- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

With the World Cup in Japan and South Korea 55 days away, it's a jittery time for soccer players. The worry level increases with each game as players seek to impress the national team coach while at the same time try to avoid injury. Players have to decide whether to commit to what might be a tough tackle or hold back a little.
The World Cup is every player's dream, and an overzealous run, tackle or kick could ruin everything. A torn hamstring or a twisted knee in the next few weeks and it's good bye to all that sushi and kimchi awaiting them in Asia.
No one knows this better than injury-prone American captain, Claudio Reyna, a key player with Sunderland in the English Premier League.
The former Virginia star is currently burdened with the role of saving Sunderland from relegation to the First Division. Reyna desperately wants to remain injury-free in order to lead the American team out against Portugal on June 5 in South Korea. Juggling club and national commitments is the challenge for every great player these days.
Sunderland, which regularly packs its Stadium of Light with 47,000 fans, has five games left in the season. Reyna is the player the fans will be watching closely. The club spent a record $6.5million to bring the American from the Glasgow Rangers in December with the mission of keeping the team alive in the lucrative Premier League.
Reyna paid off some of his transfer fee when he scored two goals in the Black Cats' vital victory over Leicester City on Monday. It was the first time the club had scored two goals at home since Nov.18.
"Those goals rank up there with the most important ones in my career," Reyna said.
"Rocket man Reyna United States captain is a star in stripes at last," blared the headlines in London's Daily Mail.
Said Sunderland coach Peter Reid: "Claudio was outstanding a calming influence in a very tense situation."
But while Sunderland's fans are cheering Reyna, American fans are hoping the talented midfielder will bring that "calming influence" to the U.S. team's midfield come June. Without Reyna, the U.S. team is missing a pure playmaker and an excellent passer.
The much-hyped Landon Donovan, a possible replacement for Reyna, certainly has great talent, but while Donovan dribbles around players just out of college in Major League Soccer, Reyna is facing many of the best players in the world week in and week out. His experience will be invaluable when the Americans go up against Portugal, South Korea and Poland at the World Cup.
When Manchester United star and English captain David Beckham went down clutching his ankle on Wednesday night at Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna, millions of fans across Britain cringed.
Beckham was lucky to escape with a bruised ankle, but the same can't be said for Manchester's Roy Keane, who had to leave the game with a hamstring injury. Keane is the captain of Ireland and will be out for a month. He is hoping to be ready for the World Cup, but it's a major drawback for his team.
Inevitably in coming weeks, there will be injuries and talented stars will not make it to the World Cup. On Tuesday, while preparing to face the U.S. team in Denver, Mexico captain Claudio Suarez broke his leg during practice and likely will miss the finals. Two weeks ago, French midfielder Robert Pires was ruled out of the Cup after injuring his knee.
Before the 1998 World Cup in France, Brazil lost Romario and Juninho to injury while Italy lost starting goalie Angelo Peruzzi and Croatia lost star forward Alen Boskic
Americans can only hope that crucial players such as Clint Mathis, Chris Armas, Brian McBride and Reyna stay injury-free for the finals. Maybe a prayer is in order.

Freedom update The Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) take on perennial NCAA women's power North Carolina tonight at 7:15, capping of a full day of action at the Annual Kicks Against Breast Cancer Tournament at the Montgomery SoccerPlex in Germantown.
Other colleges participating in the tournament are Maryland, George Mason, Georgetown, Virginia and Navy. The program begins at 10 a.m. and involves 13 games. Admission is $10 and $8 for youths under 18. Call 301/528-1480 for information.
The Freedom's home opener will be against the New York Power on April 13 at RFK Stadium.
The WUSA announced this week that Herndon Stadium, new home of the Atlanta Beat, will play host to Founders Cup II the league's championship match on Aug.24. Herndon Stadium is a 15,011-seat venue that was recently converted to natural grass. Built in 1948, the stadium underwent a $21million renovation before the 1996 Olympic Games, when it served as a field hockey venue.
The WUSA, which opens its second season next week, has 30 international players from 11 nations. Nine players come from China and six from Norway. Each of the league's eight clubs is allowed four international players. This week the Freedom opened a spot for a foreign star by buying out the contract of Brazilian forward Roseli.

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