After all this time, the U.S. Cup is half full
It may not be manifest destiny that the United States is bound to join the Germanys and Argentinas as a World Cup soccer power. But the idea that there actually is a growing public concern over the most recent U.S. failure in the sport -- if "failure" is the right word -- is evidence of a soccer-commitment creep in this country that was unimaginable less than a generation ago.
That today's Cup final will go on without the Yanks hardly is stunning. But it is revolutionary that the Americans' second consecutive Round of 16 tournament exit -- which left them no further along than they had gotten through six previous coaching regimes -- actually was a wide topic of sporting conversation.
In 1990, with a ragtag group of raw college kids, the Americans barely sneaked into their first World Cup in 40 years. And the nation's bipolar reaction then -- we don't care about soccer, but "we're No. 1" -- was summed up by Paul Caligiuri, whose goal beat Trinidad & Tobago in the final Cup qualifying game.
"Even some of my friends who don't know much about soccer say, 'You guys better bring home the Cup!' " Caligiuri said. "When we beat Trinidad, people said, 'Who's Trinidad?' It's the American mentality. They don't realize we come from an underdeveloped situation."
When Peter Vermes, another member of that 1990 team, was signed by a pro team in the Netherlands, he read quotes in the Dutch newspapers from his new teammates wondering, "Why did we sign him? What do we need an American for?"
The wider soccer world was astounded, at the time, that the United States could put men on the moon but didn't yet have its own pro soccer league. Chris Sullivan, who played on the national team as it was preparing for the '90 World Cup, had spent some time playing professionally in a lower-level Hungarian league.
"Maybe we can make cars well and promote things well," Sullivan said then, "but we're just students of the game in soccer. We need to learn to do something new well."
Actually, we're learning fast. The national team now is stocked with pros, most of them playing in top European leagues. More to the point is how mainstream the sport has become on these shores. When Google posts a new soccer-oriented cartoon on its home page each day of the World Cup, it is proof that the United States really can count itself as a soccer nation.
This was the seventh consecutive World Cup appearance for the Yanks. Only six other countries have longer streaks -- Brazil (20), Germany (16), Italy (14), Argentina (11), Spain (10) and South Korea (eight). Even such powers as Mexico (six), England (five) and France (five) can't match that U.S. run.
In 1990, "American soccer player" was an oxymoron, something like "jumbo shrimp." One snide observation at the time was that Steve Trittschuh, a marginal member of the team, was most valued for his all-American ability to execute throw-ins on out-of-bounds plays. (Good hands, while Trittschuh and his teammates still were learning to use both feet.)
That national team was severely lacking in experience and depth, its players barely able to string together consecutive passes against top teams.
Now the Yanks are pretty good. They are clearly competitive on the biggest stage, evidenced by having Portugal, which entered the tournament ranked No. 4 in the world, thrilled to gain a last-minute tie in group play. Though subsequently outplayed by three-time Cup champion Germany, the Americans' 1-0 loss hardly was an embarrassment. Given the vagaries of soccer, how the luck factor sometimes can hold its own against skill, the Yanks might even have stolen a tie.
So they won't bring home the Cup. It might be argued that Americans now play soccer better than they make cars.