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Jerry's World

D.C. Unitedís InterAmerican Cup triumph erases stain of U.S. World Cup effort.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, December 7, 1998) -- The stain on United States soccer created by the national team's last-place finish in the 1998 World Cup has been erased.

Give credit for the new rosy glow to D.C. United, the poster-child for Major League Soccer:

* Two-time MLS champion.
* Winner of the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
* And now champion of all the Americas.

D.C. United, defeating Brazilian power Vasco da Gama 2-0 in Fort Lauderdale to capture the InterAmerican Cup, gave the Washington, D.C., franchise the most significant accomplishment in American soccer history. It provided further certification to Major League Soccer as a growing, improving young professional league.

We will concede that the Brazilians were undoubtedly weary from three weeks on the road, with two games against D.C. United sandwiched around a trip to Japan and a loss to Real Madrid (Spain) for the world club championship. And that no games were played in Brazil, with the "home" site for Vasco da Gama being Fort Lauderdale.

That's about all we'll concede. D.C. United played its prestigious rival tooth and nail both games. It gave as good as it got. In fact, it appeared the U.S. team was more aggressive than its rivals in the Saturday night match.

The first game was a standoff, with even the Brazilians saying after their 1-0 win in Washington that a 1-1 draw would have been just. The second match also was evenly played, with D.C. United needing to make up the one-goal deficit -- and it did with superb scores by Tony Sanneh and Eddie Pope.

We particularly liked the play of defenders Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa, along with Pope. They didn't allow many chances. And goalkeeper Scott Garlick, a forgotten man with the late-season ascendancy of Tom Presthus, controlled the penalty box zone.

The U.S. national team has had some big victories in recent years under Steve Sampson and Bora Milutinovic -- and, really, did anyone expect the Americans to beat Germany or Yugoslavia in the 1998 World Cup? -- but the accomplishments of D.C. United take precedence. The heart of soccer worldwide is club soccer, and that is why the success of Major League Soccer is so important.

There are top U.S. players -- like a Kasey Keller, a Claudio Reyna -- who will go overseas for the big bucks, and playing time, and that's fine. But there needs to be a domestic league capable of turning out quality players as well for those not as blessed though eventually perhaps just as talented.

Major League Soccer is not the super-rich England Premier League, Italy Serie A, Spain First Division, or Germany Bundesliga. It probably never will be. D.C. United, though, has shown that it can be competitive in the next tier, and we don't think it would embarrass itself against many teams in the aforementioned four leagues either.

The problem is the rest of Major League Soccer needs to catch up. We don't need D.C. United cut back to the rest of the pack. We need the rest of the pack to elevate itself.

Coaching. Selection of personnel. Training. That's what distinguishes D.C. United from the rest of Major League Soccer.

We need the New York/New Jersey MetroStars to develop into a coherent force not so dependent on big names but on producing a team that will win 50-50 balls.

We need the New England Revolution to capitalize on its talents, not give up players like Welton and Francis Okaroh and not be trying gimmicks like having an aging goalkeeper debut as player-coach.

We need more teams like the Miami Fusion, which finally got its act in gear with a new mid-season coach in Ivo Wortmann.

We need more coaches like Tim Hankinson, who didn't put up with half-hearted efforts and produced a respectable team the second half the season at Tampa Bay with little talent.

We need consistency from the Columbus Crew, a roster full of talent, admittedly slowed by injuries, that failed to perform up to expectations.

We need more of the same from the Los Angeles Galaxy, which plays attractive, attacking soccer --though it has to be troubling to management how a team with that many stars hasn't made the MLS Cup final the past two years.

We need a full year without injuries for Chicago Fire midfielder Peter Nowak, the finest two-way player seen in MLS.

We need the Dallas Burn to stay healthy and play consistently. We need better judgment on personnel selection with the San Jose Clash.

We need stability on the Colorado Rapids, who generally have not been satisfied with international players allocated them. And we need some youth and more vigor with the Kansas City Wizards.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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