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'98 Degrees

What a world of difference four years make for American soccer

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

SEOUL — Some of the more memorable comments to emerge from the debris of the United States' 1998 World Cup campaign in France were made by Bob Gansler, the man who coached the U.S. team at the Italy '90 World Cup.

"I still think some folks have been unrealistic, thinking that because this is America we can have a miracle on ice on any given day, on any given surface," Gansler told Soccer America magazine.

"Progress is being made and people should be happy about it. This World Cup performance was not a death knell. It wasn't Armageddon."

No more compelling evidence exists for that argument than the performance of the U.S. team at Korea/Japan '02. The 32-nation tournament has reached its quarterfinal stage, and Coach Bruce Arena's team still is involved.

On Friday night, in the South Korean city of Ulsan, the U.S. plays three-time world champion Germany for a place in the semifinals. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable--indeed, laughable--only four years ago.

So what has changed? What has turned the Americans from international nobodies to viable players on the world stage?

The answer is everything and nothing.

Certainly, the team has changed, but not entirely. Of the 23 players on the roster, 11 were on Coach Steve Sampson's 1998 team that went 0-3 and disintegrated amid squabbling over who was to blame and why. Two players, backup goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Tony Meola, were on Gansler's 1990 team that also went 0-3 but did not fall apart internally.

"We were just talking about that in the shower," Meola said Monday, shortly after the U.S. had beaten Mexico to secure its quarterfinal berth. "Twelve years ago, we would never have thought we'd be here, in the final eight, and deserve to be here. We've done quite well."

Meola's understatement is natural. Because of the debacle of '98, expectations of success at this World Cup were low among fans and the media. Only the coaches and players themselves showed any great belief in the team.

The U.S. Soccer Federation, meanwhile, was determined to erase the stigma of 1998's last-place finish, no matter how much it cost.

The determination to do better both on and off the field was reflected in a comment by Robert Contiguglia, the federation's president.

"I don't like to think too much on '98," he said. "I get ulcers when I think about it."

To make the memory go away, millions of dollars have been spent on this team, with the money going toward everything from such high-price items as the chartered airplane that flew the team to Daegu for its match against South Korea to such unlikely items as baby-sitters for the players' children and exclusive use of the sauna at the team's luxury hotel in Seoul.

Cost has been no object, or at least not a serious one.

"A lot of it is due to Bruce being very stern in his demands [of U.S. Soccer]," starting goalkeeper Brad Friedel said Tuesday. "He took everything from the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups and I'm guessing he put them into two columns: what was good and what was bad.

"The ones that are bad usually cost money [to fix]. There are loads of little things that add up to big dollars. Some of these younger players might not realize the strides that have been made. I remember when we were playing for $50 a game. Now we're not doing that. They have done a fantastic job this time and we [the players] have let them know it."

Arena took over as coach in November 1998 and immediately set about not only recasting the team but cleansing the atmosphere surrounding it. He said he did not want to dwell on past failures.

"That's one thing we tried to do," he said, "to put 1998 behind us as quickly as we could in order to try to rebuild and try to make it better."

Judged on results alone, he has succeeded. But the credit also goes to the players, especially the survivors of 1998's crash-and-burn experience.

"It's nice to get a chance to come back and hopefully put things right," midfielder and team captain Claudio Reyna said shortly before the World Cup began. "The setup has already been much better without even playing our first game. In 1998, before we kicked a ball, it was already a mess.

"The entire preparation, the atmosphere and attitude of the whole team has been very good, and hopefully it will pay off."

Even players who were not in France, such as Landon Donovan, who was only 16 then, have realized the importance of doing well in 2002.

"I think the players have completely forgotten about France," Donovan said. "Obviously, I wasn't there, but from what I gather it's not like it weighs on the players [who were there], like they have to make up for what happened in France.

"There has been a good aura around this team that says, 'It's over, it happened.' We want to start anew and we just want to show what we have this time as opposed to making up for last time."

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