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Madden: U.S. soccer must address problems

Saturday, June 15, 2002

The United States men's soccer team has progressed to the point where making the second round of a World Cup -- heretofore regarded as holy turf -- isn't enough to dodge criticism. Or so it says right here in the wake of an absolutely embarrassing, 3-1 loss to Poland yesterday.

The Americans did back into knockout play by virtue of South Korea's 1-0 victory against Portugal. The United States now takes on Mexico, a familiar foe against which a degree of success has been achieved.

But the U.S. team clearly has to make changes -- some now for a chance at success in the short term, and some later for a chance at sustained excellence.

Face it, U.S. soccer will always swim upstream. The best athletes play soccer in almost every other country. Not in America, and never in America. The United States will be favored to win a World Cup when the head cheerleader at your local high school dates the star striker, not the starting quarterback.

U.S. Coach Bruce Arena has exposed himself as mediocre (at best) in this World Cup, not surprising in view of his meager pedigree as a U.S. college coach and "Major League" Soccer coach. Winning at those levels -- which Arena undeniably has -- does not qualify someone to coach on the international level. No U.S.-born coach is qualified for the international level.

The Americans shocked heavily favored Portugal, 3-2, in their World Cup opener. The U.S. front line ran Portugal ragged, but the center of the American defense looked frighteningly vulnerable.

In the wake of that game, Arena shook up his front line, inserting Sports Illustrated cover boy Clint Mathis to play alongside incumbent Brian McBride. Speedy Landon Donovan moved from striker to midfield. Think about that: The United States scored three goals -- a lot by any team's standards, but unheard of for the popgun Americans -- against a great team, and Arena changed the offense.

Mathis, who always gives a lax effort in training and too often does the same in games, has predictably slowed the U.S. attack to a crawl. The Americans had mighty Portugal retreating constantly, but South Korea and Poland could have defended the United States while relaxing in chaise lounges. Donovan's speed forced Portugal to scramble and gave McBride space to play in the air, which is his main strength. Mathis, the most overrated player in U.S. soccer history, has made McBride invisible.

Arena, however, has left the center of his defense intact. Jeff Agoos and Frankie Hejduk have had all the strength and resiliency of lukewarm Jell-O, and the result has been six goals against in three games and U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel being under constant siege.

Not that the other U.S. players are blameless for the team's post-Portugal blahs. Besides Friedel and Donovan, midfielder John O'Brien and defender Tony Sanneh are the only Americans to show any semblance of consistent form.

Once this World Cup is over, the United States should look for a foreign-born coach. If England isn't too proud to employ a Swede, the United States shouldn't be too proud to use a non-American.

That done, U.S. soccer should decide once and for all which agenda is most important to serve -- national team excellence and accomplishment or the cause of propping up "Major League" Soccer.

Joe-Max Moore is a striker of rather middling talent, but when he entered the game against Poland as a late substitution, the United States started to get chances. Moore made one-touch passes, set subtle picks and got the American offense in gear just because he generally knows what to do. That's because Moore plays good soccer in a top league -- namely with Everton in the English Premier League.

Far too many U.S. national team members play professionally in MLS, a league that competes at a much lower level than any top league in Europe. They get to stay home, sure. And they get to further the cause of pro soccer in America. But they don't improve as much as they might.

MLS has its place as a haven for the second level of American players, those not good enough to land a job in Europe. No matter how good MLS might get, it will never make a significant dent in the American sporting consciousness. So forget about the growth and popularity of MLS.

Instead, think about the national team. If the United States is ever going to field a championship side at the international level, the top players -- all of them -- must be placed with European clubs.

Bayern Munich, the legendary German power, is reportedly interested in Mathis. I hope he goes there. He would learn humility. He would learn that teams with other equally talented options tend to bench players with lackadaisical attitudes. Mathis would improve or drop by the wayside..

U.S. soccer is no longer the little engine that could. It has reached the point where expectations have risen and where progress must be meticulously planned if those expectations are to be reached.

Otherwise U.S. soccer will wind up being the big engine that can't.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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