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Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Zenga favors U.S. to make a mark once again

Frank Dell'Apa

D.C. United president/CEO Kevin Payne was recently recalling an extraordinary sequence during a United victory over the New England Revolution in the 1997 MLS season. Marco Etcheverry had beelined a ball from the United penalty area to set up a two-on-zero break involving Jaime Moreno and Roy Wegerle. This presented about as certain a goal opportunity as that trio had created, and it had created many that year, but backing up the nonexistent Revolution defense was Walter Zenga. First, Zenga parried Moreno's shot, the ball going to Wegerle for an open shot, then Zenga recovered to stop that attempt, too.

This was hardly the first time Zenga had made extraordinary saves. But Zenga had probably never been left so stranded by his teams in Italy, where both Inter Milan and the national team usually won, seldom surrendered goals and never gave up anything easily.

The MLS has never had a goalkeeper, much less a player-coach, quite like Zenga. The problem was, the MLS was not ready for a superstar goalkeeper with a rock star's attitude and image. It is taking time for Zenga to change people's perceptions of him, but he has accomplished much as a club coach. Zenga has guided National and Steaua of Bucharest and has now taken Red Star Belgrade to first place in Serbia's Superliga.

But U.S. national team observers will long remember Zenga for another double save, off a Bruce Murray free kick and Peter Vermes rebound in the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. had been humiliated by Czechoslovakia 5-1 in its opening game in Florence, and some were predicting another annihilation against Italy in Rome.

Coach Bob Gansler, though, changed tactics, and the U.S. stayed in contention in a 1-0 defeat, with the help of Gianluca Vialli hitting the post with a penalty kick.

The U.S. was far off the international stage in those days and really did not belong in a group with the Austrians, Czechs and Italians. In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the U.S. will still be an underdog in Group E, behind the Czech Republic and Italy. But few national teams have progressed as dramatically as the U.S. in the last 16 years.

"My personal opinion is that most of the improvement is from Bruce Arena," Zenga said from Cyprus, where he was conducting practice with Red Star last week. "He has built and maintained a national team at high levels. The [MLS] is not yet at the level of Europe, yet the national team can compete with the great teams and has shown this, for example, in Korea [2002]. Also, many players have gone to play outside the country, and this has certainly given them more experience.

"The U.S. player is only lacking the competitiveness of the European leagues and the level of play -- or better, the attitude -- of playing against the great clubs, the great champions."

But in a tournament situation, preparation can be a great equalizer, as the U.S. showed in 2002. The U.S. will not likely catch teams as unprepared as Portugal was, but if the team is nearing peak performance levels, it could catch opponents off guard. So, can the U.S. overcome the Czechs, Ghana and Italy?

"Every game starts 0-0, and for me the favorites only exist in talking," Zenga said. "In reality, there has never been a team that had already won before the game started. You have to look at the schedule, the form of the players, who knows how to adjust better.

"Anything is possible. The U.S. played very well in Korea. Ghana is the Brazil of Africa, players with great talent, technically and physically prepared -- for example, [Michael] Essien of Chelsea. We have to see if [Ghana is] equally ready tactically, or if this is their weakness."

Former Ghana coach Giuseppe Dossena noted after the draw that Italy had a difficult schedule because the Ghanaians would be at their best in their opening game. After that, Ghana has a tendency to slip physically and could lose players to cards or other problems. So the U.S. could have an advantage; after meeting the Czechs June 12, it will face an Italy team June 17 which could be recovering from a difficult match, then confront a possibly depleted Ghana on June 22.

This is a much different scenario than in 1990, when the U.S. had many vulnerabilities and faced three European opponents.

Zenga has made his coaching mark in Eastern Europe -- eliminating Besiktas and Valencia in the UEFA Cup, guiding Steaua to first place (before being fired by club president Gigi Becali with three games left last season) and now with Red Star. But Zenga clearly would prefer returning to Italy or the U.S.

The MLS probably is still not ready for even a credible, toned-down Zenga. When Zenga was performing in the MLS, he was in many ways bigger than the league itself, better-known in worldwide sporting circles, and his charisma transcended the MLS game. He was a flamboyant celebrity, and the MLS could not easily accommodate such a high-profile figure.

Now, Zenga is earning a reputation as a coaching giant-killer, though Red Star barely missed in a 90th-minute elimination against AS Roma in the UEFA Cup. And Zenga credits his U.S. experience as a launching pad for his coaching career. "I learned a lot. I learned to appreciate the culture of sport, and I understood you have to also be able to accept defeat," Zenga said. "It was a great experience, both a human and professional experience, and I would like to return to the States.

"I never have regrets, everything I have done I always have done with all my heart. In New England, I had Thomas Rongen, and if I hadn't met him, perhaps I would not now be a coach. Then, the games at Foxboro Stadium had an incredible atmosphere. I remember all my teammates with great feeling -- Ted Chronopoulos, Mike Burns, Imad Baba, Johnny Torres, Beto Naveda, Joe-Max Moore, Gio Savarese, Alexi Lalas, Jeff Causey, Brian Dunseth, Dan Calichman.

"But the leagues are different. In Europe, in the teams, there are great champions and the teams buy them, and you coach every day together with these players and against them. This is the difference between Europe and the U.S. But the biggest difference is that in the U.S., for tradition and culture, there are four other sports ahead of soccer."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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