Sunday, June 23, 2002

Soccer in America wakes up

AP Sports Writer

        SEOUL, South Korea — They woke up America and they woke up the world. The United States came to the World Cup seeking redemption, respect and recognition. The American soccer team got all three, and something more important, too.

        For the first time ever, the players look at the rest of the world not with awe, not with envy, but with confidence.

        They proved to themselves, their opponents and skeptics that they belong. No longer should soccer in America be a punch line.

        “Every time we play, we should feel like we don't expect to lose,” Landon Donovan said.

        More than anyone, the sprite 20-year-old striker from Southern California created the lasting image of the United States at this World Cup. When the final whistle blew Friday night at the stadium in Ulsan, he wanted to keep playing.

        The 1-0 quarterfinal loss ended the best U.S. World Cup performance since 1930, and Donovan looked like a little boy whose ball had been taken away. So he traveled all day Saturday and got back to California in time to play for Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night. He entered in the 85th minute and started the play that led to the final goal in a 4-0 win over Colorado.

        “He's come a long way in a year,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said Saturday before flying back to Virginia.

        So have they all.

        After finishing last at the 1998 World Cup in France, the Americans pointed fingers at each other and the soccer world laughed at them. Staging a World Cup, which the United States did in 1994, does not turn a team into a soccer power.

        Arena changed the direction, instilling a sharply higher level of professionalism and focus. The Americans struggled in qualifying, losing most of their forwards to injuries for extended periods, but they made it to the World Cup. And then it was time to shine.

        With a 3-2 opening victory over powerful Portugal, a 1-1 tie against still-unbeaten co-host South Korea and a 2-0 second-round upset of Mexico, they became one of the biggest surprises at a tournament full of upsets. And then they dominated Germany for much of their quarterfinal loss.

        “I'm just proud of my team,” captain Claudio Reyna said after draping himself in the Stars and Stripes and saluting the several hundred American fans who made the trip halfway around the world. “It showed the ignorance of some European coaches.”

        Donovan and others had been with European clubs only to get snubbed, unable to set foot on a field during games. They were, after all, Americans.

        Reyna, following the trail begun by Paul Caligiuri, John Harkes and Tab Ramos, established himself in Europe, along with goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. But others were never given much of a chance, such as Donovan, Eddie Lewis, Tony Sanneh and Frankie Hejduk.

        On soccer's biggest stage, they proved themselves.

        “This was our finest moment, certainly in modern history, both during the whole tournament and last night,” Alan Rothenberg said Saturday.

        As chief organizer of the 1994 World Cup and president of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1990-98, Rothenberg put the program in place. He was derided when he started Project 2010 — to get the United States into a World Cup final by the end of this decade.

        With the buzz back home this month, millions stayed up or woke up for games that started at 2:30 a.m., 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. EDT. Now, U.S. soccer officials hope these victories not only transformed the sport's image, but transformed viewers into fans.

        “There's that huge ethnic soccer population in the United States who still stay loyal to their country of origin,” Rothenberg said. “This kind of tournament starts to make them take a second look and think the United States is every bit as good as Germany, as Mexico. If we can ever turn those fans into U.S. team fans and MLS fans, I think that breaks things our way.”

        Four years ago, when players scattered at the airport in Nantes, France, U.S. soccer was at its lowest point since before Caligiuri's goal at Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 put the United States back in the World Cup for the first time since 1950.

        As players checked out of their hotel in Seoul on Saturday, it's at its highest point in 72 years, since the United States was among 13 nations invited to the first World Cup and made it to the semifinals.

        It appears Arena will be offered a new contract through the 2006 tournament in Germany. Already on Saturday, he was talking about qualifying, which starts in 2004.

        Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley are just 20, Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff are 25, and Santino Quaranta and Bobby Convey are working their way up.

        “The next team, whoever coaches it, whether it's me or somebody else, it's a new team for the most part, start from scratch,” Arena said. “There's a lot of things that have to begin to move in the near future: give young players experience.”

        Unlike the players, he's not too concerned getting respect from the rest of the soccer world.

        “We've earned a little bit more, but not enough. That's fine,” he said. “We have to keep moving forward and try to get better. The one way you shut everyone up is you win. ... You've got to step on the field and just beat them. Period. Bottom line.”

        Before the World Cup, Arena doubted the United States would win the tournament in his lifetime. Now it seems possible.

        Rothenberg thinks he might even live to see it.

        “My mother is going to have her 92nd birthday,” he said. “Hmmm. Another 29 years to go.”

        He paused.

        “Yeah, I think I will.”


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