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With world championship at hand, U.S. under-17s are cautiously optimistic.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, November 2, 1999) -- The mood surrounding the super-talented United States under-17 men's team, given a good chance of garnering a medal in the FIFA world championship starting next week in New Zealand, is very optimistic, but the star striker sounded a note of caution in a national teleconference call this afternoon with media.

"We're very confident that we can win any game . . . but the World Cup (Championship) is totally different than an international friendly (match)," Landon Donovan said.

The Americans carry a 20-match unbeaten string into the tournament, including wins against top teams in Europe, Africa and South America, with the opening game November 10 against host New Zealand before an expected sellout crowd of 42,000 in Auckland. "We know we have the ability, but we have to do it," he said.

Coach John Ellinger expressed optimism. "We're confident of getting to the medal round," he said of the players who basically have been together for two years, half the time in Florida residency camp, in a program with an estimated price tag of $1.5 million. "We're eager and excited. It's time to earn some respect (from countries overseas). These guys are pioneers. They need to be successful. They know that."

He favorably compared this precocious group with other elite teenagers throughout the world: "We're definitely on an even keel athletically, technically and in soccer awareness. We matched up well against Ghana, where we maintained discipline very well.

"This is a results-oriented development program. We've developed some players capable of playing professional soccer. . . . I've been impressed by the professional attitude of this team. Not (immediately) qualifying in Jamaica made us grow up a lot, waiting for the El Salvador (playoff) games."

Regarded as the launch of the U.S. bid to be competitive in the World Cup by 2010, Donovan acknowledged there was considerable pressure on the team, based on its 37-14-14 international record in 11 different countries involving 70,000 miles of travel in 1998 and 1999.

"We've performed so far," he said. "We've been away from home forever. We're ready."

Two teammates who appeared on the conference call expressed optimism about the tournament. "We're not going in too cocky," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "We're definitely confident. We think we can win it."

"I feel very confident we can get the job done and bring back the world championship," midfielder DeMarcus Beasley added. ``We have a saying, 'We respect everyone, we don't fear anyone.' "

The United States is the only nation to have qualified for all eight under-17 (or under-16) tournaments, but has hardly distinguished itself with finishes of 12th, 14th, 10th, fifth, seventh, 15th and 11th (in 1997).

The Americans, who have switched to a more offensive 4-3-3 from an earlier 4-4-2 formation, are in Group A with New Zealand, Poland, and Uruguay. They beat New Zealand 3-2 and tied 0-0 in two 1998 matches.

"New Zealand plays a 3-5-2, very defensive-minded, not much through the midfield," Ellinger said. "They rely a lot on counterattacks."

After the opener a week from Wednesday, the United States meets Poland on November 13 and Uruguay on November 16. Poland is strong defensively, and very big," Ellinger said. "Aggressive. Sometimes overly aggressive. They will lull you to sleep sometimes. They won't outshoot a lot of teams, but their strength is in finishing. Uruguay is a very technical team, plays a 4-4-2. They tend to get nasty when they get down."

The toughest four-team group is Group B with Mexico, Ghana, Spain and Thailand. The easiest is Group D with Jamaica, Burkina Faso, Paraguay and Qatar. Brazil, Australia, Mali and Germany are in Group C.

Donovan spoke of his experiences with Bayer Leverkusen's reserve team, where he has played eight games since going to Germany. "You have to give everything you have every day in practice to have a chance to play Sunday," he said. "I'm more intense now. It's turned me into a more demanding player. "

"His demanding style has been infectious with the rest of the team," Ellinger said of recent games and practices since Donovan returned to the under-17s. "Other players have upped their work rate a little as a result."

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

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