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Americans Prepare To Play Dutch

February 19, 1998

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. (AP) _ Less than 10 days after its historic victory over world champion Brazil, the U.S. soccer team faces another daunting task Saturday when it plays the Netherlands for the first time.

The Dutch team, one of Europe’s strongest, is nearly at full strength for the exhibition game, missing only forward Dennis Bergkamp, who doesn’t like plane travel.

``It’s important that we challenge ourselves by playing very good opposition,″ U.S. coach Steve Sampson said. ``We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last few months, the excitement we’ve created around this team for all our fans across the United States.″

With victories over Brazil, Sweden, Cuba and Costa Rica this year, the United States moved up 14 positions to 12th in the FIFA world computer rankings released Wednesday _ two spots ahead of Italy and five ahead of Argentina.

The Americans, whose previous best was 14th for three months in 1996, had been as low as 35th in October.

Despite losing to Mexico 1-0 in the championship of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the U.S. team is convinced it has improved.

``We’re proud of what we did in the Gold Cup, but everything here is focused on getting to the World Cup and preparing for the World Cup,″ defender Alexi Lalas said. ``The most important thing is we get the most preparation on and off the field, so when we step on the field in France we’re ready to go.″

While Brazil was missing many of its best players when it lost to the Americans 1-0 in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the 25th-ranked Dutch won’t be able to claim the Americans beat the second-string. Their roster includes forwards Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars; midfielders Ronald de Boer, Wim Jonk, Aron Winter and Clarence Seedorf; defenders Frank de Boer, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger; and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

``They’ll be a good test,″ midfielder Cladio Reyna said. ``The Europeans play a game with more speed.″

The Americans are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. Before the loss to Mexico, they had won six straight games for the first time and had matched the team record for an unbeaten streak at nine.

After the Saturday’s game, the Americans head for Brussels, where they play Belgium in an exhibition game Wednesday night. With World Cup games against No. 2 Germany and No. 8 Yugoslavia coming up in June, the United States knows it has a tough task ahead.

``It’s important to establish a belief that we can beat teams like that on any given day,″ Lalas said. ``We’ve been playing very, very well, especially considering we’ve been on the road traveling for six or seven weeks, which can get old very fast and take its toll mentally and physically.″

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