- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

First there was Bob, then Bora, then Steve and now Bruce.
In the last 13 years four coaches Bob Gansler (1989-1991) Bora Milutinovic (1991-1995), Steve Sampson (1995-1998) and Bruce Arena (1998-present) have guided the U.S. men's team to soccer's biggest event the World Cup.
If you discount John Kowalski's three-game tenure in 1991, four coaches in 13 years is not bad, especially when you consider that Brazil has gone through three coaches in the past two years.
As it left for South Korea this week, Arena's U.S. team stood on a foundation forged back in 1989, when the unassuming Gansler led a ragtag group of college players to qualify for the U.S. team's first World Cup berth in 40 years.
At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the American players were mauled badly in their first game a 5-1 thrashing by Czechoslovakia. However, the team redeemed itself with a respectable 1-0 loss to the powerful Italians.
The folks at U.S. Soccer wanted a miracle, but Gansler was only human. On his return from Italy, Gansler was cast into the soccer wilderness. Later he would return to the big time, leading the Kansas City Wizards to the 2000 Major League Soccer Cup.
After Gansler, U.S. Soccer's shrewd president, Alan Rothenberg, hired Yugoslavian native Milutinovic, who had already worked miracles with Mexico and Costa Rica. He turned Gansler's college boys into men while the honchos at U.S. Soccer went in search of overseas players who could qualify for an American passport.
Ever the realist, Milutinovic instilled a disciplined defensive approach to the American game. It was elementary, tight soccer with no fancy stuff. He sometimes baffled his players with his bizarre training sessions, but in the end it worked. The Serb did what he was paid to do and got the Americans into the round of 16 at the 1994 finals before the home fans. When the team was knocked out of the tournament in a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Brazil, there was nothing to be ashamed of.
But Milutinovic's style of play was boring. Americans wanted attacking soccer, and finally he was replaced Steve Sampson, his former assistant at the World Cup.
Sampson was cerebral, paternalistic and strict. He did well in the qualifying period for the 1998 finals, destroying the infallibility of the Mexican team at Azteca Stadium when the Americans earned a rare tie in Mexico City.
In France, the team was drawn in a tough group and played poorly. Sampson later blamed Major League Spccer, America's two-year old professional league, for the team's failure. According to Sampson, those Americans who had returned from playing in the tough leagues in Europe John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Roy Wegerle had gone soft in the upstart MLS.
Now on the eve of another World Cup and after more than three years in command, Arena has the most victories in the history of the national team program. He goes to South Korea with America's best team ever, a nice mix of European-based players and MLS products. Only two players remain on the American roster from the Gansler days, goalies Tony Meola and Kasey Keller.
The blunt-spoken Arena knows how much the national team's success means for MLS and the sport in general in America. The bottom line for many is that the Americans must reach the second round, but it won't be the end of the world if they fail. A win over Portugal, South Korea or Poland, or a couple of ties in the opening round, would be a big achievement compared to 1998.
"I think it would be tremendous if we could move forward into the second round," Arena said. "If we don't and we still show well and show improvement, it'll be positive for the sport in this country."
Can the U.S. beat Portugal? On any given day, anything can happen in soccer. My guess is that the team's best bet is a win over Poland and a possibly a tie against co-host South Korea. That would get the Americans to the final 16, but it's a giant task. Arena has a good track record as a winner, but the finals in Asia are a world away from college soccer and MLS.
RFK vacant Who designed these crazy schedules, and what are we going to do without the Washington Freedom and D.C. United?
The Freedom don't play another home game at RFK Stadium until June 12, and we won't see United there again until June 8. While the United players have been given a week's vacation, the poor Freedom players face three games on the road. In the meantime, I suppose we can get bleary-eyed watching World Cup games in the early hours of the morning.
Gazza no show It looks like Paul Gascoinge won't becoming to MLS any time soon. The talented midfielder recently linked to D.C. United is heading to Japan to do color commentary on the World Cup for an English network.



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