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John Haydon: Times are changing for U.S.

(Saturday, February 14, 1998) -- When the United States played Brazil at the World Cup on July 4, 1994, there were no fireworks in a game that lacked excitement and imagination. The Americans, trapped in a defensive shell, barely managed a shot on goal as Brazil won 1-0.

How times have changed. On Wednesday night, the U.S. used an attacking, direct style to beat Brazil, 1-0, in the semifinals of the Gold Cup at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Romario, who scored the game-winner against the U.S. in 94, looked as good as ever but was denied at least four goals by goalie Kasey Keller. While Keller's brilliance kept the U.S. in the game, the American forwards managed 12 shots to Brazil's 21. The U.S. finally broke the deadlock when Preki, Major League Soccer's Most Valuable Player for 1997, scored on one of his trademark left-footed blasts midway through the second half.

Beating four-time world champion Brazil is certainly a great psychological victory for the Americans as they prepare for the World Cup. At France this summer, the Americans will face another great team, three-time world champion Germany, along with Yugoslavia and Iran.

"I think it is an enormous confidence boost," U.S. coach Steve Sampson said. "It says that we can play the best in the world, and on occasion beat the best in the world, as we've done with Argentina, England and now Brazil."

With three minutes left in the first half, Keller made a save on Romario that will be talked about for a long time. Keller pounced on a point-blank header, evoking memories of English goalie's Gordon Banks' save on a Pele header in the 1970 World Cup. Pele said the save was the best he had ever witnessed.

"I think it has to rate as the single greatest performance by a goalkeeper in U.S. soccer history," Sampson said.

The Americans, riding a record six-game winning streak, will face arch-rival Mexico in the championship game of the Gold Cup tomorrow in Los Angeles. Brazil will play Jamaica in the third-place game.

Sampson says he will make at least one change in the lineup, installing playmaker Claudio Reyna, who will likely replace either Cobi Jones or Frankie Hejduk. Meanwhile, the debate continues whether Radosavljevic should be get more playing time.

In the U.S. team's past two games, Radosavljevic has come off the bench and scored two stunning, game-winning goals.

Against Costa Rica, Radosavljevic replaced Marcelo Balboa in the 69th minute and nine minutes later scored the goal that put the U.S. into the Gold Cup semifinals. Against Brazil, he replaced Roy Wegerle in the 60th minute and five minutes later scored the goal that downed the world champions. It was the first goal the U.S. has scored against Brazil in 68 years.

"Bringing Preki on in the second half has obviously worked well for us in this tournament, and we'll continue to do that," said Sampson, who still thinks Preki is only a 45-minute player.

Radosavljevic thinks differently. "I don't quit after 45 minutes," he said. "If you play only 30 minutes, you will be only 30 minutes fit."

The U.S. next takes on a star-studded Netherlands team next Saturday in Miami.

Where's the coach?" What cutthroat times we live in. On Wednesday, U.S. national player and D.C. United defender Eddie Pope won the prestigious Honda Player of the Year Award, driving away in a 1998 Accord EX. Normally, the entire U.S. team gathers to celebrate at the event but this year there was a notable absence: U.S. coach Steve Sampson.

"Out of respect for Chevrolet, which is a sponsor of the USA team, I was asked not to attend by U.S. soccer," said Sampson.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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