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U.S. soccer reputation takes major hit

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Both sides came in peace. The Americans left in humiliation.

Sunday night's 2-1 loss to Iran left the reputation of U.S. soccer reeling. After all the success the Americans enjoyed during the 1994 World Cup, they became first-round losers this time, eliminated by one of the weakest teams in the 32-nation field."This is very disappointing," goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "When you lose to a better team like Germany, it's OK. But tonight, that didn't happen."

Two and out. Even the 1990 team did better than that en route to a next-to-last-place finish.

"It's not easy. It kind of sits in your stomach," midfielder Claudio Reyna said. "It's a bad feeling."

As U.S. players spoke, thousands of Iranians were outside Stade Gerland, chanting with joy following the first World Cup win in the nation's history. That sound is sure to stay with American players in coming years - along with the clank of the ball hitting the post and the crossbar.

U.S. players hit the post three times and the crossbar once, unable to score until the game's final minutes - after they trailed by two.

"I think kids in American tonight will be disappointed," Keller said.

The U.S. players put on maximum spin, trying to convince themselves they weren't that bad. Coach Steve Sampson shook up the lineup, changing five starters, and the Americans outshot the Iranians 27-15.

But they didn't connect until it was too late. It's not a surprise, given that the United States has scored just 15 goals in 14 games this year.

"You play that game 10 times and we are going to win it nine times," U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg said. "Unfortunately, this was the 10th.

"You tell me what Steve did wrong tonight? I don't think it was the coach's fault, I don't think it was the players' fault. We played our hearts out. We played a perfect game. We didn't put the ball in the back of the net."

Iranian players, who gave each American starter a bouquet of white flowers before the game, danced around the field afterwards, pumping their arms at the mostly Iranian crowd - many on whom unfurled large banners supporting a group opposing the ruling government.

The victory set off wild celebrations in Tehran, where the United States has been "The Great Satan" since the Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah in 1979.

`Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation's spiritual leader, said in a message to his team. "Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy."

The Americans lost their composure after Hamid Estili scored on a counterattack in the 40th minute, getting away from Reyna and Tab Ramos to head a cross into the far corner of the net over a diving Keller.

"Our reaction after they went 1-0 was not good," Reyna said. "As a team we sort of lost it, fell apart."

Brian McBride, one of the new U.S. starters, hit the crossbar in the third minute, then hit the post in the 15th. Reyna hit the post in the 33rd.

"The first two, three minutes, we were pummeling them," Cobi Jones said. "Then there started to be a letdown after 15, 20 minutes and they started to get into the game."

The second half was just like the first. Reyna missed on a bicycle kick in front of the net off a header pass from McBride in the 57th, Preki Radosavljevic was wide on an open header in the 63rd, David Regis hit the goalpost in the 68th, and Frankie Hejduk sent a header right into goalkeeper Ahmad Abed-za-deh with the entire net to shoot for in the 79th.

Mehdi Mahdavikia then made it 2-0 with a breakaway goal in the 83rd, sending Iranian players into a wild, hugging, kissing celebration.

"We were all crying," Mahdavikia said.

Iran nearly took a three-goal lead four minutes later, but Ali Daei's shot was cleared of the goal line by Regis. Finally, McBride scored less than a minute later when his header bounced off a defender standing on the goal line.

Before the game, both teams posed together in an unusual joint picture, one of many unique aspects of a game U.S. politicians seized as an opportunity that might lead to a thawing of relations between the nations.

American players were all smiles then, but by the end of the night, their faces were grim.

"I wouldn't change a thing," Sampson said. "We could have easily won by three, four goals tonight."

NOTES: Sampson benched career scoring leader Eric Wynalda, who didn't take a shot in the opener. "I would have liked to have him out there because he's a dangerous player," Joe-Max Moore said. "We needed someone to score goals and he's the guy who's going to do it."