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Tuning Up for the Cup

A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good β€˜ole U-S-of-A . If you're looking for a viewpoint that you won't see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you've come to the right place.

This month, the Armchair Midfielder will compare the U.S. Men's National Team's current preparation for the 2002 World Cup with the six-month period leading up to the past three world championships.

Let's face it -- U.S. Soccer has come a long way. Not to blow smoke, but this can be said in a lot of areas: expansion of the Men's National Team pool, the sustained success of the Women's National Team and the development of Youth National Team players. But perhaps in no area does the first statement hold more true than the current pre-World Cup schedule that was mapped out from January to May of this year in anticipation of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan in June.

Looking back to 1990, it's almost laughable. Before Italia β€˜90, the U.S. prepared to play host Italy, Czechoslovakia and Austria by warming up against world powers like Bermuda, Malta and Liechtenstein. Yes, Liechtenstein. Okay, they also had tune-ups against East Germany, Switzerland and Colombia, but that's about the best competition they faced in 13 warm-up matches.

In β€˜94, things were a little better. The U.S. played a whopping 18 games from January to June, but quality matches with World Cup-bound opponents were still few and far between.  Sure, the U.S. faced Mexico, Sweden and Switzerland, but they also played some cupcakes (all apologies to Dickie V.) like Estonia, Armenia and Moldova. Actually, we thought enough of Moldova to play them twice in a five-game span. Maybe it's because we could only muster a 1-1 tie in the first match before getting the desired 3-0 result that Bora was probably looking for.

In β€˜98, World Cup preparations improved dramatically, but the number of warm-up matches dipped to 12. This time around, we were able to secure quality matches against Holland, Austria, Brazil, Belgium and Scotland. But then again, it's easy to get carried away about a 3-0 win in Vienna when your next two games are against powerhouses like the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (an unsettling 0-0 draw) and Kuwait.

Looking at the schedule that was carved out for his troops in getting ready for the 2002 World Cup, Bruce Arena has to be a very happy man. Not only did the U.S. get to start off the calendar year with a tournament basically guaranteeing them three games, but the Americans helped themselves a great deal in advancing in the Gold Cup for a total of five games, including the final against Costa Rica that ended up a decisive 2-0 victory and a nice cap to a month of hard work. And not only did the schedule include three tough away matches against outstanding European teams in Italy, Germany and Ireland, but over half of the 14 games scheduled from January to the end of May are against teams that are headed to Korea/Japan. In fact, the number is eight. And what's even better, the games that have been scheduled against non-World Cup teams are opponents who have every right to be there and present just as much of a challenge, whether it be Honduras or Holland - the final opponent of the three-game "Nike Road to Korea" that will be played up the East Coast in mid-May.

If we would have had the chance to play this year's schedule back in 1990 or 1994 or even 1998, of course we would have jumped at the opportunity, which makes us all the more fortunate to have this sublime six months of pre-World Cup soccer. I would like to think that a big part of why these games have been able to come together is that, now more than ever, the USA can present a tough challenge to even the perennial top sides in the world.

Long-story-short, during a time in which it's difficult to line up top-level opponents leading up to the World Cup, the U.S. Men's National Team has benefitted from an almost dream schedule so that Bruce and the boys have the chance to learn from their mistakes and develop the final product in difficult tuneups, rather than in the Cup.

Table of Contents
Armchair Midfielder (Tuning Up for the Cup)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT defender Tony Sanneh)
3) What I Did on My Spring Break (w/ U-21 WNT midfielder Joanna Lohman)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT defender Jena Kluegel)
5) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT midfielder/forward Shannon MacMillan)
6) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Ireland -- April 17)
7) Point-Counterpoint (w/ journalists Michael Lewis and Grahame Jones)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (General MLS trivia)

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