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5. MY VIEW: Ten Years After: What a difference a decade makes
January 23rd, 2007 7:51PM

MOST READ


By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America


Since so many cybersoccer columnists dredge up arcane rock references for whatever reason - nostalgia, faux retro-hipness, or brain-synapse degeneration directly related to dubious lifestyle choices - in their prose, this entry is so titled.

However, it is not a tribute to the great, unheralded power-blues band of the 60s and 70s fronted by Englishman Alvin Lee, but a USA team that shook off its offseason cobwebs and hungrily gobbled up a Danish (team) Saturday at Home Depot Center, 3-1.

Four players earned their first caps and five others notched their second while downing a makeshift Denmark consisting solely of domestic players.
The debut of the Bob Bradley Era followed by a decade perhaps the worst three performances by a U.S. national team outside of the World Cup. In January, 1997, also in Southern California, the Americans faced Peru, Mexico and yes, Denmark, in the U.S. Cup.

Not only did the USA lose all three games, the results got progressively worse. Claudio Reyna and Jovan Kirovski supplemented an MLS-based squad, yet a 1-0 loss to Peru was followed by a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Mexico, and the bottom fell out in a 4-1 loss to Denmark that forever will be remembered as Per Pedersen's international zenith (he scored all four goals).

Then-coach Steve Sampson had hoped for much better, particularly in the final game, since the first two could be excused. Players were out of shape, heavy rains turned fields soggy, and back then, the U.S. had yet to supplant Mexico as the dominant team in CONCACAF.

Yet as the training camp started Sampson, not for the first time, had uttered the words that painfully and pointedly described where stood the domestic game:

"We've had to spend a lot of time just getting reacquainted with the ball," he said ruefully.

Italian professionals don't need to be reacquainted with the ball no matter how much of their offseason they spend snoozing on the beach or supping in cafes. Neither do the French, nor the Spanish, nor the English, nor the German, nor the Dutch, nor the Brazilian, nor the Argentine, nor the Nigerian, nor the pros in dozens of other countries. Lack of fitness, nagging injuries, transfer speculation, management upheavals and the occasional scrap with unruly supporters encountered at resorts may impair players when they report to training camp, but from the first touch they know how the ball should feel on their feet.

The American domestic professional isn't there yet but as evidenced last Saturday at Home Depot, he's getting closer. Justin Mapp's spectacular dribble drew raves for its audacity and duration, but it was just the most spectacular example of an American displaying the precious ability to control the ball while changing speed and direction and angle of attack.

Eddie Johnson stunk up the joint, yet he cleanly controlled a 70-yard line drive drilled to him by keeper Matt Reis. Even on a bad day, he could at least handle the ball, although using it and passing it were other issues.

Landon Donovan lacked the aggressiveness and alacrity to attack opponents and space yet seldom did the ball escape him. Chris Rolfe, marooned at left midfield for the first half, nonetheless kept the ball under tight control while moving laterally and up the wing, looking for a crease to dart into. Rolfe doesn't have Donovan's speed or experience or reputation and didn't play a great game but at least his touch showed up.

Jonathan Bornstein overran the ball several times during his nervous start, yet he raced into attacking positions from his left back position, stung the keeper's gloves with a ripping shot in the first half and, of course, knifed into the box to volley home Mapp's cut-back cross for the winning goal. He played with his head up, his first touch was usually clean, and he dared opponents to stop him. He not only wanted to play, he wanted the ball. In his international debut at any level, the demands of the game fazed him only briefly.

Kenny Cooper scored the clincher by weighting his first touch of a long Heath Pearce serve perfectly so it ran just where he wanted it. He nudged it a few more times while closing in on goal and stroked it past the goalkeeper a split-second before the pursuing defenders reached him. He made it look easy. Like a pro should.

Playing a pumped-up Mexican team Feb 7 will be a far harsher test. Faster play, fiercer tackles, nastier opponents, and Euro-sharpened teammates await.

"Say what you will about MLS and how good or bad the quality of play is," said Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas, who played in those 1997 matches. "And I've said before and I'll say it again, that a lot of the guys I played had more talent in their little fingers than I had in my entire body, or at least in those parts of the body I used on the soccer field, thank you very much.

"But the American players we have in MLS now, and Landon is just one of them, are much more like the players you see in other countries when it comes to being a good pro and playing good soccer. That's just as much a story of the growth of this league as building stadiums and getting big-name players."


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