With France '98 qualifying just around the corner -- and millions of dollars at stake -- the anxiety level at Soccer House in Chicago has undoubtedly risen several notches in the last week.
The U.S. performance at U.S. Cup '96 was no disaster -- the Americans finished third with a 1-1-1 record -- but it underlined the point that qualification for even the final round of CONCACAF qualifying is no sure thing.
U.S. Cup exposed glaring weaknesses in the U.S. defense, notably on the outside. Mike Burns had a tough tournament on the right side, while Jeff Agoos and Paul Caligiuri had nightmares on the left side.
Many questions Steve Sampson came into the tournament with seem to have been left unanswered. Will Tom Dooley, now 35, stay healthy enough to continue on in the heart of midfield? Where does Sampson play Claudio Reyna? The 22-year-old midfielder is undoubtedly the key player in the U.S. team for many years to come, but he was shuttled around the field in successive games.
Finally, forget about MLS conflicts: What impact will the wide-open MLS game have on the national team players when they're called back for the qualifying tournament, where only results matter?
It was just the Americans' bad luck that they were placed in a first-round group that features arguably the four toughest teams in CONCACAF besides Mexico, old nemesis Costa Rica, improving Guatemala and talented Trinidad & Tobago round out of Group A. The U.S. faced all three teams in the final round of qualifying for Italia '90 -- which we all remember was one nailbiter after another.
The U.S. national team has improved by leaps and bound since it met these teams then, but so too has the competition.
An anxious summer and fall qualifying series await us.
by Soccer America Managing Editor Paul Kennedy