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Sampson optimistic despite tough Group F draw.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, June 11, 1998) -- Coach Steve Sampson professes to be optimistic, saying "the United States national team has a chance to do something special," but the fact of the matter is the Americans are in a bracket with arguably two of the top eight teams in the world and stand little chance of advancing to the second round of the World Cup.

Even a stunning tie against either Germany or Yugoslavia probably wouldn't be enough in Group F.

The United States unveiled a new formation last month designed to offset perceived personnel advantages by these two European powers in the midfield, by in essence clogging up the central portion of the playing area with extra midfielders.

The Americans switched from a 4-4-2 with zonal defense from four defenders to a 3-6-1, with man-marking by the defense, and just a single striker up front.

Iran is the fourth team in Group F, and widely seen as an underdog in all three games.

Even ties by the United States against both Germany and Yugoslavia -- as well as a win against Iran -- won't ensure a group finish in the top two and moving to the second round if Germany and Yugoslavia draw in their match. It could come down to goal-differential, and the U.S. offense doesn't compare with those of Germany or Yugoslavia.

What it boils down to is the Americans may need two wins -- with the best chance, aside from Iran, the June 15 opener against Germany. Long a dominant team in world soccer, Germany is blessed with strength at striker. Coach Berti Vogts has four brilliant forwards to choose from -- Juergen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff, Ulf Kirsten and Olaf Marschall.

Klinsmann, 34, was a regular in 1990 and 1994 and is believed to have the inside track. The other starter is apt to be Bierhoff, who led the Italian First Division (Serie A) in scoring.

The big question for Germany is who will be the attacking midfielder(s). Some have speculated Vogts will go with one and be conservative, others say two. Andreas Moeller and Thomas Hassler are bona fide stars, veterans of two World Cups, with Hassler a starter in 1990 and 1994. He was a teammate at Karlsruhe of U.S. new defender David Regis. Moeller frequently sparks the offense, and is one of the more practiced "divers" in professional soccer, often falling to the ground after minimal contact with rival players.

Juergen Kohler is a hard-nosed marking back, known for rough tackles, and he could be hurt by world soccer governing body FIFA's new insistance on penalizing harsh tackles that "endanger the safety" of players.

Lothar Mattaeus is a possibility for sweeper in his fifth World Cup, a mark equalled only by former Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal (1950-66).

Iran barely qualified as the fourth representative from the Asia region, and appears over its head. It has gone through four coaches since September.

Top goalkeeper Ahmad-Reza Abedzadeh, 32, is doubtful due to a knee injury, further complicating the problem-ridden defense.

Iran has firepower up front, however, led by its German Bundesliga attacking trio of Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi and Karim Bagheri.

With the two governments still antagonistic 20 years after Iran seized U.S. hostages in Tehran, the June 21 game figures to be emotional, particularly for the Iranians. But whether that means much on the field is doubtful.

Yugoslavia is one of the darkhorses of the tournament, and some observers believe it may finish ahead of Germany -- and thus avoid a likely second-round matchup with powerful Netherlands.

Few teams have more brilliance on offense, though the team will be without the chief playmaker, Dejan Savicevic, for the opener Sunday against Iran due to a knee injury.

There is still Dragan Stojkovic and Vladimir Jugovic in the midfield and the awesome 1-2 duo of Predrag Mijatovic and Dejan Stankovic up front. The question is the defense, anchored by Sinisa Mihaljovic.

The United States could play better than it did in 1994, but still not advance. The Americans finished third in their '94 group -- which consisted of above-average but not overwhelming Colombia, Switzerland and Romania -- but advanced as one of four wild cards in the 24-team field.

Just the 1-2 teams move to the second round in the 32-team France '98, and while Iran is worse than anyone the United States faced in USA '94, Germany and Yugoslavia are infinitely superior.

Outgoing U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg has indicated as much. He is putting pressure on the American team to "play well . . . beat Iran . . . put a scare into Germany and Yugoslavia," but not necessarily win.

In other words, Sampson keeps his job -- if he wants it -- if the United States plays a good brand of soccer, regardless of the result.

Saying he has better players this year, he pledges to play attacking soccer, unlike the defensive-oriented emphasis in 1994 when the Americans hung back even when having a one-man advantage for a half in the second round of the 1-0 loss to Brazil.

But despite talk about offense, candid forward Eric Wynalda says the 3-6-1 is basically a defensive alignment designed to clutter the midfield, and points out there is just one forward in the formation.

Sampson analyzed his team thusly: "We're solid in the back, and at goalkeeper. We're solid in midfield. There is a question at forward. And I think the goals will come."

Kasey Keller, a tested veteran of English professional soccer, is a world-class goalkeeper, as good as any in the World Cup.

The formerly slow defense has been transformed into a solid, quick unit, anchored by former Bundesliga standout Thomas Dooley, the U.S. captain, at sweeper. The outside man-markers are Eddie Pope, an emerging young superstar, and David Regis, a Bundesliga starter from Martinique who married an American woman three years ago and became a U.S. citizen in mid-May.

All three can attack, but more importantly, Pope and Regis have speed to handle fast rival forwards -- something former regulars Jeff Agoos, Mike Burns, Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa lack.

The biggest gamble is in the defensive midfield. That's a position occupied by international neophytes Brian Maisonneuve, a product of Major League Soccer, and Chad Deering, who spent the last two months on the bench with a new coach in the Bundesliga.

Sampson had wanted to try midfielder John Harkes there, but he said the team captain didn't embrace the switch from attacking midfielder -- and later was dropped from the squad by the coach for disciplinary reasons, causing a two-week furore that since has settled down.

The key to the offense are the outside wing midfielders, who need to be fast and tireless, running forward on offense and tracking back on defense to help the man-marking defenders.

Cobi Jones was the early-season MLS scoring sensation, and is ensconced on the left side. However, he needs to produce goals -- either setting them up or scoring -- for the United States to be effective.

Frankie Hejduk, another virtual international rookie and a MLS product, is the right wing, providing his hamstring is OK. But whether he can go 90 minutes is a question since he was out most of May. Preki Radosavljevic, the supersub offensive threat, is available off the bench.

Burns is a top substitute candidate -- at a variety of positions including marking back, defensive midfield, right wing midfield. Regis is similarly versatile.

The offense revolves around Claudio Reyna in central midfield. He is the best American player with touch on the ball, keeping possession, and creating plays. He can score, too. A starter with Wolfsburg (same club as Deering), he was voted by Kicker Magazine as the 25th best player in the Bundesliga -- a big honor.

Can he take a bit hit from the notoriously rugged Germans? Joe-Max Moore is available as a backup.

In front of Reyna in a combined withdrawn forward-attacking midfield role is Ernie Stewart, an accomplished goal-scorer in Netherlands professional ranks who is effective with his slashing runs to the penalty box area and a reliable finisher.

Wynalda is the man Sampson would like to start at striker, providing he can get 60 minutes out of the all-time U.S. goal-scoring leader who has been recovering from knee surgery. He has good touch from 15 yards, but is not strong in possession (veteran Roy Wegerle, with nine knee surgeries, is) nor with headers (erratic young Brian McBride is).

"We can deal with their forwards," the coach said of the German quartet of stars. "I'm most concerned with what they do with their attacking midfielders -- Hassler and Moeller -- and how (Vogts) uses them."

He said a "wide-open" game isn't planned against Germany. "That could be disastrous. But it doesn't mean we're going to play 90 minutes of defense. We'll pick our spots. It would be outstanding to get three points and a win. A tie would be a good result. We hopefully will play intelligently. Germany is a team we can play with, certainly."

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