By Jay Mwamba
Ireland, sans captain courageous Roy Keane, return States-side this week to make their third run at the Nike U.S. Cup starting on Saturday. The four-nation tournament also features cup holders Mexico, former African champs South Africa and the United States.
Third in the inaugural event back in 1992 and runners-up in their last appearance four years ago, the Republic will renew an old rivalry with Mexico in their opener at Chicago’s Soldier Field this Sunday, June 4.
Then it will be a grudge match of sorts against the U.S. at Foxboro Stadium, Boston, on June 6, before coach Mick McCarthy’s men wrap up against South Africa’s "Bafana Bafana" (The Boys) in the second game of a doubleheader at Giants Stadium in Rutherford, N.J., on June 11. The Americans hold a two-game winning streak over Ireland in the U.S. Cup.
It’s one of the strongest fields in the Cup’s eight-year history with, Keane aside, several big name internationals scheduled to appear.
That, for Ireland, includes Roy’s 19-year-old namesake, striker Robbie Keane of English side Conventry City; the ageless Niall Quinn, and, possibly, veteran Liverpool defender Steve Staunton.
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Mexico, with the last three editions of the U.S. Cup to their name, are likely to be led by the twin attacking force of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Luis Hernandez, two of the most colorful forwards in Latin America, and Monaco midfielder Raf’l Marquez.
Hosts USA, reeling a bit of late, have what Bruce Arena says is his strongest squad since he took over the coaching reins in October 1998. Arena has 11 European-based players, among them Glasgow Rangers midfielder Claudio Reyna, goalie Kasey Keller of Rayo Vallecano, and midfielder Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen), available.
South Africa, meanwhile, will be led by midfielder Quinton Fortune, their contribution to the great Manchester United side, and former MetroStar Shaun
Bartlett, top scorer at last February’s African Nations Cup, in the absence of Leeds United skipper Lucas Radebe.
With the skill level pretty even among all four participants, success in the Cup could be determined more by current form and experience.
Mexico, ranked eighth in the world by FIFA, look strong on both accounts. Coached by Manuel Lapuente, the Mexicans have been on a roll since the 1998 World Cup. They won three tournaments last year: the Carlsberg Cup in Hong Kong, the U.S. Cup and FIFA’s Confederations Cup, the latter after edging Brazil 4-3 in Mexico City.
Lapuente, who hadn’t released his roster by press time, has a deep pool of players — most of them veterans of the central Americans’ France ’98 campaign — to call on.
Other factors that should make them tough to beat include their incisive short passing game; their speed, experience and a large U.S. following that always creates a home-type atmosphere regardless of where in the States they play.
The Mexicans are raring at the challenge. "We are proud and honored to be a part of Nike U.S. Cup 2000. We are looking forward to a great event," said Hugo Kisse, president of Mexico’s National Teams.
The Mexicans should provide the sternest test for McCarthy’s Ireland. The two teams’ few encounters have been close, including the 2-2 tie in the 1996 U.S. Cup at Giants Stadium, and the 2-1 Mexican victory in Orlando during the 1994 World Cup finals.
To add more depth to his side, McCarthy last week called up Fulham’s speedy fullback, Terry Phelan, and Tranmere Rovers midfielder Alan Mahon for both yesterday’s (Tuesday) friendly with Scotland and the Nike Cup. McCarthy also penciled in Staunton to join the squad if the defender’s pregnant wife delivers in time.
But even more than the experience of Phelan and Staunton, what McCarthy may require from his team in the U.S. Cup is a certain level of consistency on the field.
Though he has succeeded in giving the Republic a tactical makeover far removed from the long ball and hustle play of Jack Charlton’s heydays, McCarthy has been unable to goad more than two good games at a time out of his men for most of his reign.
This cost them dearly in the Euro 2000 qualifiers, where they gave up vital goals in the dying seconds of key games. It was also clearly evident in their last two friendlies before yesterday’s Scotland tussle, when they ended the Czech Republic’s long unbeaten run with a 3-2 victory in Dublin, and then lost their next game, 1-0 to unfancied Greece.
At any rate, two wins and a tie may be good enough to clinch the U.S. Cup for the Republic, several of whose squad members will be returning to familiar haunts. Perhaps the blissful memories of World Cup ’94 may be what it takes to inspire the likes of Quinn, Alan Kelly, Phil Babb, Phelan, and Jason McAteer when they return to Giants Stadium on June 11.
On the home front, the Team USA will be difficult to beat, even as they struggle to recapture their outstanding form of the mid-1990s.
Arena said he feels that he has the players to get the U.S. back at the top. "This is the most complete team we’ve had since I’ve been coach," he said. "These games will give us the opportunity to test ourselves against some very challenging opponents, and we need to prepare ourselves as World Cup qualifying approaches."
The Americans have, traditionally, been strongest at the back, where goalkeeper Keller or his understudy, Liverpool reserve, Brad Friedel, usually stand out.
Reyna, a recent Scottish League title winner with Rangers, will shoulder the playmaking burden, leaving Arena spoiled for options in attack. Eddie Lewis, Cobi Jones, Brian McBride, Jovan Kirovski and Ante Razov are just some of the attacking players at the coach’s disposal.
Critical to a successful U.S. run this time around is making a good start against — on paper at least — the tournament’s outsiders, South Africa in Washington, D.C., this Saturday. This will be the first meeting between the sides since the Africans’ return to the international game eight years ago.
The underdog status seems apt for "Bafana Bafana" who will be without defense kingpin Lucas Radebe of Leeds, top striker Benni McCarthy (Celta Vigo), Bolton Wanderers center half Mark Fish and several other players from South Africa’s two top clubs, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns.
But the South Africans are never short of confidence and always relish the big occasion and the opportunity to test their mettle against the world’s best. They edged Malta 1-0 on a late goal by skipper Thabo Mngomeni (89th) in Valetta, en route to America, last weekend.
Arena acknowledged this when he said: "South Africa is a team with terrific promise and a team that is going to give us everything we can deal with on that day."
Raymond Hack, secretary-general of the South African Football Association, put his country’s participation in perspective, while sizing up the field.
"What we bring to this tournament is something the American public has not seen in a long time: We bring fresh and very different talent," he said. "What you
will see is very vibrant team, and a team full of skill and enthusiasm. We’re not making this long trip for nothing."
On Mexico, Hack said: "While I appreciate the strength of Mexico, and remembering the hiding (4-0) we took from Mexico in 1992, we certainly have something to prove here."
And on the U.S. and Ireland: "The strength of the USA is well-known. They brought a federation that came out of infancy and grew into a very powerful nation, (and) Ireland is always a very strong competitor. A lot of our players play in the English Leagues, and they know the strength and tenacity of the Irish players."