Mike Woitalla's View: Arena 2002 vs. Sampson 1998

Is the United States better than it was four years ago?

That's the obvious question as we speculate on whether a Bruce Arena-led U.S. team can improve upon the last American World Cup performance - the three losses compiled by Steve Sampson's 1998 squad.

In the 10-game final round of qualifying four years ago, Sampson's squad scored 17 goals, conceded 9 and finished second; Arena's men scored 11, conceded 8 and finished third.

In battling for three qualifying spots, neither team could do better than split points with its top three rivals. (Sampson's were Mexico, Jamaica and Costa Rica; Arena's were Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras.) The Americans prevailed both times because their primary competitors faltered in other games.

Sampson's squad lost only once; Arena's team suffered a three-game losing streak. Both teams notched one road victory. Sampson's team had three home wins; Arena won four at home.

Both teams qualified with 17 points from a six-team group. In fact, comparing the two squads reveals mostly similarities.

Personnel? Same goalies. Many of the same key field players: Claudio Reyna, Jeff Agoos, Earnie Stewart, Joe-Max Moore, Eddie Pope and Cobi Jones.

Quality of play? Arena's men, like Sampson's, dominated only against the region's lesser teams.

Hope?

Sampson knew - as Arena knows - he needed a better team at the finals than he had during qualifying. Sampson gambled. He discarded some veterans, tried a new system, and failed.

But he did not have what Arena has: A group of young, skillful, attacking players who - besides being delightful to watch - may be on the verge of greatness.

Injuries have set back Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey are mere teen-agers. But if, in the next six months, two or three of them ripen into World Cup-ready players, the national team could take a long-awaited step to another level.

by Soccer America Executive Editor Mike Woitalla

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