- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

LYON, France (AP) — Ever so slowly, U.S. soccer is growing up.

To some American soccer fans, the national team’s first-round exit in the Confederations Cup was a disappointment, especially following last year’s appearance in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Expectations are slowly growing for a program that often is below the sports radar in the United States.

“There’s going to be more pressure on everyone to be successful,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We understand that, and we understand the magnitude of trying to be a world power in this sport. It’s going to take a long time to get there.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation tries to look at the big picture. The United States was invited to the first World Cup in 1930 and made it to the semifinals before losing to Argentina 6-1.

Four years later, the Americans went to the World Cup in Italy and were eliminated in the preliminary round with a 7-1 loss to the hosts. The United States didn’t go to the 1938 tournament in France, but when the World Cup resumed after World War II, the Americans qualified and upset England 1-0. Still, they finished last in their first-round group.

After that, the United States failed to qualify for nine straight World Cups, becoming a soccer backwater. Only after FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States on July4, 1988, did the Americans qualify again, returning in 1990, helped by Mexico’s disqualification for using overage players in a youth tournament.

In 1990, the Americans went 0-3 in Italy and were blown out. At home four years later, they advanced to the second round before losing to Brazil. Then came the 0-3 debacle at France ‘98 and the unexpected success last year in South Korea before the quarterfinal loss to Germany,

“I am in touch with all of the FIFA people and all of the people from the other countries, and they believe and have said to me on numerous occasions that our accomplishment in Korea was amazing,” USSF president Bob Contiguglia said. “All we get are compliments on how terrific our programs are, and the incredible progress we’ve made. As they say, we’ve only been playing for a very short period of time, and look what we’ve done.”

The U.S. team that went 0-2-1 in the Confederations Cup is stronger and deeper than all American national teams prior to last year. In addition, the Americans have qualified for four straight World Youth Championships for players under 20 and seven under-17 World Championships, reaching the final four in the under-20s in 1989 and the under-17s in 1999.

But for the national team, becoming the best in the world won’t be easy. Arena says it’s impossible to compare the task to any other sport.

“I giggle when the NFL’s Super Bowl is over and they’re world champions of football, the Yankees or whomever, wins, they’re world champions of baseball, and San Antonio is world champions of basketball,” Arena said. “There’s only one sport that’s a global sport that really has a world champion, and that’s soccer. Basketball’s beginning to get there.

“The thinking is completely illogical in how we’re viewed. Even in that we’re compared to the women in soccer, which God bless ‘em, they’ve done a fantastic job, and they are the best in the world. They’re different, though. They’re more like baseball. This is the biggest challenge in sport, to be world champions in the sport of soccer.”

Arena thinks nothing can prepare players for walking into hostile stadiums in Central America, where they have been pelted with garbage. Or playing on bumpy, bare fields with little security separating players from fans.

“If international sport was that easy,” he said, “why wouldn’t we just tear up in the Davis Cup? Don’t we have good tennis players? All those years we had [Jimmy] Conners, [John] McEnroe, [Pete] Sampras, and we weren’t winning Davis Cups all the time. Why is it so hard in the Ryder Cup for us to win?”

Sunil Gulati, currently the USSF’s executive vice president, has been involved in soccer for more than two decades and tried to put the team’s current position in perspective.

“Clearly we’ve made great strides since the 1980s when we were struggling to qualify,” he said. “Now we’re expected to qualify and that is true at every level — youth, Olympics, women. Along with Mexico, we’re one of the two teams in the region expected to qualify. If we climbed eight on the ladder out of 10, the last two are the hardest because we’re competing against the top teams, with the top players, from the top leagues, and they’ve been playing soccer for a very long time.”

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