They may be playing the country that gave the ancient world Alexander the Great, but for the U.S. national team's players tonight in San Jose, Calif., the deep-down focus won't be solely on Macedonia; it will also be on a formidable opponent on their schedule for June 15 -- Germany.
The Macedonians will be the first of three tuneups in three weekends, ending May 30 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., as the Americans prepare for next month's final round of the 1998 World Cup in France.
Game time on the West Coast is 8 p.m. as part of a Major League Soccer doubleheader; ESPN2 will show the game at 1 p.m. tomorrow on the East Coast.
Friendly or not, this first U.S. contest against one of the former Yugoslavia's break-away republics has serious facets for the U.S. team.
Several starting positions remain open, including an outside defensive back slot played throughout qualifying by D.C. United's Jeff Agoos.
U.S. coach Steve Sampson is veritably salivating over replacing Agoos, who has more qualifying minutes than any teammate, with David Regis, a faster, albeit French-speaking, Martinique-born defender in the German Bundesliga who may, or may not, qualify for American citizenship.
With Eric Wynalda, the all-time American goal-scoring leader, trying to beat the World Cup clock in healing from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Columbus Crew's Brian McBride will get another chance to shine as the goal-scoring "1" in the team's new, midfield-clogging, 3-6-1 alignment.
Preparing physically for Germany, always a Cup favorite, may be a prime American objective as the run-up to France begins in earnest. But Macedonia also offers a chance to practice against a team similar in individual skills and attacking mentality to civil war-downsized Yugoslavia, perhaps the key impediment to U.S. advancement in France.
Except, as Sampson said this week, the Macedonians "are not quite the quality of Yugoslavia." They missed the Cup despite a relatively weak qualifying group; on the other hand, some say Yugoslavia is capable of winning the whole thing.
Another question: Can the U.S. team apply the 3-6-1 without offensive orchestrator Claudio Reyna? The newly designated playmaker, so devastating in a surprisingly dominant, 3-0 win over Cup-bound Austria several weeks ago, may sit tonight with a "slight calf injury" -- a precaution to protect him for France.
One thing that seems done with is the adjustment to the loss of midfielder and former captain John Harkes, whose cut by Sampson a month ago stunned his teammates, not to mention the soccer world.
New captain Thomas Dooley, held in high esteem by his teammates, said Thursday: "It's something that happens in every big country. Players will get cut. We have to focus on the games ahead of us and not worry about what we have no control over.
"Everything that has happened is now history, and we need to prepare for Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia."
Pub Date: 5/16/98