For U.S. end of Cup isn't end of the world With solid foundation, fans can take heart

June 23, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

American soccer fans ache -- that's the word -- because of that 2-1 loss by the U.S. national team to Iran on Sunday.

This international sports stuff, it's rough on the psyche.

The hurt is akin to the feeling after the Soviet Union beat the U.S. men at the buzzer for the basketball gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, another politically disconcerting game Americans supposedly couldn't lose.

Canadian hockey fans understand viscerally, their national teams having lost so often. Baseball fans will know, too, the day, say, Japan or Cuba wins a true World Series. Football fans will get it the same Sunday Barcelona wins a real Super Bowl.

But, c'mon. Losing to Iran wasn't doomsday for American soccer. Far from it. So, the coach will change. It happens in every sport. So, familiar players will retire. Forget Wynalda and Wegerle; now watch Ben Olsen and Johnny Torres blossom.

Several months ago, Alexi Lalas -- second to Michael Jordan as the most recognizable U.S. athlete abroad, a recent survey discovered -- was asked whether the game's rapid, recent emergence here would be damaged if the U.S. team didn't do well in this Cup.

Replied Lalas, a colorful 1994 U.S. defender, but benchwarmer this time: 'Do you really think if we lose, 16 million people will stop playing?'


As humiliating as Sunday's loss was, one of the things it means is going back to the drawing board, something Americans historically have been good at. And U.S. soccer architects have lots to work with.

First, they have more players than ever. The Soccer Industry Council of America pegs the number at 18 million -- about 7.6 million "frequent" participants. Between 1986 and 1996, which covers the most recent numbers, high school participation in soccer increased by 75 percent, the biggest increase by far, and the sport now ranks third among team sports in athletes -- behind basketball and football. More colleges play soccer now than football.

At the pro level, the game is more realistically structured than ever. True, Major League Soccer struggles for fans and cash, but operating under defensible business plans that project neither huge crowds nor early profits early on. In its third season, MLS has 21 players participating in the World Cup. The A-League and D3 Pro Leagues are the top "minors."

MLS' improving quality overmatches some foreign players -- new and encouraging.

With $500 million in TV and promotional revenue locked in for use during the next decade, the U.S. Soccer Federation has more money than the sport here has ever had. Instead of raising money, always the past problem, the challenge now is managing it to develop globally competitive players.

Laugh if you want to, but there's also a new plan to intensively train young players to the point of winning a World Cup by 2010. Who knows if that's realistic. But it's an intriguing -- more importantly, well-financed -- new approach here that has worked in other countries.

So cheer up, U.S. fans. Remember, others relate to your frustration.

Ask bummed-out Italian fans who pitched rotten fruit at the Azzurri at the airport after North Korea ousted them in 1966. Ask fans in England, where the sport was founded, but whose teams have won the big one only once. Ask Brazil about yielding one goal in five games, but losing on penalty kicks in 1986. Ask the Swedes about finishing third in 1994, but missing the show this time.

We Americans didn't expect to win the Cup. We wanted to play well, show improvement and, on a best-case basis, reach the second round. Close losses to Germany and Yugoslavia we could stomach. It's going two-and-out after outplaying Iran that requires antacid.

Still, despite U.S. players hitting a crossbar and two posts, experiencing a miracle goalkeeper's save head-on from -- what, four yards? -- and botching several other close-in attempts, American soccer is still kicking.

Next year, the third Women's World Cup will be played here; the United States will be favored. In 2000, it will be the Olympics -- not to mention the start of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. Feel better?

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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