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U.S. team sets framework for success

By Kelly Whiteside

Apparently, Landon Donovan has no time for pondering the legacy his U.S. team will leave after its remarkable run to the World Cup quarterfinals. Apparently, Donovan has no time for jet lag either. Thirty-eight hours after leaving the field in South Korea following the USA's 1-0 loss to Germany, including 12 hours spent in the air, Donovan played for his team, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. When Donovan came on in the 85th minute of the 4-0 win Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids, he received a standing ovation. Then he contributed to the final goal of the game.

Though Donovan got on to life after the World Cup sooner than anyone else, it's not too early to wonder if the imprint Donovan and his teammates left in South Korea will be a lasting one.

"The legacy of this team, without sounding too corny about it, is the legacy of anything's possible," U.S. Soccer Federation executive vice president Sunil Gulati said. "Americans believe in that."

Project 2010 payoff

No one much believed the U.S. Soccer Federation in 1998 when it released a detailed blueprint for the future called Project 2010. The goal for 2002: Reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Check. Did that.

"People back then said, 'You Americans are crazy,'" says Gulati, one of Project 2010's architects. When the USA finished last in the 1998 World Cup, it was easy to deride such seemingly unreachable goals, especially the goal for 2010, which was to reach the World Cup final.

After this remarkable World Cup run, 2010 no longer seems like some pie in the sky dream. When Clint Mathis was asked if he thought the USA would reach a World Cup championship game sometime during his playing career, Mathis didn't hesitate: "I thought we would do it this tournament."

Consider that in 2010, Donovan, along with DaMarcus Beasley, will be only 28 years old, the average age for a World Cup player.

First the U.S. men must qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Expect the roster for qualifying to be at least 50% different because 10 of the 23 players on the current team are 30 or older. That would mean the U.S. national team probably has seen the last of Earnie Stewart, Jeff Agoos, Joe-Max Moore, Cobi Jones, Carlos Llamosa, David Regis, Brian McBride, Tony Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, though goalkeepers have a much longer soccer life.

After Friday's loss, none of the players announced his retirement, though Reyna, the team's captain, has said this tournament may be his last. "This is a young man's tournament," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "This isn't for wise old veterans."

Growing up fast

Of the 11 World Cup rookies on the team, nine were starters. Donovan and Beasley, along with John O'Brien, who is just 24, emerged as the three stars.

  • Donovan, who plays for the Earthquakes and is on loan from German power Bayer Leverkusen, probably will return to Leverkusen next season or be traded to another European club.

  • Beasley, who plays for the Chicago Fire, has attracted interest from Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga and the English Premier League.

  • O'Brien plays for Dutch League power, Ajax. "All three of them had good World Cups," Arena said.

  • Though the 25-year-old Mathis didn't have the breakout tournament he was expected to he only started two games because Arena didn't feel he was fit enough to go the duration he is considered the USA's most exciting goal scorer. Before Mathis left for the World Cup, he received offers from Germany's Bayern Munich and Italy's Perugia. Because he only arrived home Sunday, it's too early to say what his future holds beyond this MLS season.

  • Pablo Mastroeni, 25, who plays for the Colorado Rapids, also distinguished himself. He entered the World Cup as the only player on the final roster who did not make an appearance during qualifying and exited as one of the team's top performers.

    "We have a fair number of Pablo Mastroenis with the right experience who can become good players at this level," Arena said. "We have some DaMarcus Beasleys and Bobby Conveys that can be good players at this level if they get the right game experience, so that will be the challenge." Convey, 19, who plays for D.C. United, is a strong candidate for the 2006 World Cup if the U.S. team qualifies.

    Developing next generation

    In 1997, the USSF, with money from Nike, established Project 40, a joint venture between the federation and MLS to develop young professional players during the ages of 17 to 22. Project 40 players earn the minimum MLS salary during their initial season and receive a five-year academic package covering tuition. Most MLS teams have one to three Project 40 players on their rosters. Two graduates are Beasley and Josh Wolff, who also was a starter in this World Cup.

    The lineup for the 2006 World Cup qualifying probably will be sprinkled with other Project 40 players such as D.C. United's Santino Quaranta, who last year became the youngest player to sign with the MLS at age 16 and became a starter in the MLS All-Star game.

    Like the rest of America's soccer fans, Quaranta got up early and cheered for the U.S. team. He watched the Germany game on the JumboTron at RFK Stadium in Washington along with 5,000 fans. For the Mexico game, his father, Thomas, came over to his apartment near Baltimore at 2:30 a.m. to share the fun.

    "The success of the younger guys like Landon and DaMarcus may prove that it's good to go with the younger guys in the next World Cup," Quaranta said. "Hopefully, I'll have a chance to go to the next one."

    Another Project 40 alumnus, goalkeeper Tim Howard, 23, of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars narrowly missed making this World Cup squad. He is expected to be the goalkeeper of the future.

    "Who knows who will come out of the woodwork to be the next star, the next Beasley," Donovan said.

    Organize and capitalize

    To improve on this year's performance, MLS must continue to develop America's young talent and the USSF must continue to focus on its under-16 and under-17 teams. The USSF also must re-sign Arena, whose contract expires this year, for another four years.

    "That possibility exists," Arena said of returning for another four-year stint. "That's a decision more than one party needs to make. I'll only do it if we think we can continue to move forward."

    It will help that Arena was pleased with the USSF's handling of the tournament. "As an organization, it got it right this time. Part of the battle is getting things outside the field right, and we did that," Arena said. "The whole concept is to give our players the best opportunity to win. As an organization, they did that and it impacted our performance to win."

    Certainly the USSF has come a long way as an organization since the national team qualified for 1990 World Cup.

    "Back then, we're talking about a situation where the same person would be booking the flights, making all the arrangements, doing the laundry, checking the passports to a situation this time where when we went to Jeonju (for the Mexico second-round game), where the facilities were not perfect for us, we took a refrigeration truck and eight employees from the J.W. Marriott with a chef, waiters and all of our own food. Everything is so dramatically different from 15 years ago and a big part of it is resources."

    When the Americans flew home Saturday, MLS players returned to their teams. The season runs through September. European players will take a few weeks off before reporting to their clubs. The national team will play again this fall, though its exhibition schedule has not yet been determined. The Confederations Cup awaits next year, then qualifying for 2006 begins in 2004. The Olympic team also will compete in 2004.

    Will the U.S. team be able to capitalize on all the interest the team generated even with such a gap? "Well, hopefully, that interest goes into MLS," Arena said. "We need to get better at supporting our professional league and, hopefully, that helps that. That's the future of our national team program, our professional league. It's not putting another 30 kids in Bradenton and think that's going to do it."

    (The USA's under-17 team has a full-time residency program in which 20 players live, attend classes and train at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.)

    The imprint of the Americans' remarkable World Cup run will be lasting if players such as Donovan, Beasley and Quaranta continue to surface. It will be lasting if MLS survives and thrives. It will be lasting if U.S. fans turn on their TV sets more than once every four years to watch soccer. And it will be lasting if sponsors pour in more money and TV executives show more interest. In other words, wait and see.

    "The legacy is down the road," Arena said. "That's when you'll see if this World Cup has done anything for soccer in the United States."

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