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Defender Fraser, 32, is finally making a mark on his national team.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, July 29, 1999) -- He's 32 years old, which is not young for a soccer player, but Robin Fraser is showing he's a man to be reckoned with. U.S. national coach Bruce Arena certainly is impressed.

He was outstanding - the coach's understated term was "solid" -- in the 1-0 loss Wednesday night to Brazil in the Confederations Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico. And he figures to be on the firing line again Friday in the crucial test against Germany.

"He's more confident in the four-man alignment (used against Brazil)," Arena said. "He was aggressive, his passing was good. He showed he can" handle speed, catching up with, and nudging off-balance, Warley in a second-half Brazil scoring chance.

Fraser, a Major League Soccer stalwart with the Los Angeles Galaxy, has been on the national team fringe for a few years, but never clicked -- injuries sometimes knocking him out of possible game consideration. He once was quoted as saying he was a better player than 1994 World Cup standout Alexi Lalas, the posterboy for U.S. soccer in the mid-1990s.

He's been solid since the start of the Arena Era last fall and could be tough to dislodge. "Despite his age . . . I think he has some good years ahead for him," Arena said today.

Frankie Hejduk moved back to defense and had an excellent game. So did Carlos Llamosa, who is doubtful against Germany with a knee injury. And so did Jeff Agoos, the last 65 minutes. Llamosa was not on the 1998 World Cup team, and Agoos didn't play in any of the games.

This is another indication of the depth being developed at a position occupied in France '98 by Eddie Pope and David Regis, both strong players out of this tournament while recovering from injuries, and the now-retired Thomas Dooley.

The American camp was excited about the overall strong showing against Brazil, with the United States having a 13-8 edge in shots, and forcing six saves by Brazilís Dida, double the amount by goalkeeper Kasey Keller. This was unlike past U.S. performances against Brazil (even the historic 1-0 win last year in the Gold Cup), in which the South American power dominated the run of play.

Few forget the 1-0 loss to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup second round, when the Americans did nothing with the ball, even when one player up for a half when Leonardo was sent off for elbowing Tab Ramos. It was not the case yesterday, with the United States aggressively marking the top-ranked Brazilians, keeping possession longer than it usually does against top Latin teams, and creating a number of scoring chances.

Brazil astonishingly has no corner kicks, normally an indication of who controls play, while the United States had two. "Players are now in a professional environment . . . we are becoming a soccer-playing nation," Arena said, referring to the improved composure on the ball. ``We are improving."

But he hastened to add that while the U.S. under-17 team has had a nearly year-long residency training camp, scores more teenagers in soccer-advanced nations have been doing this for decades -- and with professional clubs nurturing them. "We are light years behind . . . but we are making progress," Arena said. Nevertheless, who would have thought the United States would be "favored" to tie or beat Germany in a semifinal-deciding match of a major tournament?

That's how high the bar has been raised for a U.S. team that was shamed by its last-place finish in France '98, and it's not all new players. Six members started against Brazil.

The tournament scheduling has been a scandal. Arena professed to be "happy we're here," etc., but when pressed said he "didn't see the rationale" of teams playing games Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday -- as is the case in the Confederations Cup.

The United States, if it gets past Germany on Friday, is expected to play Mexico on Sunday, giving it three games in five days. To boot, the survivor of their match will have to travel from Guadalajara to Mexico City for the semifinal, while host Mexico -- in an easy bracket with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bolivia - will remain in Mexico City if it finishes first and have an extra day's rest.

"Three matches in five days, or two in three days, this is unheard of at this level," Arena said. "It's very, very difficult for the players."

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at .

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