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Low-Key Lalas Likes Underdog Role

July 19, 1996

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Alexi Lalas could be standing on the brink of the next great U.S. soccer moment. For now, he’s just playing guitar and posing for pictures, relaxed as could be.

``Got time for one more hug, Alexi?″ a fan asked at Friday’s practice session.

``Sure,″ Lalas said, hugging a youngster while cameras clicked all around.

The fans somehow sneaked through the police tape that surrounded the secluded practice field in the wooded Birmingham suburbs. America’s opponent in the opening preliminary game on Saturday, Argentina, practiced in secrecy in a town called Cullman, about an hour’s drive to the north.

Preliminary men’s and women’s games also will be played in Miami, Orlando and Washington, D.C. Other games Saturday feature Australia vs. France at Miami; Portugal against Tunisia at Washington; and Spain, the defending champion, against Saudi Arabia at Orlando, Fla.

The medals round will be played in Athens, Ga.

Nerves were calm in the U.S. men’s camp, which is nothing new. The day before, Lalas bought a new guitar at a local music store and was seen strumming away on evening news shows. Lalas, a stalwart defender, could easily pass for a rocker with his grunge-style red hair and long, fuzzy goatee. Despite the long odds facing the U.S. team against world power Argentina, Lalas wasn’t sweating it.

``Everyone’s pretty relaxed,″ Lalas said after the 45-minute practice. ``I think (Saturday) night, reality will kick in that we’re starting this thing up.″

Reality had better kick in.

A victory over Argentina, one of the favorites for gold, would put the U.S. team well on its way to the second round, where it has never been in an Olympiad. But the game could turn into an ugly reminder that American soccer players still can’t match the technical mastery and creativity of players from South America and Europe _ where soccer is not a sideshow or social event, but a way of life.

Lalas knows few people give the Americans much of a chance.

``That’s all right,″ Lalas said. ``Underdog is a role most of us have played before. All the pressure’s on Argentina. They have to win.″

Underdog and soccer are synonymous in America. There have been breakthroughs, and these U.S. Olympians know them well.

To this day, the United States’ early-round victory over England in the 1950 World Cup remains one of the sport’s greatest upsets. A makeshift band that included an office clerk, truck driver, teacher and bricklayer beat the mighty English when a wayward header somehow kissed the back of the net for a 1-0 victory.

The teen-agers and 20-somethings on this U.S. Olympic squad may not know of Walter Bahr and Joe Gaetjens from the 1950 World Cup team. But they remember Paul Caligiuri, whose long, looping goal gave the Americans a 1-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago in 1990, sending the team to the World Cup for the first time since 1950.

The modest goal in these Olympics is to advance past the first round. Forty years after that first World Cup breakthrough, the Americans are still playing for respect.

``We’ve got a chance to go out and accomplish something historic,″ Lalas said. ``To prove to the rest of the world that this is a soccer nation.″

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