THREE OF A KIND
A troika of highly skilled Ukrainians led Indiana to a fourth
It was the most memorable Ukrainian summit meeting since Yalta.
Indiana midfielder Yuri Lavrinenko had just scored a goal off
two breathtaking passes from his countrymen, forwards Aleksey
Korol and Dema Kovalenko, to give the Hoosiers a 2-0 lead over
Stanford in the 20th minute of Sunday's NCAA championship in
Richmond, and now the trio was celebrating in front of the
Cardinal goal. "Davai! Eshche odin!" Lavrinenko screamed in
Russian. Translation: "Come on! One more!"
Korol obliged, scoring Indiana's final goal (Kovalenko had the
other) in a 3-1 rout that gave the Hoosiers their fourth
national title and provided one more plot twist in the saga of
the three Ukrainians. In 1992, at age 14, they moved to the
Rochester, N.Y., area to live with families who had invited them
to stay the previous year, when their Dynamo Kiev youth team
visited for a tournament. "There was a lot of violence and
corruption back home," says Korol, "and not a lot to look
Kovalenko remembers the day in 1986 when the world's worst
nuclear accident took place in Chernobyl, 100 miles north of
Kiev. "We had a game the day it blew up," he says. "The
government didn't even tell us. When we found out two days
later, my parents sent me to my grandparents' house on the Black
Sea for two months." Five years later Lavrinenko's father,
Vladimir, died at age 53 of leukemia, which was thought to be
caused by the Chernobyl fallout.
The Ukrainians spoke almost no English when they arrived in the
U.S. on student visas, but they now sound almost like native
Hoosiers. Korol watched a Beavis-load of MTV to learn about his
new culture, and all three have become enamored of the
traditional American sports. What's more, each one was named to
the 1998 Big Ten All-Academic team; Korol and Kovalenko major in
sports management, while Lavrinenko is a classical studies major.
They're also magnificent soccer players. Kovalenko, a daredevil
with the ball, is the best pro prospect. (He turned down an
offer to join MLS's Project-40 development program last year.)
Korol, the fastest and most athletic, improved his finishing
touch this season--he led the Hoosiers with 17 goals--and could
also play in MLS. Lavrinenko, a cerebral playmaker, has an
outside shot at the pros.
All three are thinking about becoming U.S. citizens. Last summer
Kovalenko returned from his first visit back to Ukraine with
horror stories about its professional league. "The players get
paid four months late, they live in apartments without TV, and
sometimes they have no hot water," he says. "I'm used to having
hot water now."
Kovalenko says he will probably skip his final year in
Bloomington to join MLS. But Korol and Lavrinenko were adamant
on Sunday about their senior-year plans: Eshche odin. One more.
MLS's Carlos Llamosa
CLEANING UP FOR D.C. UNITED
When D.C. United upset Rio de Janeiro's Vasco da Gama 2-0 to win
the Interamerican Cup (the Western Hemisphere club championship)
on Dec. 5, soccer mavens around the world were shocked. Vasco,
after all, started all but one of the players who had lost 2-1
to Real Madrid four days earlier in the final of the world club
championship. Yet as jaw-dropping as United's victory may have
been, it was no more remarkable than the odyssey of its best
player in that game, defender Carlos Llamosa.
A native of Palmira, Colombia, Llamosa, 29, played in the
Colombian second division between 1986 and '90. A year later,
after being released from his club, he moved to New York City to
join seven of his 11 siblings. For the next four years Llamosa
was out of professional soccer, working as a janitor at the
World Trade Center and playing for amateur clubs with names such
as La Pequena Colombia and the Brooklyn Italians. "If I was
working the eight-to-five day shift, I would train during the
evenings," he says, "but when I was on the five-to-two late
shift it was much more difficult because I was often training
alone in the mornings."
The day shift, however, almost proved hazardous to Llamosa's
health. At 12:18 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1993, he happened to be eating
lunch with a coworker at a restaurant a block away when
terrorist bombs exploded at the World Trade Center, killing six
people. "When we realized what had happened, we came back and
saw everyone leaving," Llamosa says. "I knew one of the men who
Llamosa did janitorial work until 1996, when he began to make a
name for himself with the New York Centaurs of the A-League, the
U.S. second division. After being voted to the league's Best 11,
he was invited to an MLS combine in January '97. United selected
Llamosa in that year's supplemental draft, and he has been a
regular ever since. Says U.S. team and former United coach Bruce
Arena, "He has all the qualities that good defenders need: He
can pick up plays, cut off passes, beat players to balls. He's
got great instincts."
These days Llamosa also has a U.S. passport, having taken the
citizenship oath in October. Last month he made his first
appearance for the national team, against Australia. "It is my
dream to play in the 2002 World Cup," says Llamosa. "I am
extremely proud to be playing for my new country."
California Keeper Abroad
HE'D RATHER PLAY FOR NORWAY
On most Saturdays, Per Baardsen of Lafayette, Calif., rises
before dawn and drives 20 miles west to a crowded San Francisco
watering hole called Mad Dog in the Fog. Relax: Baardsen isn't a
prime candidate for a 12-step program. He's just watching the
satellite broadcasts of the games of the storied English club
Tottenham Hotspur, for which his son, Espen, 21, a born-and-bred
Californian, has spent most of this season starting in goal.
"I thought I'd get a chance at Tottenham," says Espen, "but I
never thought everything would work out this quickly." He began
training at age 14 with Tottenham's youth team every summer
after being discovered at a camp in Norway (his parents' native
country) by former Tottenham and Norwegian team goalkeeper Erik
Thorstvedt. Before his senior year at Acalanes High in
Lafayette, Baardsen signed a three-year contract with Spurs,
even though he received no assurances of playing time.
The gamble paid off immediately. When the 6'5" Baardsen joined
Tottenham after his '96 high school graduation, then-coach Jerry
Francis surprised everyone by anointing him his No. 2 keeper.
Baardsen made his Premier League debut to rave reviews against
Liverpool in April '97 and since then has played in 28 games. He
hopes to sign a five-year deal from Spurs worth almost $4 million.
So when will Baardsen suit up for the U.S.? Well, never. After
spending time in the American Olympic development program and
training with the U.S. under-20 team in 1996, he decided to play
internationally for Norway. The reasons: Competition for
Norway's keeper position was wide open, whereas Kasey Keller and
Brad Friedel had a stranglehold on the American team's goal;
Baardsen didn't want to jeopardize his club standing by leaving
Tottenham on long trips for World Cup qualifiers in the Western
Hemisphere; and perhaps most important, says Baardsen, "in
Norway the national team players are stars. There's not the same
interest in the States."
Baardsen found that out last summer, when he was swamped with
attention after making Norway's World Cup team as its No. 3
netminder and being voted outstanding goalkeeper at last May's
under-21 European Championship. In September he got his first
national team start at a Euro 2000 qualifier against Latvia, and
while Norway lost 3-1, Baardsen knows he'll get plenty more
chances. Thorstvedt, after all, is Norway's goalkeepers coach.