WASHINGTON -- A year removed from a remarkable run of World Cup success, the U.S. national soccer team is still very hungry. Hungry for success and respect.
After beating Nigeria, 3-2, last Sunday at Foxboro, Mass., in their first game of the U.S. Cup '95 tournament, the Americans believe there still are skeptics. So, the U.S. national team feels there is a lot to prove starting again today in a nationally televised game against Mexico at RFK Stadium.
"After beating Nigeria, we don't want that to be just a fluke and we don't want anybody to think that our showing in the World Cup was a fluke so we want to have a good showing here," midfielder Cobi Jones said after a practice last week. "It is very important, besides the fact that this game is a U.S. Cup game. It is another step toward us gaining respect."
Head coach Steve Sampson said this tournament and future pre-World Cup competition is a way to gain more soccer fans in the country so that the excitement from last year's World Cup is not forgotten. More importantly, these games serve as preparation for qualifying rounds for the 1998 World Cup, which will be in France.
"I think the win was real significant in the standpoint that they [Nigeria] were the champions of the continent of Africa," Sampson said. "Anytime you beat a team like that, it has to be a boost not only for this team but for soccer in the United States. We are continuing to show that when we have our best team on the field we can compete with anybody in the world. Nigeria had at least six [World Cup players]."
Defensive standout Alexi Lalas says he is tired of talking about last summer's historic World Cup upset of Colombia. Lalas, 25, is eager to add to U.S. soccer history.
"We have to build on the success we had last summer," Lalas said. "We had a great time last summer but we can't just keep remembering that and talking about the past. We have to continue to progress and play games like these and tournaments like these. Pressure comes with success, and that is the sort of pressure we have wanted for a long time. People never were taking us seriously, and after the World Cup we got a little credibility."
Sampson says that despite having nine players on the field with World Cup experience, there is still plenty to improve on before qualifying rounds for the '98 Cup begin in about a year.
"These games are important so that we can develop a philosophy of how we are going to play, and then make some decisions on personnel," Sampson said. "We have to improve on our intensity, and our level of concentration has to be for 90 minutes. This is evident toward the end of a half or end of a game where we lose our concentration and focus. I think the pressure for us should be to qualify for France."
For now, Jones just wants to beat Mexico.
"It's a big test," Jones said. "We are playing against a good team and one of our major rivals. The United States and Mexico . . . it's one of the biggest rivalries there is."
U.S. Cup '95
What: U.S. vs. Mexico
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Where: RFK stadium
TV: WMAR 2, WJLA-7
Tickets: $50, $35, $25, $20. Call TicketMaster at (410) 481-SEAT or (202) 432-SEAT.