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World Cup 2002: A to Z
06-10-02
ESPN Magazine

America

There is so much we don’t know. Like how good are they? Does the fact that they excel in Major League Soccer mean they’ll be able to play at this, the highest level? And, cutting to the heart of it, will one, two or three of them even get a chance to answer these questions during this World Cup, or will they have to wait four more years? Really, all we know for sure about DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Clint Mathis is this: They’ve got something. Call it explosiveness. Call it flair. Call it… well, call it what the players kick around the field. You know, balls.

Whatever you want to call it, these three are the most exciting attacking players on a US team that would be downright giddy to advance out of group play into the round of 16 and the one-and-done stage for America’s coach, Bruce Arena. Advancing-which would require the US to finish first or second after playing a round-robin with Portugal, South Korea and Poland-usually requires prudence. Not allowing goals can be every bit as important as scoring them. And to put it plainly, Beasley, Donovan and Mathis are not prudes. They’re hell-raisers, risk-takers, gamblers-all three of them.

Mathis, who at 25 is five years older than both Beasley and Donovan, is the only surefire starter of the trio. After tearing his ACL last spring, Mathis secured his spot in the 11 with a pre-Cup friendly. Really, what Mathis proved in that match is pretty much what everyone suspected: Even if he’s not completely fit-and he’s not-he’s still got a knack (and a blistering shot with either foot) for producing goals. Arena will take his chances with Mathis in the attack. But what of the other two?

Donovan, who signed with German powerhouse Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 16 and now plays on loan for the 2001 MLS champion San Jose Earthquakes, can play as a forward or an attacking midfielder. As a dribbler and passer, the kid’s unpredictable, a trait that works both for and against his chances of getting on the field.

Same goes for Beasley, a leftside midfielder for the Chicago Fire who weighs only 134 pounds but has some defensive bite to his game. When Beasley wins the ball for the US, he likes to take off with it and get into the attack. And why not? He can fly. At the 1999 World Youth (Under-17) Championship, Donovan won the Golden Ball as the tourney’s best player-by a nose over Beasley, the Silver Ball winner.

Still both figured they’d be shooting for a spot on the US team in 2006, not 2002. But during the qualifying rounds, Donovan made a few cameos. Then, during pre-World Cup games, Beasley forced his way onto the field. And while no one’s saying the kids make the US look like a better bet to advance out of Group D, there’s no denying the Yanks look a lot more enterprising. With them, the team’s pace is quicker, their movement crisper.

But is this what Arena wants? Thrills? Or will the coach take the more conservative approach, starting only Mathis and holding Beasley and Donovan in reserve? “There’s still a question whether we can rely on our kids in the World Cup,” says Arena.

So much we don’t know. So much we’d love to learn.

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