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U.S. wants to prove it can play with best

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After months of talking a good game, the United States finally gets to back it up on the field.

Germany, the European champion, is just about the standard for soccer teams. The Americans say they match up with the best, and their World Cup opener tonight will show if they're dreaming or if they're right."We know what we are capable of doing, that is, going out, having fun and playing well," defender Marcelo Balboa said Sunday. "We are not going to wait for them to come at us. We will, hopefully, put Germany on their heels."

As much as a win, the U.S. players want acceptance. They're tired of the rest of the world looking down at America as a soccer backwater.

"I think this team has been working to prove something to Europe," coach Steve Sampson said.

Unlike baseball, football, basketball and hockey, regular games make little difference. In soccer, there is only the World Cup. Everything else is practice.

"This is what it comes down to," forward Eric Wynalda said. "It's unfair, but it all comes down to two, three games - and hopefully more."

In 1990, the United States played in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. The team was essentially a bunch of collegiate all-stars and finished 23rd among 24 nations.

Four years ago, the tournament came to America for the first time and the Americans upset Colombia 2-1 before losing to eventual champion Brazil 1-0 in the second round.

This time, in a tough group with Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia - a 1-0 winner over Iran on Sunday - it will be hard for the U.S. team to advance. But players think they will.

"I think we will make something happen," forward Roy Wegerle said.

Earlier this year, the Americans beat Brazil 1-0 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, their first win in nine games against the Brazilians. That startled the soccer world a bit, but it wasn't the World Cup.

A win over Germany, which has dominated European soccer for a quarter century, will prove America has arrived.

In 1993, when the nations met twice in exhibition games, Germany won 4-3 in June at Soldier Field and 3-0 in December at Stanford Stadium. The Germans are still the favorites; the Americans say that's OK.

"We have everything to play for, and they have everything to lose," Wegerle said.

Sampson, the team's first American-born coach, took over from Bora Milutinovic in 1995 and has emphasized a crowd-pleasing, attacking style. He's gotten results, with the United States going 26-19-14, the first time the team has been over .500 for a coach.

But against Germany he'll temper his offensive approach. Look for the United States to use counterattacks and play wide, attempting to wear the Germans down.

Germany's average age is 30, the oldest in the tournament. The team hasn't changed much from the one eliminated by Bulgaria in the quarterfinals four years ago at Giants Stadium.

"Germany is not playing great soccer right now," said midfielder Tab Ramos, one of three U.S. players on the roster for 1990, '94 and this year. "Germany does not look like the Germany of the last 10, 15 years."

Despite Chancellor Helmut Kohl's prediction of a 3-1 victory, German players said they were taking the U.S. team seriously.