Americans survive a close call

John Powers
Date Published: 
Boston Globe

Evans WiseEvans Wise: (7) of Trinidad & Tobago, heads the ball away from Joe-Jax Moore of the United States, during first-half action at the Concacaf Gold Cup at Anaheim Stadium, Jan. 13.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- All week long they said the diplomatic thing, that the rest of the region had gotten better, that there were no easy matches any more. Last night, the US soccer team found out it was true, having to come from behind to edge Trinidad & Tobago, 3-2, in its round-robin opener at the CONCACAF Gold Cup before 12,425 at Anaheim Stadium.

"We knew T&T was going to be a difficult team," said US coach Steve Sampson, whose squad plays El Salvador here Tuesday night with a semifinal berth on the line. "They've grown tremendously over the years. But I'm very proud of the fact that we got the result. That's the most important thing at this level."
The Americans, who hadn't played a match since October and hadn't had their full team together since July, conceded a goal on Trinidad's first shot. "We talked about how important it was for us to start well against this team," said Sampson. "And we didn't start well."

And after striker Eric Wynalda put his mates ahead with goals off Tab Ramos corner kicks in the 15th and 34th minutes, some sloppy defense allowed the dredlocked midfielder Arnold Dwarika to draw T&T even two minutes before halftime. Not until Joe-Max Moore blasted a pretty free kick past Trinidad keeper Ross Russell (10 saves) in the 54th minute did the Yanks breathe easier.

On paper, the Americans didn't figure to have much trouble against a Trinidad side which had lost its opener to El Salvador. They'd only been beaten once by T&T in 11 previous matches and never had dropped a Gold Cup match on US soil. Still, Sampson was wary. "If we don't respect Trinidad's speed and ability, if we don't get numbers to the ball," he said, "they could easily score on us."

And so T&T did in the sixth minute. After midfielder Claudio Reyna gave up the ball Trinidad captain Russell Latapy, who plays for Porto in the Portuguese league, sent Dwarika in for a blast which beat keeper Kasey Keller.

It was a jarring wakeup call for the Americans, who went on the attack and drew even when Alexi Lalas flicked on Ramos' corner kick to an unmarked Wynalda, who headed the ball into the net. The Americans worked another pretty set piece to take the lead. This time Lalas, standing just inside the back line, drew back the rebound from Paul Caligiuri's header off Ramos' corner and fed it to Wynalda for an easy goal.

As the half wore on the Yanks seemed in control -- until a defensive breakdown did them in. Evans Wise danced into the area, got around Marcelo Balboa and threaded the ball to an unattended Dwarika. It was the first time T&T had ever scored two goals on a US squad and it made for a sobering intermission for the hosts.

It took only nine minutes for the Americans to break back on top in the second half. After Russell blocked Wynalda's bid for a hat trick and Cobi Jones hit the post, Moore drilled a lovely direct kick over the T&T wall from the 18-yard line and past a frozen Russell.

After Keller had to make a point-blank save on Dwarika five minutes later, Sampson inserted Mike Burns of Marlborough, Mass., to stabilize the midfield and the Yanks held on. But nobody was turning cartwheels afterwards. The teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean in this tournament are the same ones the US will have to beat to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France. And it's clear they're better than they've ever been. "It took a goal for us to wake up," said Sampson. "We can't afford to begin that way against El Salvador or any other team. That's the lesson to be learned from this evening."