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Feb 28, 2006

Poland game a useful barometer

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Well, what do you know? The U.S. national team has finally found a home, although it's certainly off the beaten path for most American soccer fans.

Let's face it. Outside of an occasional Salt Lake City, finding a U.S. venue that will embrace the U.S. team for international friendlies or World Cup qualifiers back home is "impossible," midfielder Landon Donovan said.

For years, U.S. national team players have been strangers in their stadiums. They've been forced to feel like the away team because their opponents usually receive such heavy support from the various ethnic communities.

Now, those Americans players think they have finally found a place they might be able to call home and play in front of an appreciative audience -- right smack in the middle of Europe.

"Half a world away," Donovan said.

A pro-U.S. crowd in the neighborhood of 15,000 at Fritz Walter Stadium is expected for the Americans' international friendly vs. Poland here Wednesday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET). The overwhelming majority of the crowd will come from nearby Ramstein Air Force base, home to some 50,000 Americans -- soldiers and their families.

"We have a chance to literally and figuratively rally the troops," U.S. Soccer president Dr. Bob Contiguglia said Monday.

Contiguglia noted that many of the Air Force personnel would love to get tickets for the June 17 World Cup encounter against Italy at the stadium. But they're virtually impossible to come by given the worldwide demand.

But a World Cup warm-up at the start of March is better than nothing at all.

"I never thought until I started working at this level that it made a big difference," Contiguglia said. "It makes a difference to the players. They'll tell you; they say it all the time."

Indeed. They told yours truly Monday. They're looking forward to the support anywhere, even on foreign soil.

"To imagine being in Germany having a home crowd is kind of silly, but we'll take it," Donovan said with a smile after practice in subfreezing temperatures at the F.C. Kaiserslautern training facility.

That "we" includes goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who plays for the German Bundesliga side Borussia Moenchengladbach.

"I think we're going to have our most pro-American crowd in years, so we're excited about that," he said.

Everyone seemed excited about the support except coach Bruce Arena, who was just a bit skeptical.

"Great," he said. "I hope that's the case. It should be. You never know. I've seen funnier things happen. They might be sending busloads from Poland over here. It'll be fun. We want to certainly get on the field to get familiar with each other again."

The idea of sponsoring such a event is the brainchild of U.S. Soccer. American soccer's organizing body wanted to play a European side March 1. Because Poland did not want to come to the U.S. just for one game, Contiguglia said, U.S. Soccer decided to go to Europe. The organization took it one step further and decided to sponsor the game. In fact, U.S. Soccer flew over nine members of its operational staff to run the show.

To get into the event, all media will need U.S. Soccer-sanctioned press passes.

"Hopefully, it will help us garner some kind of home-field advantage ... which is the ultimate," U.S. Soccer spokesman Jim Moorhouse said.

"We know the value of the game is in what the team gets out of it preparing for the World Cup. That is ultimately what we're going to get out of it. Either way, we'll see what happens Wednesday," he said.

Every little bit helps, especially when a team is trying to get an edge in the World Cup. And against a side like Italy, the U.S. will need as much help as it can get.

Because Wednesday is the only FIFA-sanctioned playing date before the World Cup, the U.S. wanted to make the most of its opportunity by bringing in a team that combines its European and MLS players before training camp begins in Cary, N.C., on May 10. The March 22 match vs. Germany in Dortmund will not give Arena that luxury in terms of bringing in his players based in England, the Netherlands and Belgium.

"It is important to see this entire group together at least one time before we name our roster," he said.

The crowd probably won't have many Germans in it, as Germany will play at Italy in a warm-up match Wednesday and most of the country will be watching that encounter on TV.

Defender Steve Cherundolo, who plays for Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga, sees the match as a barometer for the team.

"Our record in Europe is not very good," he said. "These are the type of games we need to win if we want to be successful at the World Cup, which is a great way to measure where we're at as a national team."

On Tuesday night, a pep rally in front of thousands of soldiers and their families will be held at a gymnasium inside the base.

"It's going to be pretty hopping, and we have a couple of surprises planned," Moorhouse said.

The team, which is staying at the base through Thursday, has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the personnel. During a meet-and-greet session with children and their parents on Monday, players were hounded for autographs

"To be honest, I didn't realize how knowledgeable the people are," Donovan said. "Probably every third person that came up to us knew every player, knew everything about us.

"It's interesting. You think about the demographic and people who are here. They are generally younger people, athletic people who like sports and they want to follow their country, want to cheer for their country. They are patriotic just like we are, and they have a number of players they can support," he said.

On Monday, several players and Arena got a sobering reminder of the real world when they toured Landstuhl Regional Medical Hospital, where severely injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are flown in for lifesaving surgery. About 20 soldiers are flown in every day, according to Contiguglia, a kidney specialist based in Denver.

"You don't know how much it means to these sick young guys to have someone care about them," Contiguglia said.

"It's the least we can do and pay tribute to those people in their efforts in this war of terrorism, to express our gratitude and appreciation on what they do," Arena said.

For Keller, it was an eye-opener in more ways than one.

"You know, I was expecting it to be depressing and it was exactly the opposite," he said. "It was extremely positive. There are some soldiers there who are pretty banged up and some soldiers there who are getting back healthy. The attitude is just tremendous. They've had a lot of tours, and they know they're coming out of it knowing that they're doing something right. That's a great thing to have. They know they have the great support from everybody. You can disagree with why they're there, but they know they have the support of everybody for what they are trying to achieve."

Much to do about Adu

One of the more interesting questions Arena will face during the World Cup buildup is that of the status of 16-year-old Freddy Adu, the D.C. United midfielder-forward who is a long shot to make the team.

On Monday, a German journalist asked the U.S. coach whether Adu will be going to the World Cup.

"I haven't talked to him. I don't know if he plans on going to the World Cup or not," Arena said half sarcastically and half jokingly.

"I don't know. Do you know any 16-year-old players playing in the World Cup this year? But the American team will probably have 14-, 15-, 16-year-old players with them because we're so weak," he said.

Then Arena got serious.

"It's not likely," he said. "Freddy's a very good player, but it's not likely. But you never know. It's not likely we're going to be carrying a 16-year-old. He's an exceptional player with a bright future."

It certainly will be intriguing to see how many Adu questions Arena will have to handle and how he will handle them between now and the end of June.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is the editor of BigAppleSoccer.com, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com