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Soccer
Grant Wahl
May 04, 1998
Clean Sweep
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May 04, 1998

Soccer

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Clean Sweep

Do you want to see it?" With that, Thomas Dooley disappeared into the bathroom of his Washington, D.C., hotel room last Saturday night. Moments later, after rummaging through his toiletry kit, he emerged carrying a red armband inscribed with a black C—the very band he had worn against Austria four days earlier as captain of the U.S. team. "I have thin arms, and this one fits me well," he said, proudly wrapping it around his left biceps.

A former German citizen whose father was a U.S. serviceman, Dooley, 36, began learning English only six years ago, which may explain why he calls the armband a "bandage." That malaprop had a certain symbolism to it last week, for Dooley helped guide the U.S. through a whirlwind healing process after coach Steve Sampson's April 14 dismissal of longtime captain John Harkes. In the Americans' shockingly easy 3-0 victory in Vienna, a new alignment anchored by the new captain had the U.S. playing its best soccer all year—better, even, than in its historic 1-0 upset of Brazil in February.

"I was happy to see that we played like a unit again," said Dooley. "For the last few months the team wasn't very close. In World Cup '94 we were all nobodies. Now everyone is a star on his MLS team, and you have to get your ego back to normal when you come to the national team. In Austria there was finally a feeling that everybody is on the same level, whether he's on the bench or on the field."

Dooley credited the solidarity both to an infusion of new players and to Sampson's 3-6-1 scheme. Unlike the U.S.'s old 4-4-2 alignment, in which four defenders played mostly zone, the 3-6-1 requires two defenders to mark their opposing strikers man-to-man while Dooley, the sweeper, roves like a free safety. "It's the best way for us to play because we aren't that fast in the back," says Dooley. "When we played a zone, you could always say, Hey, that's not my man, it's yours. Now we're more organized."

When Sampson assigned roommates in Vienna, it was no coincidence that he paired Dooley with defender Eddie Pope, the team's 24-year-old rising star. Pope spent the time absorbing Dooley's tactical advice and firsthand knowledge of European stars. "With his experience he can tell me everything I need to know," says Pope. "When he's on the field, you don't even have to think sometimes. You just listen to him."

Dooley believes that the revamped, man-marking defense is the best way to shut down his former countrymen in the Americans' World Cup opener on June 15. "The Germans have very good speed, but they don't like it if somebody is right on their heels," Dooley says. "On paper we don't have a chance to beat Germany, but you have to think positive. It's just like the Brazil game. Anything is possible in soccer."

Strange Trend in MLS
The Extra-Man Disadvantage?

Through Sunday the frequency of red-card ejections in MLS had more than doubled from last year—from one every 4.3 games in 1997 to one every 2.1 in '98—thanks to FIFA's crackdown on tackles from behind. Even more startling, however, has been the phenomenal success of short-handed sides. Of me eight teams that had played 10 on 11 for at least 30 minutes in a game this season, five had been victorious. What's more, almost as many short-handed goals (12) had been scored as man-advantage goals (13).

What gives? According to several players, being a man down improves a team's focus without debilitating its offense. "It's like when people go blind and their hearing becomes much more intense," says Miami Fusion defender Cle Kooiman. "Your communication level rises, and you become more aware of what's going on around you."

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