U.S. soccer's old guard is back

Other things to check out: my video preview of the U.S.-Mexico game and a photo gallery from Tuesday’s traning session.

And be sure to join me Wednesday night for a live chat during the game.

The first soccer video game I ever owned was FIFA 98. It’s amazing to think how long it’s been since then, but there are still a few things I remember: the Chumbawumba theme music, the Stade de France, and playing as the United States.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. team wasn’t very good. But as with any sports video game, it wasn’t difficult to set things up so that the U.S. could win that pixelated World Cup trophy.

Of course, real life was nothing like that. The U.S. scored only one goal in France, and crashed out with the tournament’s worst overall record. But the names on that roster still resonate for a lot of American soccer fans today. Think about guys like Kasey Keller, Brian McBride and Earnie Stewart.

And think about these three, too: Thomas Dooley, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna. They weren’t just on the 1998 World Cup squad, but the 1994 squad as well. All three captained the national team at some point, and enjoyed decorated careers at clubs in MLS and abroad. Dooley and Ramos are in the National Soccer Hall of Fame; Reyna will surely be inducted sooner rather than later.

Each went his separate way after retiring, with the only common thread being a retreat from the public eye. But in recent months, they have resurfaced.

Dooley coached the southern California-based Pateadores club to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship last month. Ramos founded his own youth club in his native New Jersey. Reyna was hired as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s youth technical director, and created the new coaching curriculum.

Now all three men are back in the spotlight, and they have Jurgen Klinsmann to thank. The new U.S. national team manager appointed Dooley and Ramos as assistant coaches for the game against Mexico, and Ramos and Reyna are expected to be in the pool of candidates to become head coaches of various U.S. youth teams.

"There is a generation now of former players who know a lot, who played in World Cups and in big competitions overseas," Klinsmann said at his press conference Tuesday at the NovaCare Center. "I want to see how they can fit into the bigger picture of U.S. soccer right now, because it’s about time that this generation breaks into the coaching level, and puts their marks into the next generation of players."

When it comes to the players from 1994 and 1998, Klinsmann knows even more about what he speaks of, because he played against them. There were two friendlies in 1993 and a World Cup meeting in 1998.

Now they are all on the same side. For Dooley, who met with reporters for a lengthy chat after Klinsmann’s press conference, it is a tremendous honor.

"You’re working for this great organization and for this country, trying to do the best - that is the highest that you can get," Dooley said. "So I’m very happy, and very honored to work with Jurgen, and with Tab, and with Claudio, and with Martin [Vasquez], all together to lift up soccer in America again a little bit. It’s a big thing for me."

Dooley certainly has ideas that he wants to put in place. For as much as Klinsmann has talked about wanting the U.S. to play a more entertaining style, Dooley is all about organization and tactical awareness.

He was a defender, after all.

"Even when you lose the ball up front, you have to be organized to defend, and that is the main focus that we also will have," Dooley said. "We definitely want to play attacking soccer, but it means that you also play organized or tactically – not defensive-minded, but tactically right when you don’t have the ball."

Dooley also spoke about the value of having so many former players on the U.S. bench.

"If you are on the bench, and you’ve been behind 2-0 or 3-0 in games and come back to win, those are experiences that you can pass on to players," he said. "If you’ve never been in a locker room, it’s a little bit more difficult. That doesn’t mean that somebody who never played is not a good coach, but in general it’s more helpful if you played the game and know exactly what you went through in your development."

The most interesting thing that I thought Dooley said was his answer to the question of what he thinks about the quality of play in Major League Soccer at the moment. Here is the full quote:

It is growing year by year. But can the level get better? That’s questionable. My thing is that maybe not. We are always adding two more teams, and [players] have to get started again from one team to a new team.

And the team that loses those two or three players has to find new players. They are going to college soccer, and the college players are not at the same level as the international players in the first division. So the level drops a little bit, and that comes to stop when we stick with those teams we have, and are not adding any more.

Another issue is that we have a long break. I remember when I played, when we took off for two or three weeks and came back to training, we had to start almost all over again. Players in MLS may be taking a break for two months or more. So this is something that is not helpful to our development – it hinders it more.

For now, though, all eyes are on the present. Another U.S.-Mexico showdown looms, and that gives Dooley and the rest of the coaching staff plenty to work on.

"I played eight times against Mexico, and I always loved to play against them because the rivalry makes it special," Dooley said. "We lost against them in the last game, and there’s nothing more important than for us to have a great game against them and beat them."

For all the things that have changed since Dooley’s playing days, the intensity of the rivalry with Mexico definitely has not.

Since you made it this far, here's an audio track with Tuesday's press conference featuring Jurgen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan. The questions are inaudible because of how the microphones were set up, but Klinsmann and Donovan had plenty to say anyway.