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Show goes on for U.S. team -- on delicate ground

Ten months ago, the U.S. national team consisted of replacement players, called in to prepare for the final round of World Cup qualifying. On Jan. 24, an interim labor agreement was reached between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. Soccer Players Association, the sides agreeing to avoid a lockout or strike through the end of qualifying.

That agreement allowed the team to prepare for a Feb. 9 visit to Trinidad & Tobago, which launched the U.S. on a successful campaign. Qualifying effectively concluded for the Americans on Sept. 3, with a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, clinching a place in Germany '06.

But as the U.S. prepares to resume training Jan. 4 in Carson, Calif., the sides are still operating under the interim agreement.

"Negotiations continue, and both sides are moving forward to reach an agreement," USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse said. "We remain optimistic a deal will be reached soon."

Per-game payment has been $2,000 for U.S. players, though the number can increase depending on the opponent and stakes of the match. There is a proposal for a retroactive increase of at least 50 percent if the U.S. reaches the quarterfinals in Germany. Starting in 2007, an increase has been proposed of between 20 percent and 37 percent. Moorhouse would not confirm or deny these figures.

In recent years, the U.S. has been able to overcome labor disputes and other potential disruptions. Both management and labor have become more sophisticated, but even as the stakes increase, there remains a common sense of purpose. The doors to negotiation have remained open.

The relationship between administrators and players in soccer is unlike that in other sports in the U.S. Both groups understand the sport is growing in strength but remains fragile. The men's and women's national teams still drive the sport and maintain most of the interest of media, spectators and sponsors.

There probably never was a serious chance the U.S. would not qualify for Germany. But that does not mean effort was spared on the organizational side. World Cup qualifying often depends on providing a stable environment for teams. Coaches are secure. There are few surprises waiting to disrupt things.

Many national teams fail to advance to the World Cup finals because they simply self-destruct. The formula sounds easy -- coaching continuity and strong organizing principles off the field, persistent fighting spirit on the field -- but it is not. The U.S. almost always has used this formula, and it has improved and refined it in most respects since the early '90s.

The U.S. has become a regular presence in the World Cup finals, which is a credit to the structures in place as well as to the deep mutual understanding between administrators and players. U.S. players still "play for the shirt," the national team compensation being a bonus to add to their regular salaries; not enough of them are earning enough with their clubs to produce any great conflict between club and country.

The agreement to continue performing during qualifying was set up by an informal discussion between Landon Donovan and USSF executive vice president Sunil Gulati, likely successor to Bob Contiguglia as head of the USSF. The fact that principal figures on both sides of the negotiating table could settle things in person symbolizes the relationship between administration and players -- again, there is a sense everyone is in this together.

World leaders
Which country produces the world's best coaches? The World Cup finals provide some indication, though it is far from definitive.

Four Dutchmen -- Dick Advocaat (South Korea), Leo Beenhakker (Trinidad & Tobago), Guus Hiddink (Australia) and Marco Van Basten (the Netherlands) -- have coached teams into Germany '06. Brazil also will have four coaches in the World Cup finals -- Alexandre Guimaraes (Costa Rica), Carlos Alberto Parreira (Brazil), Luiz Felipe Scolari (Portugal) and Zico (Japan). Guimaraes played for Costa Rica in the '90 World Cup but was born in Brazil.

Argentina will be represented by Gabriel Humberto Calderon (Saudi Arabia), Ricardo Lavolpe (Mexico) and Jose Pekerman (Argentina), France by Raymond Domenech (France), Henry Michel (Ivory Coast), and Roger Lemerre (Tunisia). Yugoslavian coaches traditionally have traveled well: Croatians Branko Ivankovic (Iran) and Zlatko Kranjcar (Croatia) and Serbs Ratomir Dujkovic (Ghana) and Ilija Petkovic (Serbia-Montenegro) have qualified for Germany '06. The team of another Croat, Luka Peruzovic (Bahrain), was edged out by Trinidad & Tobago in a playoff.

But it also should be noted that three World Cup finalists' coaches are residing in the U.S. -- Bruce Arena, Nigerian Stephen Keshi (Togo), and Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany).

While viewing the Scotland-U.S. friendly this month, D.C. United's Jaime Moreno was impressed by the U.S. newcomers and compared the country to Brazil, saying it probably could produce three competent national teams. This was a commentary on the amount of potential talent running around in the U.S., an observation that would have been difficult to imagine a few years ago. But who could have predicted three World Cup finalist coaches would be living in America?

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .