Back in the Back
Thanks to stellar play in MLS, Marcelo Balboa rejoins the U.S. defense
The return of defender Marcelo Balboa—the alltime U.S. men's leader with 125 international appearances—is an encouraging development for the national team. Last summer he was one of half a dozen veterans who were buried on the bench by coach Steve Sampson at the World Cup, in which the U.S. finished last. Balboa had thoughts of retiring from the sport, but this week he joins the U.S. squad for the eight-nation Confederations Cup in Mexico City and Guadalajara.
"It doesn't feel like a resurgence," the 31-year-old Balboa said last Saturday before helping the Western Conference to a 6-4 victory over the Eastern in the MLS All-Star Game in San Diego. "What happened was, I had a coach who started telling the media that my mind was somewhere else because my wife was having a baby, that I was getting old and that we [he and Alexi Lalas] as defenders were not that fast."
That coach was Sampson, who dumped captain John Harkes from the team and benched veterans Balboa, Lalas, Jeff Agoos, Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda for much or all of the Cup. Among those players, only Balboa refused to criticize Sampson. In what may have been a misguided attempt at rewarding Balboa for keeping his mouth shut, Sampson gave the most experienced of all American players his only 1998 Cup appearance in the last eight minutes of the meaningless final game against Yugoslavia. "We're down 1-0, so why do you put in a defender?" says Balboa. "I really considered not going into that game. Afterward I was so tired and burned out by the way I was treated that I really thought about not playing anymore."
Balboa thinks such thoughts no longer. He has led surprising Colorado to a league-best 12-4 record after shifting from play-making midfielder, his position the last two years, to his natural role as a central defender. With Balboa on the back line, the Rapids are MLS's top team at protecting a lead—they're 10-1 in games in which they score the first goal.
Balboa's inspired play grabbed the attention of Sampson's successor, Bruce Arena, who brought Balboa back for the team's 2-1 win over English club Derby County on July 13. "I don't see myself starting, but I see myself fighting for a starting spot," says Balboa, who hopes to make the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea his fourth World Cup. "I would say the player standing here is probably stronger, a little smarter and a little bit better than me one in '94."
U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco
Doing It the American Way
In leading the U.S. to victory in the Women's World Cup, 50-year-old Tony DiCicco has become the role model for all soccer coaches in this country. He will go down as the first American to win an international tournament while coping with high expectations and intense scrutiny at home.
DiCicco, in his fifth year in charge of the U.S. women, faced the sort of pressure that coaches in other major American sports live with. True, the U.S. won the inaugural World Cup in 1991 (under coach Anson Dorrance) and the Olympic gold medal in '96 (under DiCicco), but neither of those tournaments was televised live. Everyone was watching this time, and DiCicco delivered a team that lived up to American ideals in every way.
"It's one of those things that's probably so hard to do," says a fellow American coach, Glenn Myernick of the Colorado Rapids, who guided the Western Conference to victory in the MLS All-Star Game. "You have a team that's going well, and so many people are jumping on the bandwagon, and there are so many demands on the players' time—yet none of that ever affected their focus."