- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

HANNOVER, Germany — The world no longer views the U.S. World Cup team as a non-power. In fact, American soccer is a potential giant.

With a massive population to draw talent from, and more American players being recruited by big European clubs, the idea of the U.S. team winning the World Cup one day is no longer a pipe dream.

Fifty-five Americans are playing for overseas clubs, and at least nine have signed with teams in the tough English Premier League. That doesn’t guarantee respect for the U.S. team at this month’s 32-team World Cup in Germany, but it removes it from the pushover category.

The Americans, who stunned the soccer world at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, are no longer a mystery team. The secret is out on the red, white and blue.

“The awareness of the talent of the U.S. team is out there,” said former American captain John Harkes, now an analyst for ESPN and ABC Sports. “What the U.S. team can now do has been exposed.”

The American team, which will play the Czech Republic on Monday at Gelsenkirchen in its opening game before facing Italy and Ghana in group play, is ranked No. 5 in the world by FIFA, soccer’s governing body.

Most soccer fans do not take the rankings — determined by a complex formula involving game results, goals scored and the quality of opponents — very seriously. But the U.S. players consider the ranking a badge of honor and are not afraid to shout about it.

“We are not a surprise and that may not be a good thing by any means, but we are a better team individually than last time,” midfielder Ben Olsen said. “Can this team click like the last one? We’ll have to see. The world looks at us as a dangerous team — not a team that can win the World Cup but a team you don’t really want to play. We are athletic, we defend well as a team, we are pretty honest about our work rate and we have some world-class players like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.”

Nonetheless, a survey of 23 oddsmakers on oddschecker.com rates the Americans only 15th among 32 teams at 100-1 to win the finals. Brazil is the favorite, followed by host Germany, England, Argentina and Italy.

After the U.S. team’s surprise quarterfinal finish in Asia in 2002, casual fans may be expecting more of the same. But the Americans are drawn in a very tough “Group Of Death,” as some observers call it.

Four years ago, the United States upset Portugal 3-2 in its opener, then held host South Korea to a respectable 1-1 tie before losing to Poland 3-1. In the knockout stage, the Americans defeated Mexico 2-0 before losing to Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals after having an obvious goal waved off.

“I think 2002 is probably seen as something that was a little bit out of the box,” Major League Soccer deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. “I don’t think people expect us to repeat that. I don’t think people generally think we are fifth in the world.”

In 1990, the U.S. team included college players who lost all three games in Italy. As hosts in 1994, the Americans lost in the round of 16 to eventual winner Brazil. In France four years later, the Americans lost all three of their games.

“We are not going to Germany to survive,” said former two-time World Cup defender Marcelo Balboa, who will be an analyst for ESPN and ABC Sports for the American games. “The U.S. survived in 1990. The Americans now deserve respect. This team has to stay healthy. We don’t have a [Zinedine] Zidane or a [Diego] Maradona, so this team has to work together. Other countries are thinking, ‘Holy cow. we have to play the U.S.!’ and they know it’s going to be a battle for 90 minutes.”

So what should American fans expect?

“It depends on how you measure success,” Harkes said. “If we advance a long way, it would be fantastic. But the soccer purists know that when you look at the Czech Republic and the Italian squad … these are quality teams and Ghana is unknown. Getting past the first round will be a great success for the U.S. team.”

A victory against the Czechs is crucial for the Americans. In both 1998 and 2002, only one team that lost its opening game advanced to the knockout stage.

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