Sampson boosts game, Washington Columbia-raised MLS star 'in pool' for match, Cup


Steve Sampson came to town yesterday, touting his U.S. national team's exhibition game against Ecuador at Memorial Stadium on Aug. 7 and carrying nary a discouraging word about Columbia's Dante Washington.

"This community has always supported soccer at all levels," Sampson said. "It's unfortunate that it's taken 25 years to come back with the national team, and we hope to make it a more common occurrence."

He reiterated the U.S. Soccer Federation's interest in the turnout here, particularly given prospects of future appearances at the new Ravens stadium at Camden Yards. U.S. Soccer is hoping for 15,000 to 20,000 -- "ideally, 25,000," Sampson interjected -- as an indication of what future gates could be in Baltimore.

About 2,000 tickets have been sold during this first week of availability, with no advertising having been done yet. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and at the Ravens' ticket office at Memorial Stadium.

The message for Washington, who grew up in Columbia, was virtually out of the game several years ago, but has blossomed into a Major League Soccer all-star forward with the Dallas Burn, was essentially this:

Despite a rocky performance several weeks ago with the U.S. team, keep Aug. 7 open for a possible appearance before the hometown folks. He's still in Sampson's good graces.

Sampson didn't guarantee that Washington -- who had five U.S. international appearances before being cut just prior to the 1994 World Cup -- would be called up for Ecuador.

However, he said reassuringly, "He's always an option. He's in the pool," referring to the array of players from which he will pick a World Cup team. That team is still to be chosen.

"I liked the way he played in the MLS All-Star game and the way he's playing in Dallas," Sampson said. Washington, a late addition to the West team, started in place of the injured Eric Wynalda and scored the game's first goal.

Sampson pointed out that even Washington had said he didn't play well a few weeks ago as a late American substitute against Paraguay in Fenton, Mo.

But that game was Washington's first for the U.S. team in three years, and the coach admitted yesterday to having put him "in a difficult position" by announcing Washington was being called up as a defender, even though he'd never played the position -- and then putting him in at striker.

In effect, Sampson said yesterday, that was a head game, because he wanted to "make a statement" about being willing to convert fast forwards, such as Washington, to defense if his regular defenders didn't shape up.

The one defender that message was not intended for, Sampson added, was D.C. United's Eddie Pope, who "can play anywhere in the world, for any team, at any level -- he's that good."

But the other U.S. defenders have shaped up, Sampson continued, and he liked the way they played in the June 29 World Cup qualifier in El Salvador.

Sampson said he will field "a very strong team" in Baltimore against Ecuador, which the U.S. squad has not beaten in six attempts.

The game is essential preparation, Sampson continued, for the next U.S. World Cup qualifier, against Costa Rica in Portland, Ore., Sept. 7. Costa Rica is the most serious threat to the Americans not making the World Cup finals in France next summer.

"There will be very little experimentation in the way of new players, or young players, for this [Baltimore] game," he said, adding that "the likes of [regulars] Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, possibly Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda if he's 100 percent healthy, John Harkes, Eddie Pope, etc., etc., will make for a very, very competitive team."

Pub Date: 7/12/97

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