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It Seems To Me . . .

Is current national team better than Cup side?

By Robert Wagman

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Monday, February 8, 1999) -- In the wake of the national teamís surprising 3-0 thumping of Germany, I posed a question to a number of the soccer reporters who have covered the team for years. Question: is the team that took the field here at Alltel Stadium a better side than took the field for the U.S. at Parc des Princes in Paris on June 15 of last year?

Everyone kind of shrugged their shoulders, either figuratively or literally, and gave some version of "Itís probably too early to tell." I would agree, but I think the question is worth exploring.

There are two ways to approach the question. The first is a kind of position by position examination. Keller versus Meola, Deering versus Lewis, Sanneh versus Stewart, Agoos versus Regis, Reyna versus Reyna, as so on. This approach, I personally feel, is only of limited value. Of more value is to look at the whole team, this side as a whole versus the side that took the field in Paris.

What is clear is that this team right now is playing better as a unit than Steve Sampsonís side did in France, or really at any time in 1998. What Bruce Arena stands for is the proposition that a team is far more than the sum of its parts. It was that way at the University of Virginia in the Arena-era, at DC United where on any given night different players were slotted into the lineup with much the same result, and now it appears to be the national team way.

In Jacksonville that was shown by the fact that had they been fit, Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa would both have started on the back line instead of C.J. Brown and Robin Fraser. Yet both Brown and Fraser had flawless matches.

Claudio Reyna says he thinks he knows the difference. "Everyone knows how Bruce operates. He has made it clear that every position on the squad is open and everyone has an equal chance of winning a position. Everyone is concerned with how they are doing and in doing their best, not how anyone else is doing. Everyone seems much more relaxed. Today we had a perfect balance. Everyone played their role."

It is not a question of strategy or tactics, because strangely the U.S. defeated Germany here by playing, more or less, the system that Steve Sampson had wanted them to play in Paris. On paper, the U.S. was playing a 3-5-2 in Jacksonville with Cobi Jones and Brian McBride as forwards. But in reality, Jones moved from wing to wing and often was withdrawn, leaving the U.S. playing almost Sampsonís intended 3-6-1.

And it worked much the way Sampson had said it would. The U.S. attacked out of the midfield with success while Germany was unable to move the ball through the midfield. Eventually the Germans seemed to lose interest.

There were at least two subtle, but significant, differences between the loss in Paris and the victory here. In Paris, Sampson wanted everything to move through Reyna in the midfield. In Jacksonville, even though he was wearing the number 10, and the captainís armband, Claudio had Kirovski in front of him and Lewis behind.

"I feel very comfortable with Jovan in front of me and Eddie behind," Reyna said. "It frees me up to pass or dribble or move into open space. We had a very good flow."

The other critical difference was how the U.S. played on the wings. Basically Lewis and Sanneh controlled the wings forcing the Germans to try to play through the middle. "Itís very unusual for the U.S. to be able to control the wings in international play," Arena said after the match. "Eddie and Tony did so today and that made a big difference."

Attitude also made a big difference. Asked what the main difference between the U.S. today in Jacksonville and the squad that took the filed in Paris, Reyna paused a moment to think. "All week long we told each other that we had to go after them and pressure them from the first minute," he said. "We couldnít give them the kind of respect we did in France. We couldnít lay back. That was the difference."

A final note. For all of you who doubt the benefit of the Major league Soccer shootout just look at Tony Sannehís goal here. Once he had stripped the ball from Jeremies and started in on keeper Oliver Kahn, his shootout honed skills kicked in and he easily beat the keeper in the shootout-like setting. Asked about that after the match Sanneh could only laugh. "Yea, maybe so," he said. "I guess I have to thank Sunil (MLS Deputy Commissioner Sunil Gulati) the next time I see him." (A joke, only a joke, donít send e-mail).

Robert 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 MobileWag@aol.com.

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