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It Seems To Me . . .

Increased confidence distinguishes U.S. men under Arena following Sampson tenure.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

PASADENA, Calif. (Tuesday, January 18, 2000) -- The crowd and the atmosphere here at the Rose Bowl on Sunday, when the United States men faced Iran, was strikingly similar to the scene 18 months ago in Lyon, France when the two teams met in the World Cup

The vast majority of the crowd was passionately pro-Iranian, but just as passionately opposed to the present regime in Teheran. As was the crowd in Lyon, the Rose Bowl crowd was highly respectful of the United States.

But while the scene was surprisingly similar, what happened on the field was very different. Moreover, what happened was a clear reflection of the differences between the current version of the U.S. men's national team, and the one that played in the last World Cup. Much of that difference can be attributed to some very real differences between the men who coached the two teams, Bruce Arena today and Steve Sampson in 1998.

The two matches actually started very similarly. The U.S. came out aggressive and determined, and in both matches had an early chance. But then, almost against the run of play, both in Lyon and Sunday in Pasadena, Iran grabbed the lead. In both matches, the U.S. then fell back on its heels. However from that point on, Pasadena was very different from Lyon.

Midfielder Claudio Reyna was at the heart of both teams. He was one of four players on the field in Pasadena who was also on the field in Lyon (Brian McBride, Cobi Jones and Frankie Hedjuk were the others). After the U.S. came back to tie on Sunday, Reyna articulated the difference.

"When we went down a goal in Lyon, we simply folded," he said. "Here, once we caught our breath, we just dug deeper and played harder. There was never a thought that we wouldn't come back. That's the difference between this team and the one in France. These guys believe no matter who we play we can win. It's really a very different attitude."

Sampson's team in France played defensively, played scared. A team that had been aggressive in qualifying for France suddenly became tentative, even in the frendlies leading up the World Cup. Once in competition, when the U.S. fell behind, first to Germany, then to Iran and finally to Yugoslavia, there never was a feeling the team would, or even could, come back. Collectively, there seemed to be an inferiority complex, -- how could an American team complete on the world stage with the powers of Europe?

Talking with Sampson as he readied the team for France and once there, one never came away with the feeling that he believed the U.S. had much of a chance. His belief was: hey, if we can get a draw with Germany, somehow beat Iran and then draw with Yugoslavia maybe we can get through to the next round. If we don't, at least we had a better run than people expected.

After the match on Sunday, Arena called the draw "a fair result." The Iranian media tried to draw him out into an admission he was disappointed in not winning the match. But he is not easily drawn into a statement he does not want to make. In fact, it was pretty evident that while he probably was satisfied with the way the team played the last 65 minutes, he was not pleased with the confusion of the first 25.

No matter who the U.S. is playing these days, there isn't the feeling that Arena is ever playing for a tie. With the national team, as he did at University of Virginia and then D.C. United, he is preaching aggressive, offensive minded soccer. He is always out there to win.

"We're Americans, we're an aggressive people" Arena said before the Iran match. "That's how we'll play our soccer -- aggressively."

As noted in these pages before, in November of 1998 just before his first game as national team coach, Arena said his top priority was to restore the team's confidence that had largely been shattered in France. Sunday showed how successful he has been at that. The Americans got down a goal, and was lucky not to have gone down a pair. But they fought back and dominated play in the second half and got the equalizer.

This is a team still looking for a scorer up front, a lot better crossing of the ball especially for a team where much of whose offense comes down the wings, and much better cohesion on defense. But it is not a team lacking in confidence.

The U.S. faces a much more difficult task in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea than it did in qualifying for France two years ago. But watching this team train and play, as it did Sunday in the Rose Bowl, one can't help but feel it is on the right track. And Bruce Arena has to be given much of the credit.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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