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Soccer breakfast draws crowd

(Published June 17, 2002)


Staff Writer

A few minutes after the sun set in Daejon, South Korea, it rose in Washington, D.C.

And with the coming of the sun, Washington soccer fans rose and crowded into bars and restaurants across the area to watch the United States men’s national soccer team take on Poland June 14 in its third game of group play in the 2002 World Cup. Well over 150 people jammed the ESPN Zone downtown for a breakfast fundraiser hosted by the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the nonprofit charity arm of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body in this country.

Armed with bacon, eggs, orange juice and lots of soccer jerseys, fans filled tables on two of the restaurant’s three levels (the bottom one is a sports-themed video arcade) to watch the game, which kicked off at 7:30 a.m. But the early hour was of little consequence to those who came here, as well as to other establishments around the area. This year’s World Cup is taking place in South Korea and Japan, so games have been starting here at 2:30 a.m., 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

The event was attended by both the famous and the not-so-famous: soccer moms and their children mingled with members of D.C. United and the Washington Freedom, the area’s two professional teams, as well as many members of the local news media who were reporting live from the restaurant. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams also showed up to make a brief speech and receive a personalized U.S. jersey with his name and Number 1 on the back, the number of U.S. starting goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who has been the Americans’ best player this tournament.

The action itself was rather surreal. Poland took a 2-0 lead after only five minutes, a margin which has rarely been relinquished in the entire history of the World Cup. The U.S. team had a difficult time keeping possession of the ball, despite the best efforts of its two star midfielders – captain Claudio Reyna, who plays for Sunderland in England, and John O’Brien of famed club Ajax Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

The Yanks, as they are popularly referred to by fans, were down 3-0 at halftime and were on the verge of a stunning exit after an upset win over Portugal, one of the top five teams in the world, and a 1-1 tie with host South Korea. The Americans needed only a tie to advance from their group; a loss would mean that South Korea would have to beat Portugal in a game being played simultaneously. That game was a scoreless tie at halftime. The crowd in the ESPN Zone milled around nervously. All the progress made by U.S. Soccer in the last two weeks, both on and off the field, was about to vanish.

But if the first half was surprising, the second half was even more so. Portugal had two players, midfielders Joao Pinto and Beto, ejected, leaving them with nine players versus the Koreans’ 11. No host nation had ever failed to make it to the knockout stages. Japan had done so earlier in the day. Would this be the speedy Koreans’ chance to join them? The partisans in Washington certainly hoped so; many of them started chanting for Korea in addition to the United States.

Everybody except the Portuguese fans got their wishes granted. Ji-Sung Park smashed home a goal for South Korea in the 70th minute, sending fans in Daejon (where the Americans were playing), Incheon (where the Koreans were playing) and Washington into raptures. Landon Donovan pulled a goal back for the U.S. in the 81st minute, making it 3-1 Poland. But no nerves were calmed; D.C. partisans knew better than to relax after watching their club teams blow leads late time and again during the last two years. They were right, as the Portuguese had a shot go off the inside of the left post and bounce out, and watched another get miraculously saved by the Korean goalkeeper, Woon-Jae Lee.

When the final whistle blew, American fans cheered, but not as loudly as they had before. The U.S. team’s lack of ability to possess the ball for long periods of time, as well as its failure to score on open nets twice, made for plenty of reason to worry. But the United States was able to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup for only the second time in its history; their next opponent would be Mexico, their fiercest rival, on June 17 at 2:25 a.m. (Note: The Common Denominator went to press before this game was played.)

American fans steeled themselves for whatever their next big surprise would be and headed out the door into the hot, rainy morning – quite an irony, as it is monsoon season in the Far East.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator