A cheeky reserve got the U.S. off to a fast start in World Cup
The young guns of U.S. soccer may not know exactly what they're
doing yet, but this much is true: They pull things off that
Americans have seldom dared to try in international competition.
Take 24-year-old striker Josh Wolff. When two Mexican defenders
converged on Wolff late in last week's World Cup qualifying
opener in Columbus, Ohio, he could have held the ball in the
right corner, protecting his team's one-goal lead. Instead, Wolff
used a back-heel to split the Mexicans, drove the touchline like
an NBA small forward and fed Earnie Stewart for a sitter that
sealed a solid 2-0 victory.
It was a breathtaking play, the kind of soccer that fires the
imagination. "Both of them came at me, so I just gave it a try,"
Wolff said, in the manner of a fearless young skateboarder who
had discovered a new trick. As a delighted U.S. coach Bruce Arena
said, "The story is, Josh went past two guys, whether he knew
what he was doing or not."
With the win, the Americans beat their biggest rival for only the
third time in 20 Cup qualifying matches dating back to 1934. They
also took the early lead in the six-team regional tournament that
will run through November and send three countries to World Cup
2002. The game-clincher capped a breakout night for Wolff, who
had a goal and an assist in only his second U.S. qualifier after
coming on in long relief for the injured Brian McBride. "I like
to call Josh a slicer," says Arena. "He cuts through defenses. We
have plenty of guys who can run fast, but we don't have guys who
can run fast at the right times, who understand how to run off
the ball and who can go by people with the ball. Josh does."
What's more, the beetle-browed Wolff brings a youthful swagger to
the lineup. At the Sydney Olympics he twice drew game-tying
penalty kicks on bold runs. When he scored his first
international goal, in a friendly against Mexico last October,
Wolff had the audacity to taunt the overwhelmingly Mexican crowd
at the Los Angeles Coliseum. After earning a corner kick on his
first run last week, he playfully slapped the butt of his Mexican
defender. "You have to respect your opponent, but there's a big
difference between respect and fear," Wolff says. "We don't fear
the Mexicans anymore."
Wolff's feats were all the more remarkable considering that he
had hit a low point in January. After getting married in November
and taking 10 weeks off from soccer, he was admittedly unfit upon
reporting to the U.S. camp. Shortly after he began training, he
needed surgery to remove pins that were protruding painfully from
his lower abdomen, the remnants of a hernia operation. Four days
after the surgery Wolff was back on the field. "When he went in
tonight, I didn't think he would make it through the game," Arena
said after the Mexico victory. "And yet in the 87th minute he was
still able to get by people and create the second goal."
Who knows? Even though it's the year of the snake in China, it
may well be the year of the Wolff in American soccer. For the
first time he will be counted on as a 90-minute man and primary
scorer for the MLS-favorite Chicago Fire. With the departure of
former Fire striker (and U.S. teammate) Ante Razov to Spain's
second division, Wolff has a golden opportunity to play up front
with Bulgarian star Hristo Stoitchkov, the 1994 European player
of the year. The Wolff-Stoitchkov axis worked wonders in limited
time last season, most notably in Wolff's four-goal performance
in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against the Dallas Burn.
After Wolff's play last week, it won't be easy for Arena to keep
him out of the starting lineup when the U.S. travels to Honduras
for its next qualifier, on March 28. "That's the kind of pressure
I like," says Arena, who must pick between Wolff and veterans
such as McBride and Joe-Max Moore. "Having a lot of choices is a
MLS Likely to Land Donovan
Return of a Rising Star?
At 19, striker Landon Donovan is the most accomplished teenage
soccer player the U.S. has ever produced. He started up front in
the Yanks' 2-1 exhibition loss to Brazil last Saturday at the
Rose Bowl. He won the Golden Ball award at the under-17 World Cup
two years ago. He has signed a six-figure deal with Nike. Now it
appears that Donovan will rectify an unhappy situation--he's been
languishing for two years with the reserve team for German club
Bayer Leverkusen--by coming home to MLS this season.
At week's end his agent, Richard Motzkin, said there was "a 95
percent chance" Donovan would be in MLS under a four-year
player-sharing agreement between the league, which owns all
player contracts, and Leverkusen. Details were expected to be
finalized in the next two weeks, but two big questions remained:
Which team would get Donovan? And how good would he be this year?
Answer No. 1: Bet on the Earthquakes, if they want him, or the
Galaxy. If the deal happens, Donovan would likely be considered a
major allocation, says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, and
doormat San Jose has the highest priority for receiving the next
such player (as a replacement for Eddie Lewis, whom the league
sold to England's Fulham last season). The only wrinkle? Donovan,
who's from the Los Angeles area, would prefer to play for the
Galaxy. "L.A. would be ideal," he says. "But the biggest thing is
just to be playing."
Much will depend on Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop, who says he
might trade the allocation (perhaps to L.A.) or use it to claim
Donovan. "If we really want him," Yallop says, "we can get him."
Answer No. 2: Donovan would be good this year, but don't expect
miracles. That's the consensus of several MLS coaches and general
managers, who point out that the league is stocked with
experienced strikers like the Tampa Bay Mutiny's Mamadou Diallo,
the Dallas Burn's Ariel Graziani and D.C. United's Jaime Moreno.
All those players are foreign, though. Says one G.M.: "Landon has
a better chance of starting for the national team by the end of
the year than he does of making All-MLS."
The Price of Dreams
Women are taking big pay cuts to join the WUSA
While the WUSA is banking the success of its April launch on
stars such as Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm, some of the league's
best stories involve its rank-and-file players, many of whom are
swallowing drastic pay cuts to become professional athletes. Take
Elie Foster, the sixth-round draft pick of the Boston Breakers. A
former Stanford midfielder, Foster, 24, left her job as associate
marketing manager at Moonlight Systems, a San Francisco-based
software company. Her WUSA salary ($35,000) is barely half of
what she was making. "I was completely happy with my job," says
Foster, who trained for two months during her lunch hours before
the draft combine last December. "But I kept telling myself, If I
don't do this, I'm going to sit there watching games, oozing with
jealousy and regret."
The income of midfielder Trudi Sharpsteen, the San Diego Spirit's
14th-round pick, has declined by an order of magnitude. Last
October, Sharpsteen, 36, said goodbye to her job in health-care
consulting for Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles. If you compare
her WUSA salary ($25,000) with her average income over the past
few years, she says, laughing, "I'm missing a zero." A former
U.S. team pool member in the 1980s (and the WUSA's oldest
player), Sharpsteen represents the generation that preceded
today's stars. "I've got a lot of people living vicariously
through me," she says. "Why not take a couple years off from real
work and do something I love?"
Though Foster and Sharpsteen have saved money and are welcome
back at their jobs if their soccer sojourns don't work out,
their pay cuts have brought on some lifestyle changes. Foster
and two teammates are sharing a car and an apartment, where they
keep the thermostat at 60[degrees] to save on heating costs. And
Sharpsteen's Mercedes? Gone if she makes the opening-day roster.
Then again, some rewards are priceless. Last week, on the first
day of training camp, Sharpsteen was pitted in fitness tests
against a group that included players roughly half her age.
Trudi the Terror left them all in her dust. --G.W.