The U.S. men were handed a fair dose of adversity in the semifinal round of the CONCACAF 2002 World Cup qualifiers. At times they reacted childishly, at other times they excelled.
Qualifying CONCACAF games are scrappy and hotly contested. Away fans are usually hostile, fields are bumpy, antics are commonplace. YouÆre not playing against teams, youÆre playing against nations.
Head Coach Bruce Arena once said, ôThatÆs the problem. You donÆt get much of a chance to actually play soccer.ö
How could Eddie Lewis have looked so solid in 1999 and played so badly in 2000?
Pressure and tension run rampant in qualifiers, and Lewis is just one player who hasnÆt toughened himself sufficiently.
The U.S. came out of its first two games on the road in Guatemala and Costa Rica with only one point. It conceded a late goal to squander a win in Mazatenango, and its match in San Jose ended with Arena and captain Claudio Reyna cursing out the referee after a tainted penalty gave the Ticos the win.
After crushing Barbados in Foxboro Stadium, the U.S. went down a man against Guatemala at RFK Stadium when Lewis was ejected, but got the gameÆs only goal to win, 1-0.
It tied Costa Rica in Columbus despite missing Reyna and Arena to suspensions and several other players to injuries.
An hour of frustration in the return leg with Barbados strained the U.S. players. But no one got tossed out, no one committed a stupid foul in the box and once Tony Meola had made the big save and Clint Mathis had broken the deadlock, the U.S. took command.
Fourteen U.S. players made their qualifying debuts in 2000, many of them in adverse conditions. They should be stronger the next time around.