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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:15 EST

Tense times for U.S. men

By Jeff Bradley [ESPN The Magazine]

Tonight, the 19 players selected to play for the U.S. in Barbados will arrive in Fort Lauderdale to begin the most stressful week of match preparation in their lives.

No matter how much they smile during training or say "the team is loose" it will be hard to believe any player or coach's claim that they're not feeling the nerves that only come around for elimination games. Not even the 7-0 scoreline that hangs in the back of their memories from the last time the U.S. played Barbados will make that tightness go away. Because every player on this U.S. team has played in games where his team has lost to an inferior opponent. Every player has experienced games where his team should have won by a wide margin, but lost or tied the match on a fluke goal, or brilliant free kick.

That is the beauty of soccer ... it is also why the tension is so high this week. Not since the U.S. traveled to Trinidad and Tobago 11 years ago, having to win to qualify for its first World Cup in 40 years, has the U.S. faced a match like this one. There was pressure on that team because they knew the U.S. had been awarded the 1994 World Cup, and they knew how bad it would look for a country that couldn't qualify to host.

But if the U.S. national team is followed by a cult-like fanbase now (believe me, 98 percent of the people I work with at ESPN The Magazine have no idea there is a game in Barbados next week, and I wrote about it in our last issue), then they were followed by friends and family in 1989. In the year 2000, we have not only a bigger group of soccer fans, but a bigger group of sports fans who will sit up and pay attention if, on Thursday, in the middle or back of their sports section it says, "U.S. Men Out of World Cup." Of course, if the headline says, "U.S. Men Beat Barbados, Advance," they won't notice.

More than 20 U.S. journalists are making the trip to Barbados, representing some of the biggest news organizations in the country. Basically, they are going in case the U.S. loses. As morbid as this sounds, it's like sending a reporter to the hospital when news gets out that some celebrity or hero is sick. If he dies, you got a story. If he lives, sorry.

You've read it here before ... there will come a day when the U.S. does not qualify for a World Cup. That's the nature of soccer. Eventually, something will go wrong. It happened to England and France in '94. It will happen to the U.S. eventually. When it happens, soccer will not die in this country. The sport will keep progressing.


If the U.S. was to lose on Wednesday in Barbados and fail to advance to the next stage of qualifying, it would be the greatest blow the sport has taken in my lifetime. You can't sugar coat it, the timing would be awful. With a five-year old professional league, with plans to build soccer stadiums, with the sport gaining some momentum, a loss to a team of semi-professionals from a tiny island nation would leave a mess that would take a long time to clean up. You think you've read gloom and doom soccer stories before?

Just wait.

And that is why they ordered extra Maalox at the USSF offices in Chicago this week. Why there will be sleepless nights down in Lauderdale this weekend. Why the U.S. will take a 1-0 victory over team it waxed by seven just a few months ago.

These are tense times, indeed.

Who gets the keys?
Hopefully, we'll know more as we get into the weekend -- and the Boot Room will be on tour once again, traveling to Fort Lauderdale and Barbados to cover the U.S. men -- but the main thing to look for in preparation for this match is, who will be the U.S. playmaker?

Obviously, Claudio Reyna is serving the second game of his suspension and John O'Brien remains on the injured list. Jovan Kirovski, who got a chance to play in the center of the midfield in a 0-0 tie with Costa Rica, wasn't even selected this time.

Today, the leading candidate is Clint Mathis of the MetroStars, who made some things happen playing behind two forwards in the Yanks' 2-0 win over Mexico. If Tab Ramos looks good in the weekend training sessions, he could get the nod because of his experience ... but the smart money is still on Mathis.

Because the playing surface at National Stadium in Waterford is sub par, and because the U.S. is fully expecting Barbados to play with road tactics, there is the anticipation that this will be a game of bits and pieces, in other words, a game without rhythm.

Mathis' greatest asset is his explosiveness. Really, he plays a constant game of hide-and-seek with the opposition. Lying in the weeds until a moment occurs when he can take off with the ball. In a game where the possession figures to be sporadic, Mathis is a player who the U.S. coaches hope can turn a loose ball into a goal.

There is also a chance that Mathis will simply play as a forward. That could happen if Ramos looks sharp in camp and Ante Razov does not. Then you would see Ramos playing behind Mathis and Joe-Max Moore.

Plenty of reason to stay tuned through the weekend.

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