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Op-Ed

Itís time for Americans to answer some questions.

By Dave Marino-Nachison

(Sunday, June 14, 1998) -- With the United Statesí final World Cup tune-up, an uninspiring scoreless draw against a Scotland team that looked like they didn't enjoy soccer -- at least in the punishing 90-degree Washington heat -- out of the way, it's time for the real games to begin.

It's fun, and American, to dream about a storybook run through group play and an advance deep into elimination play fueled by an enticing mix of youth, skill and experience and a wily, inventive coach. But let's go by conventional soccer wisdom and say: What if the U.S does what's expected of it and tacks a win over Iran atop two losses to Yugoslavia and Germany? How will we measure success if the team doesn't come home with a few glowing results?

Here are 20 questions -- broken up into five easy-to-use sections -- that U.S. fans, detractors and opponents are asking now and that will be answered all too soon in France. Read them now, then come back and check up them when the team comes marching home.

Defense: The back four, including goalkeeper Kasey Keller, is the team's strength, but as many observers have mentioned, a team whose key player is its netminder is probably lacking elsewhere on the field.

1. Was Tom Dooley, whose importance to the squad increases with his age, fit, fast and sharp enough to keep the young team together and make his own presence felt at both ends of the field?
2. Did new American David Regis help or hinder the team as a late, but talented addition to the U.S. squad?
3. Was Eddie Pope the world-class prospect Americans believe him to be, or was he overwhelmed by older, craftier and more skillful attackers better than anyone he's faced in the MLS or CONCACAF?
4. Did Keller end up, as he has in the past, the only force capable of determining the team's fortunes with his determination and inhuman reflexes, or was there actually a defense in front of him?

Midfield: There are plenty of talented players in the mix, but thanks to injuries, inexperience and overlapping talents it was unclear after the Scotland match just what the best combination would be.

5. Were Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve ready to step up and prove their mettle at the highest possible level, or were their rapid rises to the top of the depth chart premature?
6. Are we still talking about Claudio Reyna in the future tense?
7. Was the U.S. able to turn the speed of wingers Cobi Jones and Frankie Hejduk into an asset, or were they outclassed by more well-rounded, if slower, players?
8. Was there room on the pitch for Tab Ramos, perhaps the team's only true gamebreaker, with Reyna taking the reins in the middle of the field?

Forwards: These are the guys who are supposed to score the goals, but they were mostly impotent in Cup warm-ups. If that continues, they'll carry most of the blame for the team's failures when they come home.

9. Did Eric Wynalda regain his pop and fire, or was the U.S.'s best striker ever all talk?
10. Was Preki's left foot a revelation, or was he exposed by his former compatriots as a one-trick pony who wasn't good enough to make it in Europe?
11. Was Brian McBride able to shake off a concussion and start adding highlight-reel goals to his growing file of highlight-reel near misses?
12. Did Roy Wegerle, too often invisible or unlucky in front, show why the U.S. didn't swap Roys at the last minute and take the speedster Lassiter?

Coaching: Steve Sampson took something of a chance in installing a new system and a host of new players late in the game. The team has shown the ability to hold possession in the 3-6-1, but whether the U.S. has enough skill to milk goals from the formation against other teams who use similar systems - with superior players -- remains to be seen.

13. Was Sampson's plan to clog the midfield with strong, steady players enough to slow down the high-powered offenses of Yugoslavia and Germany?
14. Did the 3-6-1, which creates opportunities through short, quick passes and overlapping runs, rob the U.S. of its counterattack, historically a staple of teams playing better and more skillful opposition?
15. Was Sampson able to use his relative wealth of experience and talent -- most of the U.S. bench is more than good enough to start - effectively, or did players languish on the bench?
16. Were some of Sampson's more notable cuts, including the veteran John Harkes, the hot Lassiter and the tireless Chris Henderson, missed in France, or did Sampson's selections prove to be the best possible mix?

Other factors: On paper, as everyone knows, a 1-2-0 record and first-round exit is a reasonable expectation. Three losses would be a disaster, while more than one tie would probably mean an early trip home as well.

17. Did Germany have one of its rumored "slow starts" - and was the U.S. good enough to capitalize if it did?
18. Was the U.S. able to weather the emotional storm of a politically charged Iran match and get a crucial win against the supposed weaklings of the very difficult group?
19. Was Yugoslavia's high-powered attack too much for the American defense, or was the U.S. able to steal points from a talent-rich but inconsistent opponent?
20. Will the new, expanded Cup format leave the U.S. wishing the wild card system - which got the team into the elimination round in 1994 - was still in place?

With soccer, the bottom line is always the result, but even the top U.S. soccer brass admits the deck is hardly stacked in the Americans' favor in France. As such, it's probably a bad idea to grade the U.S. performance solely on the outcomes of the games. As a soccer nation, the U.S. just isn't ready to check its progress simply by checking its scorecards, particularly against storied European opposition.

But as soccer fans the world over know, the World Cup generates more stories than just the tale of the champion. There are beloved upset winners, stylish losers, Cinderellas and cherished personalities that often obscure even the result of the final game. For the U.S., there are plenty of ways to leave France with honor. A few wins on top of some good memories would be icing on the cake.

Dave Marino-Nachison writes for a "A Clash of Heads" which can be found at http://www.headsclash.com/.

Articles and opinions expressed by other columnists are not necessarily the opinion of SoccerTimes.