They are typical American tourists, the soccer equivalent of men
who wear black socks with sandals, who are baffled by the
exchange rate and who are hankering for a Big Mac. They try.
They really do. When they're on the road, the members of the
U.S. national team work hard and play with conviction, but they
can't figure out a way to win.
Take Sunday's World Cup qualifying game with El Salvador, a
nation that proved to be a more congenial host than
anyone--especially the U.S. embassy in the capital of San
Salvador--figured it would be. The Salvadorans have a decent
team, with a sweet midfielder in Mauricio Cienfuegos, but not an
especially dangerous one. Indeed, the hosts seemed ready for the
taking after U.S. striker Roy Lassiter volleyed a cross from
midfielder John Harkes for a goal in the 52nd minute. Nine
minutes later, however, after a poorly executed U.S. offside
trap, a miskick by Salvadoran striker Raul Diaz Arce wound up in
the goal after ticking off U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel's
fingers. El Salvador held on for a 1-1 tie.
In Cup qualifying, any point won on the road is splendid, but
Sunday's result didn't please the Americans, who had expected
more of themselves. Never mind that the U.S. hasn't won a game
in Central America since 1989. The Yanks know they lost their
soccer virginity a long time ago. They are no longer the
doe-eyed naifs of the '90 World Cup slaughter in Italy or the
bubbly homeboys who reached the second round in the '94 Cup.
They are now hardened pros, a midlevel soccer power that should
handle a team ranked 47 places below it in the world rankings,
even if the match is being played on a sultry afternoon in the
midst of a serene sea of Salvadoran blue and white. As U.S.
Soccer Federation secretary general Hank Steinbrecher said after
Sunday's tie, "We have to learn to put the nail in the coffin.
There's a lack of a killer instinct."
So the Americans are slouching toward France '98, though they
have a lot of company in the shallow end of the pool of
CONCACAF, the group of World Cup aspirants from nations in the
Caribbean and North and Central America. At the midway point of
the final six-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament, only the
first-place Mexicans have a road win, a 1-0 triumph in El
Salvador on June 8. The U.S. tied 0-0 in Jamaica on March 2,
lost 3-2 in Costa Rica on March 23 and, despite dominating the
second half against the Salvadorans, flew back to Miami with one
point instead of the three for a victory. A win would have given
the Americans a huge lift in their bid to finish in CONCACAF's
top three and thereby qualify for France. Instead, the
third-place U.S. is only one point ahead of the bottom three
teams, El Salvador, Canada and Jamaica. One U.S. advantage: Its
remaining schedule, which includes three home matches and a
visit to Vancouver, is soft. Will the Americans make it to
France? Probably. Will they reach the second round of the World
Cup final? Not if they keep playing with a lack of precision.
Lassiter could have won the game in injury time, but his shot
glanced off the crossbar. It was a tough break for a striker who
had made his own luck after a first half in which U.S. attacking
partners David Wagner and Jovan Kirovski played as if they
hadn't met each other before. Coach Steve Sampson fiddled with
his lineup at halftime, flopping midfielders Cobi Jones and
Ernie Stewart to move Stewart to his accustomed right side and
making sure both stayed wide so the U.S. could stretch a limited
Salvadoran defense. The changes worked almost immediately when
Harkes made a throw-in to Stewart, received a quick return pass
and spotted a breaking Lassiter. When Lassiter took the
left-footed cross--"It was curving over his shoulder, almost a
Willie Mays catch," Harkes said later--and his volley flew
inside the far post, Cuscatlan Stadium got so quiet you could
hear a riot cop's truncheon drop.
About 100 national riot police were ringing the 35,000-seat
oval, with a phalanx of local cops in every aisle. Blessedly,
they were excess baggage. This was a fiesta, with a loud but
never unruly crowd of 29,000. The preemptive show of force,
however, was not unwarranted. In El Salvador's last game at
Cuscatlan, the loss to Mexico, fans hurled debris, and one
strong-armed supporter dinged a linesman with a projectile when
a penalty wasn't called against Mexico in the closing minutes.
