Wake-up Call Germany struck with alarming quickness to beat the U.S.

June 21, 1998

The turning point came 20 seconds into U.S. midfielder Claudio
Reyna's World Cup debut. He found himself facedown on the damp
green floor of the Parc des Princes in Paris, his ribs sore, the
victim of a mugging from behind by a thick-boned midfielder from
the former East Germany. The difference between the 24-year-old
Reyna and 24-year-old Jens Jeremies was in each one's sense of
immediacy. Reyna and his teammates had been hoping, naively, to
grow into their opening match as it unfolded on Monday night.
Jeremies and the other Germans knocked that hope out of them
quickly.

"We let them beat us up in the beginning of the game," said U.S.
goalkeeper Kasey Keller. One of those in no mood to waste time
was German captain Jurgen Klinsmann, who used his head to create
the opening goal in the eighth minute. Klinsmann received a
corner kick and nodded the ball to Andy Moller, whose header
slipped, with inches to spare, between U.S. midfielder Mike
Burns and the goalpost. At halftime the American players sat in
their locker room as if waiting for John Harkes to yell at them.
Unfortunately the 31-year-old Harkes, the former U.S. captain,
had been cut from the team two months earlier. How the Americans
missed the spirit and venom he would have brought to this
overwhelming occasion.

In the second half the U.S. pushed forward with the help of
offensive-minded substitutes Frankie Hejduk, Roy Wegerle and Tab
Ramos, only to see Klinsmann counterattack with a goal in the
65th minute to seal Germany's 2-0 victory. The Americans now go
into their incendiary match against Iran on Sunday needing a
victory to have any hope of advancing to the second round, and
knowing that they can't afford to waste time pondering how to
earn it. "In all honesty, some of us were a little bit in awe of
the game," said Reyna. "You could see that before we went out."

How could the U.S. ever have imagined beating Germany? Since
1954, while the Germans had won their three World Cup titles,
the Americans had won but a single World Cup match--a 2-1 upset
of Colombia in Los Angeles four years ago. True, coach Berti
Vogts had failed in his promise to bring in younger players
after the 1994 Cup, in which Germany fell ignominiously in the
quarterfinals to Bulgaria. But by any concrete measure the
Germans seemed invulnerable. In 26 tournament matches since that
World Cup, they lost just once and seized the '96 European
Championship along the way.

Eight members of the American team have played professionally in
the German first or second division over the last decade, and
most of them, a German would be quick to point out, weren't able
to survive more than a year or two. But the U.S. players would
take a different view of their time abroad. They would argue
that they had succeeded simply by making it to Germany after
having been raised in a country known above all others for its
ignorance of the world's most popular sport.

If there is a global misunderstanding about soccer in the U.S.,
it is that American players are soft suburbanites driven to
practice after school each day by their mothers. The truth of
this U.S. team is just the opposite. In the world of soccer the
Americans are the orphans, the self-made men who are still
relatively unknown in their own country. The German players, by
comparison, were born into a kind of soccer wealth. Rather than
denouncing the arrogance of German soccer, however, the
Americans last week were counting on it. It was their best
tactical advantage.

On June 5 the U.S. repaired to the bucolic elegance of the
Chateau de Pizay, a 14th-century hotel of mural ceilings
isolated in the Beaujolais vineyards in central France, north of
Lyons. "Nonstop excitement," said defender Alexi Lalas of the
Americans' stay. Every few minutes a goose would honk or a
rooster would crow, reminding the team that it was in the middle
of nowhere.

"The players are spending time together," said their Father
Flanagan, coach Steve Sampson, a 41-year-old Californian who
sounds unerringly like the TV actor Robert Urich. Sampson, a
former college coach, has never played in or coached a
professional club game, but in the three years leading up to the
Cup he guided the Americans to upset wins over Argentina, Mexico
and Brazil. Nevertheless, his pedigree was a mongrel's in
comparison to that of Vogts's; in 1974 Vogts was the defender
who silenced Dutch star Johan Cruyff as Germany won its second
World Cup. "If I go to watch [the German club] Kaiserslautern
play during the course of the year and Berti Vogts is there, the
most he will do is shake my hand and say hello," Sampson said,
his voice rising.

In the seclusion of the French countryside, the last of an
assortment of U.S. injuries melted away. Most important, top
striker Eric Wynalda, who had undergone knee surgery in April,
proved that he had recovered his speed in a 4-0 practice-game
victory held behind closed doors on June 9 against a French
second-division team from Gueugnon. Now Sampson could start
Wynalda and ask him to run himself out of gas in a first-half
attempt to score. He then would replace Wynalda with Wegerle,
the 34-year-old former South African who, as the lone striker in
the U.S.'s 3-6-1 formation, could serve as an outlet man capable
of holding the ball upfield for precious seconds while his
teammates charged forward in counterattack. If everything
worked, the Germans might--might--be frustrated.

"I've never had a better feeling before a game," Sampson
confided after the Americans arrived in Paris last Saturday
afternoon. The spine of his starting team had an understanding
of the opponent, building from sweeper Thomas Dooley and the
recently naturalized David Regis, a Frenchman who plays for the
Bundesliga's Karlsruhe team, in defense; through Chad Deering
and Reyna, teammates at VfL Wolfsburg, in midfield; and winding
up with Wynalda, who made his name as a striker in Germany from
1992 to '95.

Above that was Sampson's unique appreciation for what this
generation of pioneers--now at peak age--might yet accomplish on
their own terms. As it turned out, the Germans meted out yet
another lesson to the Americans. Sampson could only hope that
his players would put it to good use against Iran.

--Ian Thomsen

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Muscling in Striker Oliver Bierhoff kept Regis and the U.S. off balance. [David Regis and Oliver Bierhoff in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)