Sunday, January 15, 2006

The rise of US soccer

Columnist Paul Gardner has a commentary in The New York Sun on the evolution of American soccer. The US soccer media's resident curmudgeon explains the rapid rise of the country's national team program from international joke to competitive second-tier power in a short 15 years.

One of the biggest differences between the US team in the early- and mid-90s and the program today is depth. While previous managers were lucky to have one quality player at each position, current boss Bruce Arena now has plenty of talent to choose from. This is due in no small part to the creation of a first division, Major League Soccer, in 1996. Essential to MLS' contribution to the national team program is limits on the number of foreign players.

Yet despite the importance of MLS, Arena has a lot of European-based players he can call on. This is in sharp contrast to previous US managers, who had to rely largely on inexperienced, college or second-division players.

Arena now has a domestic pro league, MLS, to rely on. In the 2002 World Cup, his starting team for the opening game against Portugal included six MLS players. But, so striking have been the changes in American soccer, that an MLS dominated team will not appear in Germany. The Europe-based players now hold sway, argues Gardner.

Of the U.S.-based players in Arena’s camp, only Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy) looks like a guaranteed starter,with Eddie Pope (Real Salt Lake) on the likely list. Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids) has always performed well when called upon, whether in defense or in midfield, but he faces competition in midfield from John O’Brien of Ajax (Netherlands), a more experienced, if injury-dogged, player.

In 1990, the US qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Now, the possibility of failing to qualify for the world's greatest soccer party is inconceivable. In 1990, the young players were, as the cliché goes, just happy to be there. When the US team goes to the World Cup in Germany later this year, anything less than qualification for the 2nd round will be a disappointment... despite being in a difficult group that includes European powers Italy and the Czech Republic.

And this change in mentality, expecting to compete and get results against world powers, is probably the most significant and heartening change of all.

Except for now regularly beating the Mexicans.

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