Before he became the guitar-playing, ginger-bearded face of American soccer, Alexi Lalas was just another guy on an airplane, making small talk with a fellow passenger.
“I remember I was on my way to the 1994 World Cup opener and this older lady asked me what I did for a living, and I said, ‘I play soccer,’ ” Lalas said. “And she replied, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but don’t you have a real job?’ ”
A week later, Lalas and his teammates were playing in the planet’s biggest sporting event, followed by a billion passionate fans. He still wonders if that lady ever became aware of the tournament being played across the United States.
Twenty years later, as the 2014 World Cup approaches, Lalas is confident that the layer of obliviousness to the world’s most popular sport has been erased in the country that came so late to the party.
The beautiful game will be on display from June 12 to July 13 in Brazil, and, other than Brazilians, Americans have bought the most tickets. All 61 games will be shown on TV and accessible on numerous multimedia platforms.
And the U.S. team, once considered an interloping curiosity, will be sorely disappointed if it does not advance beyond the first round, even though it is burdened by its draw in the Group of Death with Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“You are judged by how you do in the World Cup,” Lalas said. “We don’t settle for moral victories anymore. Truly good teams find a way to win.”
High expectations are a measure of the evolution of soccer in the United States since 1990, when the team returned to the Cup after a 40-year absence. The roster, announced by coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Thursday, also reflects a progression in quality, as all 23 men have professional experience compared with the team of a quarter century ago, which was largely made up of college players. Klinsmann showed his disregard for sentimentality and his uberpremium on competitiveness when he cut Landon Donovan, the most well-known and accomplished player on the national team.
The U.S. pro league, Major League Soccer, didn’t exist until 1996 and today it has 19 teams and plans to expand to Miami if David Beckham can plant a franchise. Ten MLS players made the World Cup roster compared with four in 2010.
U.S. Soccer has deepened its talent pool with a systematic approach to identifying and grooming young players through 80 academies sprinkled across the country, including three in South Florida. Each MLS team has its own academy, mimicking the European way of developing potential pros. Perhaps a future Lionel Messi, who was nurtured from adolescence by Barcelona, will bloom on U.S. soil.
Success at the World Cup would act as a catapult for soccer if it hopes to expand the Big Four hegemony of football, basketball, baseball and hockey which is unique to the United States into the Big Five, said Andrei Markovits, professor at the University of Michigan and author of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism.
“If the U.S. advances and loses gloriously 4-3 to, say, Argentina, or Tim Howard becomes a crossover athlete and goes on Dancing With the Stars, then the sport catches that semi-periphery of fans and gives MLS a kick in the pants,” Markovits said. “In 1994, FIFA rented out the U.S. and soccer here was forgotten two days after the Cup ended. If the U.S. does well in 2014, there’s a huge carryover effect.”
In the past six World Cups, the United States has advanced out of group play three times, with the 2002 team making it to the quarterfinals, where it lost to Germany 1-0. In 2010, the United States tied England, tied Slovenia, beat Algeria on Donovan’s late game-saving goal, then was eliminated by Ghana, 2-1.
Compare the 1990 team — anchored by Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Paul Caligiuri and Tony Meola at a World Cup in which the United States lost all three group games and scored a total of two goals in Italy — with the 2014 team, and the difference in skill is “light years better,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said.
“Skill equals comfort with the ball,” Gulati said. “Are we as comfortable as the Brazilians and Argentinians? No.
“But this isn’t a time trial where we’re trying to hit a four-minute mile and everyone else is standing still. They’re also improving. One of our advantages used to be the physical part of the game. Now everyone is fast and strong.”
Since 1990, a growing corps of American players have built their careers and honed their technique in European leagues, with Michael Bradley (now playing for Toronto FC) frequently cited as the most advanced. The United States today is less brute force, more finesse. There is hope that a U.S. forward might score a World Cup goal for the first time since 2002.
