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NEW SOCCER COACH ASKS FANS FOR PATIENCE, REALISM

SHARE NEW SOCCER COACH ASKS FANS FOR PATIENCE, REALISM

Steve Sampson, his team enjoying a summer like never before, has problems.

Having been awarded the full-time job as coach of the U.S. national soccer team just a few days ago, Sampson suddenly finds himself in a spot.His team opens play tonight in the Parmalat Cup - a four-team tournament also featuring Parma of Italy, Benfica of Portugal and Boca Juniors of Argentina - and half his starters are gone, having returned to Europe to rejoin their clubs.

All of which might not have meant much at another time. But now there are heightened expectations about the U.S. team, which recently won the U.S. Cup and astonishingly advanced to the semifinals of the America Cup, the showcase South American championship to which the United States was invited.

Sampson says a little patience and a lot of realism are in order.

"I think the sophisticated media will understand the difference between the two teams," he said. "Let's be honest, there will be times when we'll have a much better team on the field than others."

Sampson will have to do without goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, striker Eric Wynalda, midfielder Claudio Reyna and defenders Tom Dooley and Paul Caligiuri.

The Americans open tonight (7 p.m. EDT) at Giants Stadium against Parma, the UEFA Cup champion. Benfica and Boca Juniors follow at 9 p.m. The winners meet Sunday, preceded by the third-place game.

The three international guests are preparing for their upcoming seasons and have brought big names: Hristo Stoichkov, Dino Baggio, Gianfranco Zola and Tomas Brolin for Parma; Claudio Caniggia, Sergio Martinez and Carlos Navarro Montoya for Boca; and Michel Preud'homme, Valdo, Antonio Alves and Ricardo Gomes for Benfica.

Sampson will turn to defenders Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, midfielders Cobi Jones and Tab Ramos and forwards Frank Klopas and Roy Wegerle.