland."

To the enormous relief and delight of its fans, South Korea finally found a way to beat Friedel in the 78th minute.

Awarded a free kick at midfield after Landon Donovan had brought Lee down with a tackle from behind, South Korea took full advantage. Lee floated the ball toward the far post and Ahn Jung Hwan out-jumped Agoos to head the ball into the right corner of the net.

"It was a ball played in between the defense and myself," Friedel explained. "Both teams were tired at the end, and I think we lost concentration for a split second, and they put it away."

South Korea Coach Guus Hiddink had mixed emotions about the result. He was pleased that his team had been able to come back and gain the tie. Yet he believed South Korea should have won.

"We created five, six, seven [scoring] chances," he said. "The goalie [Friedel] was tremendous, but at the international level, from that many chances we should have scored at least once [more]."

By far the best chance arose in the 89th minute, when Lee took a back-heel pass from Ahn and raced to the end line before cutting the ball back to Choi Sung Yong, who had only Friedel to beat from six yards to give South Korea a goal and all but assure it a place in the second round with a victory.

Sadly for Choi, he blasted the ball high over the bar, and South Korea faces the unpleasant prospect of having to tie or defeat the surging Portuguese if it hopes to avoid becoming the first host nation in World Cup history to fail to reach the second round.

History beckons.

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