FIFA, the sport's international governing body, fined the
Salvadoran federation $35,000 for the crowd's rowdiness and
Salvadoran coach Milovan Djoric $5,000 for, among other
infractions, his remarks about the Argentine who refereed the
game; it also suspended Djoric for two games, including
Sunday's. That didn't stop Djoric from standing behind the El
Salvador bench and screaming instructions about substitutions to
surrogate Kiril Dojcihovski. Put it this way: The FIFA ban had
less teeth than Mike Tyson.
Had there been more incidents on Sunday, FIFA could have moved
El Salvador's last two home games, scheduled for Sept. 14 and
Nov. 9, to a neutral country, so everyone was on his Sunday
behavior. In the first half, when someone threw a water bag at
Harkes as he readied to take a corner kick, 25 fans pointed at
the culprit. "The guards," Harkes said afterward, "were more of
a threat than the crowd." None of the American players was
hanged in effigy, although their images were carved into
coconuts by a man outside the team hotel. At $20 the souvenirs
were a bigger steal than El Salvador's tie.
Maybe U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, who assumed her post in El
Salvador on May 16, now has a firmer grip on the level of risk
that visiting American soccer fans face. The embassy simply
should have advised Americans planning to attend Sunday's game
that some discretion was in order. Instead it dropped a
diplomatic big one by telling its American employees not to go
to the match and having the U.S. State Department issue a
warning to all U.S. citizens that soccer games are "often
emotional events that have engendered violent or disruptive
behavior by supporters of different teams." To which we add,
Duh. The Salvadoran government was mildly miffed by what even
Sampson termed "an overreaction."
Which is not to say that soccer travel isn't often tough. Last
year, when Sampson was in Costa Rica on a scouting mission,
5,000 fans rushed to the side of the stadium where he entered
and began screaming, in Spanish, "Steve Sampson, f--- you!"
"I don't know if honored is the right word, but at least it
shows that fans from around the world know who the U.S. coach
is," Sampson says. "That's a sign of respect." Even when travel
is bumpy, you try to make the best of it.
That is precisely what the 28-year-old Stewart tries to do.
Three years ago Stewart, who scored the winning goal against
Colombia in the 1994 World Cup, developed a fear of flying that
has become a central theme in his life. The son of an American
serviceman, he lives and plays professionally in Uden, Holland,
for NAC Breda of the Dutch first division. He got a publication
from KLM that offered statistical proof of air travel's safety,
but he didn't buy it. Then he hooked up with a man he describes
as a "paranormal healer"--"He can tell the future, and you can
put quote marks around future," Stewart says--who calms him down
before some flights by reassuring him that the trip will be
safe. Ernie's wife, Yvonne, usually drops him off at Amsterdam's
Schiphol airport, watches from an observation deck as his flight
takes off and then goes back to the parking lot, secure in the
knowledge that Ernie has overcome his phobia again. "Sometimes
it's been 50-50 if I'd get on the flight, but I've never missed
one," says Ernie.
For luck he touches the outside of the plane before he steps
into the cabin. For reassurance when the team stays at a Miami
airport hotel, Stewart will sit by the pool and watch takeoffs
and landings for hours. He had hoped to bring Yvonne, a native
of Holland whom he married on June 6, to El Salvador, but she
remained in Miami after the U.S. players were advised by U.S.
Soccer not to invite family members. "They stated that on a
piece of paper," Ernie says. "I was thinking, My god, what's
going to happen?"
Nothing. This was a match that ended with the Salvadorans
applauding politely and Harkes throwing his captain's armband
into the crowd. Stewart was long gone, having asked out 13
minutes from the end when he ran out of gas. The Americans, with
Lassiter's fresh legs, kept pushing forward, but they still
haven't learned to finish what U.S. soccer started about a
Harkes will have to sit out the next game, against Costa Rica on
Sept. 7 in Portland, because he picked up a second yellow card
on Sunday. But forward Eric Wynalda, the U.S. team's leading
career scorer, who missed the El Salvador trip with a groin
injury, and midfielder Tab Ramos, who tore his left anterior
cruciate ligament last November and hasn't played for the
national squad since, are expected to return for that game.
"Clearly we've shown we're in the top three of this group," says
Sampson, whose team should advance to France if it wins its
three home games. "We have to reinforce the positive. That's
very important when we play Costa Rica. Our team can only get
stronger. Now we have to work on going for the jugular."