For most of 2002 World Cup qualifying, the United States seldom played its game. It did well enough - eight wins, four losses and four ties - to qualify, but it rarely played as a team.
Not until the 2002 Gold Cup did the Americans orchestrate the action consistently from one game to the next.
Set aside for a moment the caliber of opposition. Aside from a jittery opener against the full-throttle forays of South Korea, the U.S. thumped three teams it should have thumped and soundly defeated Costa Rica, one of its toughest CONCACAF rivals.
The ball moved quickly. Opponents had to run a gauntlet of challenges. And some great goals were scored. Only one goal was conceded in five games.
A two-week training camp honed the players physically for the Gold Cup. At ensuing camps, Coach Bruce Arena will set about weeding out malcontents.
Enough players went their own way during the Hexagonal to cause Arena concern. In 2002, Arena will get his way.
"It's a World Cup year," said midfielder Chris Armas, who joined the team after France '98. "We've got the World Cup to play for so guys got a little extra going with it. And there's a lot of young players making everybody work harder."
Arena has another lengthy camp scheduled for May during which he will preach cohesion and team chemistry as well as tactics.
"You can talk X's and O's until you're blue in the face but that aspect of team-building can destroy you," said Arena. "It can also make a difference."
Arena knows he'll need more than warm fuzzies and harmony against Portugal, South Korea and Poland. But unity and sacrifice are musts.
"If we're not going to be successful, it's not going to be because of people being divided," he said. "That is part of the process over the next five months. Twenty-three players together is going to be better than 23 outstanding individuals."
by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney