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It Seems To Me . . .

American soccer fans should revel in Unitedís InterAmerican Cup victory.

By Robert Wagman

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Thursday, December 10, 1998) -- Shortly after his D.C. United had shocked the soccer world with its convincing 2-0 shutout of Brazilís Vasco de Gama, the South American Copa Libertadores de America champion, Bruce Arena stood with a small group of reporters and said, "I hope in your writing you will be able to convey to the American people the importance of what happened this evening . . . We obviously have a long way to go, but this shows that American soccer is moving in the right direction."

How big an achievement this was can be pretty easily seen. As fans entered Lockhart Stadium they were given a very nice color brochure extolling the long and rich history of Vasco. "100 Anos de Sucesso" read the headline on the cover, 100 years of success. Then you realize that for 97 of those years, neither DC United, nor Major League Soccer, even existed. That puts things in perspective.

Very few Americans have been able to see the match. Only about 7,500 were in attendance. It was broadcast on a few cable outlets, and on some Hispanic stations. But the bulk of American soccer fans have not and maybe will not see it. So a few things must be said.

This was no fluke. This was not a situation of United packing it in, 10 men behind the ball, holding on and hoping for a breakaway. After a bit of a shaky start -- obviously big match nerves -- United settled down and for the next 80 minutes played attacking soccer.

In the 10th minute, Lassiter broke in free on Vascoís World Cup goalkeeper Carlos Germano who was forced to make a diving save. In the 15th minute, Ben Olsen was just wide with a long range blast. A minute later Jeff Agoos, who I think had a career match, was just high off a free kick set-up from Marco Etcheverry. At the 25th minute John Harkes was just high with a 20-yard blast. And then in the 33rd minute Tony Sanneh scored his goal off a pass from Agoos that Lassiter dummied.

Likewise, Unitedís second goal was no counterattacking fluke. In the 74th minute Lassiter sent Olsen free down the right side. Vascoís Flavinho barely blocked Olsenís hard shot for a corner. It was wide but Sanneh brought it back in the area, and his hard shot was deflected for another corner. Olsen took a short corner and centered, the ball was cleared out but onto Harkesí foot, and his volley forced Germano to make a sprawling save. Then when Vasco tried to counter, Llamosa stripped Donizate yet again, Harkes again got the ball to Lassiter who beat two defenders down the left side and forced Galvanoís panic clearance of his cross. This led to another corner, and Eddie Popeís goal off of Lassiterís volley pass.

This is the way it went all night. United pressed forward. From about the 37th minute on Vasco pulled out all the stops, but fell short and Unitedís defense had the answer every time.

Yes, this might not have been Vascoís most memorable effort in those 100 years. Yes, they were certainly jet-lagged and weary from their Toyota Cup journey to Japan. But they used their best and they gave it all they had. The match was played at a pace unseen ever in a MLS match.

After the match it was interesting to watch Arenaís reaction. He was obviously elated with the victory. At the same time, he was clearly saddened by the fact that this was his last time on Unitedís bench as the boss. But just as clearly he is absolutely chomping at the bit to get on with resurrecting the national team. And he had to be thrilled by what he saw on the field against a very experienced group of internationals.

The defense -- Agoos, Pope and Carlos Llamosa -- was simply perfect. All three may well have had career games. Llamosa showed time and time again that he should have been in the center of the U.S. defense in France. Against one of Brazilís best offensive clubs, United played with only three at the back, and with Agoos pushing forward when he could, on a number of occasions, United parried Vasco counters with only Llamosa and Pope.

This is the same defense that Arena started for the U.S. in San Jose against Australia. For now, I would think, this is the U.S. defense, with David Regis likely to be slotted in as a defensive midfielder in front of the United three. If they continue to play at this level the U.S. will be fine. America will not face any team in World Cup qualifying (including Mexico, and the much improved Jamaica and Costa Rica) who have as dangerous a group of strikers as Vascoís Donizete, Luizao and Guilherme.

Outside midfielder Tony Sanneh had a wonderful match. He was strong on the attack, did well on the wing in midfield, and when Vasco applied pressure, effectively became the right back. He will be a factor for the national team.

Then there was the play of the 21-year-old Olsen. For the evening he went toe to toe with Nasa, a very experienced, very talented Vasco midfielder and did not give an inch. In the end he won the battle. On one memorable thrust, he went at Vasco wunderkind Felipe, put the ball around him, stepped around him and regained control of the ball only to be stopped by Galvano, the mainstay of the Vasco defense.

Which bring us to the subject of Roy Lassiter. Whenever I mention his name, I get e-mails from his legion of detractors who say he canít finish, canít take on defenders one on one, canít turn on my grandmother, is lousy in the air. There was plenty in this match to give them ammunition. Lassiter had at least four chances, anyone of which a world class striker could have finished. You would think, the odds being what they were, a good finisher would have scored two. I agree.

But what Lassiterís speed did in this match was stretch out Vascoís defense. They had to virtually man-mark him with either Galvao or Flavinho. And he ran all night. This was the kind of performance the U.S. utterly lacked in France and needed so desperately.

So I ask again, at least for now, if not Lassiter then who? Brian McBride does not have his pace. Wynalda is coming off an awful World Cup and a worse MLS season. Of the younger American players in Europe, with the exception of David Wagner most are midfielders, or are playing as midfielders. Roy Lassiter may not be the man in Japan in 2002. But as the match against Vasco showed, he can be a big help right now in very fast company.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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