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U.S. Olympic men face modest expectations.

By Robert Wagman

(Monday, September 11, 2000) -- The United States Olympic teams are going to Australia with very different goals, expectations and burdens.

The men's tournament is much more unsettled. Many teams have suffered last-minute defections with players opting to remain with their club teams rather than miss a month of league play. Some nations have chosen not to bring any "over-age" players. Question marks are abundant, but some of the world's best players will be on display.

The experts seem equally divided over who might end up with the gold medal. Many pick traditional power Brazil, which is bringing no over-age players, but will feature five starters from the full national side including Ronaldinho, Alex and Athirson. Some are picking Italy, the European under-21 champion which features 11 starters, all of whom start in the domestic Serie A.

Spain, like Brazil, did not bring any over-age players, and lost at least three age-eligible starters who would not leave their club teams, but with the nucleus of the 1999 under-20 world championship side, the Spaniards are deep in talent and hungry for victory.

Many think the most talented team in the field is defending champions Nigeria, even though it has lost players to club commitments and internal squabbling. Still, Nigeria will field a team with at least seven of the starters that got Nigeria to the final of the African Nations Cup in February.

Still others believe that Chile or Cameroon could surprise. Chile was the surprise second qualifier from South America beating out favored Argentina. Its one weakness has been defense, but the addition of over-age goalkeeper Nelson Tapia and defender Pedro Reyes will shore up the defense.

Cameroon, winner of the African Nations Cup, is a young team that features 10 players from that championship roster. Midfield sensation Geremi Njitap of Real Madrid could be the star of the tournament.

Missing from this list of possible winners is the United States. In Group C with Cameroon, the well-regarded Czech Republic, and Kuwait, which has some impressive victories this year, the U.S. will have to be at the top of its game to be one of the two teams from the group to advance to the quarterfinals, a feat the United States men have never accomplished in the Olympics.

In each of the last three Summer Games, U.S. has posted the same 1-1-1 record and was done.

For the U.S. to emerge from its group, it will need to get exception play from over-age goalkeeper Brad Friedel, a recent replacement for the injured Adin Brown, from midfielder John O'Brien from Ajax Amsterdam in the Dutch first division, from outside midfielder Ben Olsen of Major League Soccerís D.C. United and from Chicago Fire striker Josh Wolff.

The U.S. enters the competition with a number of question marks. A major one: can central defenders Brian Dunseth and Chad McCarty cope with the speed they are likely to see from attackers from the Czech Republic and Cameroon. Czech Republic has Libor Sionko, who led Sparta Prague into the Champions League and Milan Baros, who at 18 is looked at as one of the best young players in eastern Europe. Cameroon features Lauren Mayer who Englandís Arsenal paid $10 million for over the summer, Real Madrid's Njitap and Samuel Eto, a star in the African Nations Cup.

Both Dunseth and McCarty are fine players in MLS, but they will have to play to a higher level in Australia.

Another question is whether young midfielder Landon Donovan is ready to make a breakthrough. A star in the U-17 world championship last year, he has shown flashes of brilliance playing with the reserve side at Bayer Leverkusen in Germany.

It is likely Donovan will start playing behind forwards Wolff and either Conor Casey, the lone collegian on the squad, or Chris Albright. If he can play as he did in New Zealand with the U-17s, he will bolster the U.S. attack greatly.

Albright, is the single biggest question mark for the U.S. He was almost unstoppable in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Hershey, Pa., but he had a dismal season for D.C. United in MLS where he had problems with bigger, more experienced defenders. That is what he will see in Australia. So the question is which Albright will appear.

There are other questions. How fit is Olsen, who missed a third of the MLS season with a serious ankle injury? Will over-age players. defender Jeff Agoos and and midfielder\defender Frankie Hejduk provide the experience, leadership and offense they were brought in to provide? Can Wolff continue his hot scoring pace of the last six weeks in MLS?

If there are enough positive answers to these questions, if Friedel, O'Brien and Olsen can have three very big matches, then the U.S. very well could surprise.

The first Group C match, against the Czech Republic in Canberra Wenesday, could make all the difference. In the Czechs, the U.S. faces a team in some disarray. Four potential starters were lost to club conflicts. Stuttgart's Ales Chavlovsky is a fine young goalkeeper and midfielder, Napoli's Marek Jankulovski is as good a player as there is in the tournament. If O'Brien can keep control of Jankulovski, and if the defense can control striker Sionko, the U.S. could get a favorable result from its first match.

Three nights later, on September 16 in Canberra, the U.S. will face Cameroon. On paper one of the best squads in the tournament, Cameroon has been beset with problems in preparing for the tournament. At least five players who figured to start have begged off the trip because of club commitments.

Coach Jean-Paul Akono had wanted to bring three of Cameroon's over-age heroes to Australia, including Liverpool's Rigobert Song and Lyon's Marc-Vivien Foe, but they declined. So, Akono says, he will do the best he can with what he has. He has a lot, and if this team jells, it will be extremely hard to beat.

The U.S. closes out group play with Kuwait on September 19 in Melbourne. The Kuwaitis are the youngest and most inexperienced team at the Olympics and will probably start six players who will be eligible for the next Olympics.

Kuwait surprised Saudi Arabia, and themselves, by qualifying for these Games. If the U.S. goes into the final group match needing a win to go through, Kuwait will be a good opponent.

While the U.S. would be joyful just getting to the quarterfinals, if it could somehow win its group it could find itself in the semifinals. The runners-up in Group C play the winner of Group D in the quarterfinals, most certainly Brazil. But the Group C winner plays number two in Group D and that could be Slovakia, Japan or South Africa. None of the three appears as strong as Cameroon.

So for the U.S. men, a good start against the Czech Republic, perhaps a point against Cameroon and a triumph against Kuwait could put them in position to become the first Americans to advance to the knockout rounds.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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