U.S. team hopes to sell soccer to public WORLD CUP 1994


There isn't much riding on the United States' performance in the World Cup.

Just a couple of dozen careers and the future of soccer here.

"We don't have 100 years of tradition with our national team," U.S. goalie Tony Meola said. "People don't sing songs about us. The more we win, the more credibility we're going to have as individuals and as an organization. That can only translate into more bodies in the seats when the league comes around."

With more than 11 million children participating in youth soccer, the United States has enough bodies on the field.

What players like Meola and front-office types like World Cup chairman Alan Rothenberg hope is that some of the millions who will attend World Cup games will come back next year. That's when Major League Soccer is scheduled to open for business, trying to succeed as a spectator sport, something a half-dozen soccer leagues have failed to do over the past three decades.

That mission -- to have interest in the World Cup spill over to the MLS in 1995 -- means the U.S. team faces an entirely different kind of pressure than the other 23 teams that qualified.

The other 23 countries are sending dream teams -- some international superstars and most national heroes. With the exception of the rare Greece or Saudi Arabia, they're continuing a rich, passionate legacy. U.S. players have to go overseas for top competition and compensation, and they know that the only way that will change is if they deliver a strong showing this month.

The seemingly preposterous notion of the United States reaching the quarterfinals could win over a skeptical public. Advancement to the second round is considered a must, and anything less would give the United States the ignominious distinction of being the first World Cup host to fail to survive the first round.

Otherwise, most of the concerns facing the U.S. team are nothing out of the ordinary:

* The players squabbled with the U.S. Soccer Federation over bonus money, but it was nothing as divisive as the mutiny that tore apart the Russians.

* Some U.S. players complained about coach Bora Milutinovic, but the dissension didn't reach the extreme it did in the Netherlands, where Ruud Gullit quit over disagreements with Dick Advocaat.

* Five top players didn't report until the fourth week of May, but that's about the same time a good chunk of the Italian roster gathered after the European Cup.

The luck of the draw placed the United States in Group A, with favored Colombia, Romania and Switzerland.

The top two teams in each of the six groups, and four of the third-place teams, will advance to the round of 16.

An international panel of soccer writers had the United States tied with Romania for No. 18 in the world, ahead of Switzerland, its first-game opponent Saturday in Detroit.

"There aren't a lot of people, even in the American media, that think we can get through," Meola said. "We have a lot of people to prove wrong."

Meola figures to be the man in the back on a lineup that, in the finest tradition of the red, white and blue, is a melting pot of ethnic, professional and educational backgrounds.

Seven players were born overseas, and three of them are "passport" Americans. Defender Thomas Dooley and forward Ernie Stewart were born to American servicemen in Germany and the Netherlands, respectively. South African Roy Wegerle is here because he married an American.

More than half of the 22 spent most of 1993 in Mission Viejo, Calif., a training camp the U.S. Soccer Federation created to fill the void left by the lack of a First Division pro league. While other countries simply added names to their national team, the United States had to go through the process of making cuts from an unwieldy player pool.

Only six remain from 1990, when the U.S. team was a bust in Italy.

That team's coach, Bob Gansler, sent out the youngest team in the tournament. It was crushed by Czechoslovakia, 5-1, in its 1990 opener, went 0-3 and discovered that NCAA titles and All-American honors don't count for much in the World Cup.

Meola, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda since have played professionally in Europe, where Dooley, Stewart and Wegerle also earned their stripes.

Some don't hide their contempt for Milutinovic, whose constant experimentation has kept them off balance.

Most likely he'll still be mixing the brew when the U.S. team begins play, because Harkes, one of his most skilled players, hasn't played with the national team since last July.

Harkes wants to play midfield, but he could end up at right back in a five-man defense that will include sweeper Dooley and be fortified by Paul Caligiuri, whose goal against Trinidad & Tobago got the United States to the 1990 World Cup; Alexi Lalas, the red-headed, guitar-playing enforcer; Marcelo Balboa and Cle Kooiman.

Claudio Reyna, the youngest player on the team, made the most of his spring tryout, but he has a strained right hamstring and will be out until midweek. That hinders his chances to start in the midfield, where Ramos, Wynalda and Hugo Perez figure prominently. Milutinovic has to choose from among Stewart, Wegerle and Frank Klopas for the lone striker spot up top, but the strength of the roster is the flexibility it gives him.

Harkes arrived after Memorial Day. Kooiman, Ramos, Stewart, Wegerle and Wynalda made their first national team appearances of 1994 less than three weeks ago. Everyone has to connect. Now.

"What matters here is that we all pull together," Ramos said. "If we're not together, we don't have a chance."

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