“The U.S. has better soccer players than my generation in terms of touch, receiving the ball, understanding of the movements needed at each position, tactics, decision-making,” Lalas said. “Plus, Jurgen has promised a different style, and he will be judged not only on whether they win but how they play. We’re good underdogs who have made our living at counterattacking, but now the U.S. is supposed to be more of an attacking team.”
Roster reflects U.S.
The composition of the U.S. team has progressed, as well, to be more reflective of the U.S. population, although it is not as diverse as Gulati would like.
Whereas the 1990 squad had two black players (Desmond Armstrong and Jimmy Banks), the 2014 edition has nine black or mixed race players, with the exception that five are German-Americans who are the sons of American servicemen from Germany, recruited by Klinsmann. Two are Hispanic, which is no change from from 1990 (Ramos, Marcelo Balboa).
“Our youth teams have more Hispanics by a wide margin,” Gulati said. “Twenty-five years ago we had no Hispanics coaching or on our board. Now we have Tab coaching our under-20 team, which is half Hispanic, and Hugo Perez coaching our U15s, Javier Perez coaching our U18s and two Hispanics on our board of 15.”
U.S. Soccer’s academy system is designed to extend the sport’s reach into all communities. In Miami, Kendall F.C. fields U18, U16 and U14 teams. In four years, it has sent 15 players on to various youth national teams, one to a pro contract in Peru, then Italy and almost all others to college scholarships.
“The idea is to stop the trophy-chasing of your typical club and I think the high-caliber training and competition is producing a higher level of ability,” said Matias Asorey, 33, technical director of Kendall F.C. and coach and dean of students at Gulliver Academy. He played on Miami Strikeforce when it won six state titles. “They want us to coach an offensive, technical style and they’re very critical in their evaluations if you do not. They’re strict in requiring coaches to train players more like Europeans and South Americans.”
Asorey won coach of the year honors and was taken on a tour of England’s Premier League academies.
“Imagine NFL money behind these programs and that’s what you have overseas,” he said. “Nine-year-old kids are already in a Manchester United program that is free to them, with incredible facilities. They have scouts looking at 6-year-olds.”
Jay Flipse, coach of the Miami Toros club and coach at Sunset High, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2004-05, said the academies are still missing out on kids such as Marckson Prudhomme, 17, of Edison High, whom he considers the best high school player in Florida. Prudhomme, who moved to Miami from Haiti, works part-time at a gas station and needs transportation to Toros practices and games. Eddy Pineiro wanted to play for his Sunset High team, and the academies don’t allow recruits to play for public high school teams.
“We’ve got to get the best athletes involved at age 8, 9, 10,” Flipse said. “If you want to attract the best athletes, soccer has to be a viable, lucrative professional option.”
Kids are developing into more sophisticated players because soccer’s globalized exposure has boomed. Lalas recalled how he had posters of rock stars and hockey players on his bedroom walls. Asorey recalled how difficult it was to find a soccer game on TV in his youth.
“Now my guys are watching Real Madrid and the Premier League and trying those moves at practice,” he said.
Markovits said creativity — long lacking in American play — has to be developed in the backyard and on the street. He believes it will take another 25-30 years for soccer to be fully ingrained in the U.S. sports landscape.
“If our top soccer players are going to be Derek Jeter and Chris Paul we have to make the linkage between desire and action,” Markovits said. “The question is, for a 12-year-old in Miami or Southern California or Texas, who is his hero and who does he emulate? Is it LeBron James or Clint Dempsey?”
Gulati, an economics professor at Columbia, argues that “it’s a big country so we don’t need all the good athletes, and the same goes for fans — we don’t need to displace all the football, basketball and baseball fans.
“We’re on an upward trend. Success at the World Cup leads to more people watching. If we don’t advance in Brazil, we’re still on an upward trend — we’ve just missed an opportunity to move to a higher line.”
Given the evolution he has observed over 25 years, Lalas is confident soccer will move from the American fringe to its main sports culture.
“It’s hip, it’s cool, it’s unapologetic but not as counterculture as people label it,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for the future of soccer in this country. It’s now- er than it’s ever been.”