MISSION VIEJO, Calif. (AP) _ They're four years older and presumably wiser. Are they any better?

In 1990, the young Americans who got the United States its first World Cup berth in 40 years were knocked out of the tournament after an 0-3 first round and finished 23rd among the 24 teams.

Last time, they were just happy to be there. This time, with the United States automatically qualifying for the World Cup as the host nation, many team members say they'll be failures if they don't get to the second round.

''If we play at the top of our level, and we have a little bit of luck, I think we can accomplish it,'' said midfielder Tab Ramos. ''We don't have the type of pressure all the teams have from their countries.''

When the Americans got to Italy four years ago, they still were on a high from qualifying. Their average age of 24.2 was the lowest in the tournament. In many ways it was a college all-star team, with four players from UCLA and two from Virginia.

Now, Ramos is a veteran of four seasons in the Spanish League. John Harkes, another midfielder, spent four seasons in the English League and forward Eric Wynalda has spent two seasons in the German Bundesliga.

U.S. soccer officials have found three ''passport'' Americans to supplement the group. Defender Thomas Dooley of Germany and forward Ernie Stewart of the Netherlands are sons of U.S. servicemen. Roy Wegerle, a South African who plays in the English League, went to college at South Florida and has an American wife.

Still, it may not be enough to advance from a group that includes Switzerland, Colombia and Romania. Teams will need at least a win to advance, possibily a win and a tie.

''Maybe the American team doesn't have the stars, but it has an 11-man team and it really fights,'' said Greece coach Alkis Panagoulias, the American coach at the 1984 Olympics.

U.S. players also had the goal of going to the second round four years ago, but that became unrealistic after a 5-1 opening loss to Czechoslovakia. The Americans were down 2-0 at halftime, gave up another goal seven minutes into the second half and wound up getting outshot 24-7. Players were battered from the rough play and Wynalda was ejected and fined for pushing an opponent in front of a linesman.

''All of a sudden it was like getting hit with a bat over the head,'' Ramos recalled last month. ''We adjusted. The next game we did fine.''

Playing defensively, the Americans lost only 1-0 to Italy at Olympic Stadium. With 20 minutes to go, Peter Vermes and then Bruce Murray nearly scored. A 2-1 loss to Austria underscored how much more these players needed to progress from the NCAA level.

''It's difficult to reach an international level in only one or two years,'' Czechoslovak coach Josef Venglos said then.

Bob Gansler was replaced as coach the following March by Bora Milutinovic, a soccer ''miracle worker'' who took Mexico to the World Cup quarterfinals in 1986 and Costa Rica to the second round in 1990 after working with the team for just 90 days.

''If I wasn't sure that I couldn't have reasonable success, I wouldn't have taken the job,'' said Milutinovic, hired on the recommendation of Franz Beckenbauer after the German turned down the job.

Milutinovic, a 49-year-old Serbian who speaks Spanish, French and German but only broken English, junked Gansler's defensive tactics and encouraged players to handle the ball. He wants players to have fun. Instead of practice, players have sometimes heard him say: ''Today we go to beach.''

''He leaves people having questions in their mind: What's going to be happening? Who's going to be playing where? It's very difficult,'' Harkes says.

Under Milutinovic, the Americans were 8-2-3 in 1991 and won the first CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship of soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean region. But they slumped to 6-11-4 in 1992, 10-13-11 last year and 4-5-6 this year going into Saturday's game against Mexico, their final game before the World Cup.

The 28-31-24 record under Milutinovic isn't impressive, but European club commitments, injuries and suspensions left Milutinovic with his full roster for just nine of those games. The Americans went 7-1-1 in those, including wins over England and Ireland, and a tie with Italy.

''It's not the same to play a friendly game against Italy on a Sunday than it is to play Italy in the World Cup,'' Ramos says.

National teams are rarely at full strength; only during the quadrennial World Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and during the quadrennial European Championship does it usually occur. Milutinovic has chosen at times not to use his best players even when they are available, saying he needed to look at the others.

''Bora always keeps the big picture, and that's the World Cup,'' says Steve Sampson, one of the U.S. assistant coaches who frequently helps players and reporters try to divine Milutinovic's thinking.

Several prominent players from the 1990 roster have been cut: Vermes, Murray, goalkeeper Kasey Keller and defender Desmond Armstrong.

The starting lineup in the Americans' June 18 opener against Switzerland at the Pontiac Silverdome figures to have just five holdovers from the Czechoslovakia game: Tony Meola in goal; Paul Caligiuri on defense; and Harkes, Ramos and Wynalda at midfield.

Marcelo Balboa will be at sweeper, with Alexi Lalas or Cle Kooiman joining him on defense. Dooley, a veteran of Germany's Bundelisga, will be in the midfield.

Two probably will start from among Stewart, Wegerle and Frank Klopas, back with the team after being dropped in late 1989 and a hot scorer of late.

''Our experience is so much more than it was in 1990,'' says Meola, the U.S. captain.

Will all the changes be enough?

''I think it's unrealistic to expect every summer we'll come up with a big upset,'' Ramos says. ''We have to play at 100 percent and get through and beat one of these teams.''

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