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U.S. defense grows from weakness to strength.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, May 26, 1998) -- Defense, once considered a United States weakness, now is a strength.

Many considered the American teams of 1996 and 1997 a liability due to lack of speed in the back despite all the talk about positioning, etc. That's no longer the case. Likely to start in the World Cup in the new 3-6-1 alignment are 1994 World Cup starter Thomas Dooley in the central defense, flanked by man-markers Eddie Pope and David Regis.

Dooley is no speed demon, but he doesn't have to be in his position. Furthermore, he has enough quickness and smarts to play attacking midfield in Major League Soccer, so he can move around. Pope and Regis, on the other hand, are fast. They not only can backtrack and help out on counterattacks, they also contribute strongly to the offense.

Pope was a starter last year mainly as a right back, frequently joined in the 4-4-2 by veteran central defenders and '94 World Cup starters Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, and left back Jeff Agoos, all three smart players but lacking in speed.

The United States will match its talented goalkeeper, Kasey Keller, against anyone in the world.

The defense also is bolstered in the middle by two defensive midfielders, not one as before. It's a duo lacking in international experience -- Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve -- but they have done superbly in recent weeks, winning the ball and distributing it and moving forward when the opportunity beckons. Whether they can do it against a Germany or a Yugoslavia -- or even Saturday against Scotland -- is the big question. Previous candidates at defensive midfield included '94 World Cup starters Mike Sorber and John Harkes, among others.

The big question now is the condition of wide flank midfielders Cobi Jones (knee) and Frankie Hejduk (hamstring), both out the Kuwait game. They have the speed that gives juice to the U.S. attack. Without them, some of the reason for the 3-6-1 disappears.

Mike Burns was used at one slot Sunday and did well, but he doesn't have the speed to stretch out defenses. Same with Agoos, who filled the opposite flank position for the second straight week, though he does make positive contributions.

The only other speed possibility is '94 World Cup starter Ernie Stewart, who has done well on the wing -- but also appears ensconced as the starter in central midfield alongside playmaker Claudio Reyna, where he could be the best U.S. goal-scoring threat.

Coach Steve Sampson is not exactly devoid of talent if the injured don't get healthy -- but Stewart, Hejduk and Jones comprise the speed element that would be good to match up against a veteran German defense.

Eric Wynalda, a World Cup starter in 1990 and 1994, is the man at striker, providing he gets healthy, and if not, Brian McBride (head) and Roy Wegerle offer positives. Speaking of speed, Roy Lassiter, not on the team, offers speed at the striker position. All four strikers offer negatives as well in a position that is unsettled, to say the least.

Sampson said the lineup won't be finalized until the team gets to France, and maybe not until a match June 10 against an unnamed second-division French Club, five days before the Germany game.

Among the other questions:

* What to do if '90 and '94 World Cup starter midfielder Tab Ramos keeps scoring goals, on a team having problems finishing chances, and keeps improving his fitness?
* What is the role if any of midfielder/forward Joe-Max Moore, a versatile and effective two-way performer in the middle?
* Is there room in a six-midfield alignment for explosive Preki Radosavljevic to be an effective scorer off the bench?

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