- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea Thank you, Mr. President.

Usually, those words mean the end of a news conference.

When Bruce Arena spoke them this week, they marked the beginning of a new era in American soccer.

Jaded U.S. athletes are sometimes bored by telephone calls from the White House. Not the American soccer team. President Bush's call Monday thrilled the players, who love that they are being noticed along with Tiger, Shaq and the Rocket.

Following the presidential pep talk, they went out and beat Mexico 2-0, America's first victory in the knockout stage of a World Cup, setting up a quarterfinal matchup Friday against Germany.

"It was a wonderful gesture," Arena said yesterday. "It certainly got the attention of our players. Maybe we need him to call again on Friday morning."

For the Americans to be among the final eight nations is almost inconceivable.

After its stunning upset of England at the 1950 World Cup, the United States failed to qualify for the 1954 tournament, and the one in 1958, '62, '66 and so on. It wasn't until 1990 that the team returned to the planet's most-watched sporting event.

Soccer in America? It was for foreigners in the parks. Or suburbanites who didn't want their kids playing NFL-style football.

Even the great Pele and Franz Beckenbauer failed to make professional soccer a success in the United States. Even though FIFA decided on July 4, 1988, to stage the 1994 World Cup in America, soccer didn't really start its ascent until Nov. 19, 1989.

On that autumn afternoon, in a packed stadium in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Paul Caligiuri scored on a 30-yard shot in the 30th minute. The United States held on to beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 and return to the World Cup for the first time in four decades.

Look at what's happened since. The U.S. team has played in four straight World Cups and is ranked 13th in the world. The Americans have a fan group, Sam's Army, that came all the way to Asia and sang throughout Monday's historic win, bringing comfort to players who sometimes feel almost everyone is against them.

The players are growing up. They were badly beaten by Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria in 1990, but made it to the second round in 1994 at home. Four years ago in France, they took a step back, finishing last, but now they're among the final eight, their best showing since making the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930.

In a way, it's a strange time for American soccer, in the middle of a transformation that has seen two generations come of age simultaneously. Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, both 25, appear to be the last vestiges of the old system, players developed by U.S. colleges.

Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both 20 and full-time professionals, lead the new breed. There are others like them, players such as 17-year-old Santino Quaranta, who has three goals this season for Major League Soccer's D.C. United.

To take the next step, the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to build on what's been achieved. After the tournament, without delay, it should try to extend the contract of Arena, due to expire at the end of the year.

He can be testy, sarcastic and annoying, but he handles players well and has made nearly perfect moves throughout qualifying and the tournament.

Bob Contiguglia, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, remembered interviewing Arena, then D.C. United's coach, for five hours in 1998 in the office of Philip Anschutz, whose company operates half of the MLS' 10 teams.

"Bruce has been the right person at this time for our sport," Contiguglia said even before the tournament began. "He, of course, instills an attitude in the athletes that they can beat anyone on the planet and they can."

Arena has used 19 of his 23 players in the first four games, all but defenders David Regis and Steve Cherundolo (who is injured), and backup goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Tony Meola.

Players aren't happy when they sit, but he's melded them as a team, where they all fight for each other a stark contrast with four years ago, when they fought each other.

With two wins, a loss and a tie, the United States is three improbable wins from a World Cup title that Arena said he probably would never live to see.

At the start of the tournament, the British bookmakers listed the Americans as a 300-to-1 shot. Now, the odds on a U.S. championship are 25-1, the highest among the remaining nations, even though three teams have lower rankings: Turkey (22nd), South Korea (40th) and Senegal (42nd).

Still, Arena says it's too early to count the United States among soccer's elite.

"Have we arrived? No, we are not even close," he said. "We are not even pretending to be. But the gap is closing."

And U.S. captain Claudio Reyna pointed out there will be disappointment. The Americans were among 193 nations that played 777 games to determine spots in the 32-nation field, and they nearly got knocked out in the regional semifinals.

For the United States, just qualifying for the World Cup still is an achievement, not a birthright like in Germany, Italy, Argentina and Brazil.

"We have to understand how hard it is to get here," Reyna said. "We may not get here for another two, three World Cups. This team has turned out to be special for us. We have to hope this is the beginning of a consistent trend."

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