With the World Cup less than four months away, this week’s slew of international games took on added importance.
Fielding a lineup with eight European-based players, the U.S. national team played some impressive possession soccer for the first 45 minutes of a 1-0 loss to a tough Italian team in Sicily.
The U.S. team now needs to produce consistency and a more physical presence to earn favorable results against Poland, South Korea and Portugal at the World Cup in June.
In front of a passionate Italian crowd, the Americans showed confidence, composure and intelligence in the early going, with Landon Donovan getting behind the Italian back line several times. Even Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni suggested that “1-1 would have been a fairer result.”
Ultimately, Donovan was no match for Italy’s giant defender, Marco Materazzi, who knows how to use his body as well as his feet. If the 19-year-old American wants to make an impact on the big stage, he has to toughen up.
Much of the new confidence on the U.S. team is the result of more Americans playing for clubs in Europe, where the world’s best players compete. Three of the players who started against Italy Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna and Joe-Max Moore play in England’s Premier League, which is virtually becoming the United Nations of soccer.
There is more familiarity now between American and European players, and the intimidation factor that Americans suffered in the past is fading. A player may have pace and confidence, but to learn the subtle techniques of the game it is important to have experience in the big leagues in Europe. That’s why the Americans may have an advantage over the South Koreans, who have just two players with overseas experience.
The U.S. team’s World Cup opponents, Poland and Portugal, sent a message in midweek games that it will be tough going for the Americans in South Korea.
Poland crushed Northern Ireland 4-1 in neutral Cyprus. The Poles have a training center there, but only 221 spectators attended. Portugal earned an impressive 1-1 tie on the road against a star-studded Spanish side.
In other major games, defending world champion France beat Romania 2-1 before 75,000 in Paris. Veteran defender Emmanuel Petit, who scored in the 1998 World Cup final against Brazil, got the game winner.
Lightly regarded Wales nearly upset World Cup favorite Argentina in Cardiff before settling for a 1-1 tie before 65,000. The Welsh led the game for 61 minutes until Julio Cruz tied it for the South Americans.
Germany may have found the striker it needs in Miroslav Klose, who earned a hat trick in the 7-1 downing of Israel. Since Juergen Klinsmann hung up his cleats and Oliver Bierhoff went stale, the Germans have lacked a great forward. Many of the top forwards on the big German clubs these days are Brazilian imports. The Americans will visit Germany on March 27 for a World Cup tuneup.
Ireland continued to impress with a 2-0 victory over Russia in Dublin. Both teams are heading to the World Cup. The U.S. team heads to Dublin on April 17 for an exhibition game.
Slovenia, the smallest country to qualify for this year’s World Cup, was drubbed 5-1 by the improving Hondurans in Hong Kong. Saul Martinez scored four goals against the Europeans. Honduras takes on the Americans on March 2 in Seattle.
Aston Villa striker Darius Vassell scored a spectacular bicycle kick goal in his debut for the English national team in its 1-1 tie at Holland. Vassell made the English roster only because of an injury to star forward Michael Owen. His performance could help him earn a trip to the World Cup.
U.S. women Once again Washington Freedom star Mia Hamm will not travel with the U.S. team on an overseas tour. Hamm, who missed the Four Nations Cup in China last month, was not picked for the 20-player roster for the 2002 Algarve Cup in Portugal next month.
A press release from U.S. Soccer says Hamm is “still not 100 percent recovered from a lingering injury to her left knee.” Hamm has 129 goals in 219 games for the Americans.
In Portugal, the Americans will play defending champion Sweden, England and Olympic champion Norway in Group B starting March 1.
TV news ABC and ESPN2 will combine to broadcast 30 MLS games this season, including four D.C. United contests. Twenty-four of the games will be shown on Saturdays. Pax TV will air 20 Women’s United Soccer Association games on Saturdays at 4 p.m., including six Washington Freedom matches.
MLS Cup Major League Soccer announced this week that MLS Cup 2002 will be at $325 million CMGI Field, new home of the New England Revolution. CMGI Field will be christened May 11, when the Revolution plays host to the Dallas Burn. The Revolution’s pitch at CMGI is 75 yards wide and 115 yards long, the same as London’s famed Wembley Stadium.
MLS teams have until March 15 before they must be in final compliance with the league’s 22-player roster.