- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

If it’s any consolation to the American Olympic soccer team, mighty Brazil won’t be traveling to Athens this summer, either. Paraguay ousted the Brazilians from the Olympics in South American qualifying last month.

The U.S. under-23 team’s loss to Mexico this week in Guadalajara put it out of the Olympic picture for the first time in 20 years. But this was only one skirmish in the ongoing encounter with America’s southern neighbors.

The real tussle begins next year when the U.S. team likely will face Mexico in World Cup qualifying. Not to downplay the Olympics, but the World Cup is what really matters. In soccer-mad, snobbish Europe, Olympic soccer is a mere afterthought.

All sorts of excuses can be made for the failure of the U.S. team — poor defending, the “Osama” cheering crowd, lack of experience — but the bottom line is the Americans were beaten by a superior squad in a nation where few visiting teams walk away as winners.

Four years ago, the U.S. team played its Olympic qualifying games in the comfort of Hershey (Pa.) Stadium and had an easy ride. But let’s face it: Mexico’s victory this week can never make up for the loss the Mexicans suffered at the hands of Landon Donovan and Brian McBride in South Korea in 2002, and that’s what really counts — the World Cup.

It’s important to look ahead to the real prize, which is making sure the Americans advance to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It won’t be easy. The CONCACAF region is getting tougher, and only three teams directly qualify for the finals. The wonderful thing about all this is that these Mexico-U.S. games are turning into classic encounters attracting the attention of the media, plus borderline fans and non-fans.

And there is a silver lining to the American defeat: D.C. United will have its players available in August for Major League Soccer games. A possible six United players, including Freddy Adu, could have been involved in the Athens Olympics if the team had advanced.

World Cup warmup — In a warmup for its World Cup games, the U.S. team will play Holland in Amsterdam on Wednesday. Coach Bruce Arena has named 11 European-based players to his 22-man roster, including Manchester United goalie Tim Howard. Arena’s roster looks like one of the strongest American teams ever assembled.

The game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will air live on ESPN2. The American team plays Haiti on March13 in Miami and travels to Poland on March31.

United notes — D.C. United captain Ryan Nelsen came in third for the 2003 Oceania player of the year award with 22 votes. The New Zealand defender trailed three-time winner Australian and Liverpool striker Harry Kewell (76 votes) and fellow Aussie Mark Viduka (29).

United officials told the New Zealand Herald this week that the club “did not interfere with any possible trials for Nelsen in Europe or elsewhere” after Nelsen’s hometown paper in Christchurch (the Press) earlier reported the club refused to sell him and did not want to cash in while Nelsen wa s still under contract. Nelsen has been scouted by Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers. … Former United striker Hristo Stoitchkov was named assistant coach of Barcelona’s youth team this week.

African Nations Cup — The champion of Africa will be decided today when Tunisia takes on Morocco in Rades. The Tunisians are surprise finalists after downing favored Nigeria 5-4 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 tie. Morocco beat Mali 4-0, and Nigeria earned the third-place spot with a 2-1 win over Mali yesterday.

Women’s update — Goalie Siri Mullinix and forwards Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, formerly of the Washington Freedom, have been named to the U.S. team’s roster for the Olympic qualifying games Feb.25 to March5 in Costa Rica. The United States plays Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago and Haiti in Group A. Group B includes Canada, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica. The top two teams in each group advance to the semifinals, with both semifinal winners going to Athens.

The U.S. women are 10-0 against Mexico (62-3 cumulative score), 6-0 against Trinidad (47-2) and defeated Haiti 10-0 in their only meeting.

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