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Madden: U.S. soccer needs more top athletes

Saturday, June 22, 2002

While the citizens still care (a little), here's a column of refreshing World Cup notes. They're designed to appeal to a very small segment of the readership, but at least I won't be bored.

If Michael Ballack, yesterday's German goal-scorer, had grown up in America, he'd be a quarterback or a shortstop somewhere. A strong, athletic 6 feet 3, Ballack is exactly the kind of athlete that doesn't play soccer in the United States, and he's exactly the kind of athlete U.S. soccer needs if it wants to further close the gap on opponents like Germany. If Ballack wants to play quarterback, by the way, I suggest Pitt recruits him.

The United States had every chance to beat Germany yesterday, but Deutschland prevailed for one big reason: Unlike Portugal and Mexico, Germany took the United States seriously and didn't concede any easy opportunities.

Coach Bruce Arena should take whatever player has the U.S. team's strongest leg and provide him with a ball, a wall and an hour every day to practice free kicks and corner kicks. Germany gets constantly accurate service from Christian Ziege, a specialist in such things, and it paid off yesterday when Ballack headed in a Ziege free kick. The United States has no such specialist, and it results in consistently lackluster efforts on set plays. All the world soccer powers have a player like Ziege - witness David Beckham for England and Roberto Carlos for Brazil -- and the United States needs to develop one, too.

Given all the shirt-grabbing that goes on in traffic, it's amazing that someone hasn't developed a skintight soccer jersey that would be impossible to hold onto. Hey, it works for offensive linemen. It would work in real football, too.

World Cup soccer supposedly features the best from each country, but not really. Germany's Miroslav Klose was born in Poland. His teammate, Oliver Neuville, was born in Switzerland. Both play for Germany because of heritage linking them to that country. Most national sides have a player or two like that. The World Cup is already the most credible worldwide sporting competition, but it could be even more credible if it followed one simple rule: You play for whatever country you're born in.

Anyone who calls soccer boring because of the lack of goals must never watch the game played at a high level. Yesterday'sUnited States-Germany game ended 1-nil, but there were a plethora of beautiful plays and legitimate scoring chances. Give me spontaneously creative instead of somebody going off-tackle -- again and again -- any day.

Arena coached two horrible games in round-robin play as the United States tied South Korea and lost to Poland. But he redeemed himself by shuffling players and formations perfectly against Mexico and Germany. A Cup-ending injury to defender Jeff Agoos actually helped. Agoos struggled in the first round, but Arena has always been loyal to Agoos and reluctant to bench him because Agoos was a superstar for Arena at the University of Virginia. When Agoos got hurt, it took cronyism out of Arena's thought process and enabled him to make decisions without fear or favor. As a result, Arena made good decisions.

It would be foolish to think that U.S. soccer in general and "Major League" Soccer in particular will enjoy a surge in popularity because of the national team's success in the World Cup. The U.S. women's team won the distaff World Cup in 1999 in front of a packed Rose Bowl, Brandi Chastain stripped, the whole team hit the talk-show circuit and became the nation's darlings ... and then, in a few weeks, it was like it never happened. A U.S. women's pro league was launched on the heels of that American victory, and now it plays in front of crowds that range between small and smaller. That history will repeat itself.

The U.S. team did great, and the nation should be proud. But one quarterfinal finish in the World Cup does not a soccer power make. What the United States does in 2006 will truly establish where the national team stands in the world pecking order.

Midfielder/striker Landon Donovan, 20, will likely be recalled from MLS by Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga, and I don't think Donovan will ride the bench when he gets there. Many U.S. players upped their value with strong World Cup performances, but none like Donovan, who is great and headed for incredible. Donovan already has speed, heart and instinct. Just wait until he gets experience and polish. He could wind up being the best U.S. player ever, an American Michael Owen.

I hate a lot of people. But none more than American citizens who root for another country against the U.S. because of their heritage. I want every Mexican-American who rooted the wrong way in the second round to know this: U.S. soccer is on the way up, and Mexican soccer is a disorganized, confused mess.Viva los gringos locos!

This is my last soccer column for a long time. Steeler Nation can exhale.

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

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