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I am a stranger in a strange land.


I don't speak the language (soccer) and I don't know anyone. I am trying to figure out how I got here.

If you're like me, and you're just learning about soccer, you should bring a book about soccer with you to the game, because you'll have plenty of time to read it while nothing is happening. And often, nothing is happening.

Sunday's festive double-dip between the U.S. national team and Mexico, followed by the nightcap between the Galaxy and the Mutiny, was a terrific success. I think they sold every ticket in the house. Apparently it was Mexican Flag Giveaway Day, because just about everybody had one.

The pro-Mexico bias was obvious. Whenever Americans did something good, it was booed; whenever Mexicans did something good, it was cheered. Just about the opposite of what occurs in California state politics.

Early on, I was afraid there was going to be a riot. Some pushing and shoving occurred between some players from the U.S. and some from Mexico. Pushing and shoving in baseball, football, basketball or hockey is so commonplace that now it is almost considered a greeting. But such behavior in soccer apparently is a high insult and an indication of international disrespect.

Luckily, these situations usually quell themselves. Words are exchanged, the opposing players discover they can't understand each other, and the game resumes.

The U.S. took a 1-0 lead Sunday late in the first half. Eric Wynalda knocked in a beauty from the left side past Mexico goalie Jorge Campos. It was one of the nicest goals I've ever seen. It was one of the only goals I've ever seen. You can watch soccer all your life and see five goals.

After Wynalda scored, he and a handful of his teammates raced to the sidelines wildly and hugged U.S. coach Steve Sampson. I was heartened to see this display of affection, but I couldn't help but think that they were blatantly copying the gesture from the many times Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos hugged Del Harris this year after a basket.

This also might have been a show of appreciation for Sampson and a mild dig at Mexico's coach, Bora Milutinovic, who used to be the U.S. national coach. Or it could just be Wynalda's way of kissing up to the boss.

I couldn't help but notice that Sampson was decked out in a sportcoat and necktie, while Bora wore just a plain old collared polo shirt. I guess Bora felt the occasion wasn't important enough to dress up for. I'm glad he's not our coach anymore. In front of 92,000 folks clad in scruffy beachwear, you want to make a good impression.

Bora and Sampson seemed to exchange words at one point in the first half. I couldn't be sure, but I think I read Sampson's lips saying, ``Would it have killed you to put on a button-down shirt?''

``Bora likes to intimidate the referees,'' Sampson explained later, ``and I wanted to make sure I intimidated them just as much.

``I said, `Bora, you talk, I talk.' ''

It was quickly forgotten anyway, as Mexico scored on a free kick just before the half to tie it at 1-1. The fans reacted with enthusiasm. Suddenly the term ``crowd control'' became the most important two words in my life.

Actually, the fans were remarkably composed and well-behaved. This is probably the most glaring misconception on the part of soccer ignoramuses. Just because soccer fans in Europe and South America express their excitement by stampeding over innocent bystanders and destroying property doesn't mean we have to do it here. At least we don't have to do it here while I happen to be attending my one soccer event per year.

The Mexicans had a splendid chance denied them midway through the second half when Francisco Palencia fired point-blank at U.S. goalie Brad Friedel, who gobbled up the ball in one motion. It was a play that I'm sure will make highlight reels everywhere, or at least those highlight reels that have some extra room on the end.

The game slowed into a defensive struggle late in the match. I don't want to refer to it as a Mexican standoff, because the Americans seemed to be just as much to blame. The tussle was broken for just a second when Cobi Jones had a golden shot at goal but wound up kicking it where field goals usually wind up during UCLA's season.

Mexico made it 2-1 very, very late in the game. I can't be sure exactly, because it seems like they let the clock keep going in this sport until their damn well ready to stop it. But the Americans came right back on a header by Thomas Dooley to knot it at 2-2 again.

Right after that, they decided to stop the contest. Final score: 2-2. I guess everyone had had enough. Some of the opposing players exchanged jerseys. Wet, sweaty jerseys. Supposedly, this is a sign of good will. Soccer needs either a primer on etiquette or a reliable and extremely fast laundry.

Then, during an awards presentation, many of the players chanted and danced around, sort of soccer's version of, ``If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!!''

And the fans followed along with applause, due in part to the fact that there was still the Galaxy game yet to enjoy.

``This was a great crowd,'' Sampson said. ``It was a tremendous marketing tool for the sport of soccer.''

Fortunately, that was the predominant theme Sunday. Good cheer and good will, enough to fill the Arroyo. This sport just might catch on.

MEMO: Michael Ventre's column appears in the Daily News four days a week.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 17, 1996
Previous Article:MEL ALLEN DIES AT 82.

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