Soccer: U.S. has made big strides since '94

Global spectacle 15 years ago changed sport in United States.
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Most of the players on the U.S. men's national soccer team were mere toddlers when the United States landed the 1994 World Cup.

But their arrival in Utah this week for a World Cup qualifying game against El Salvador nevertheless represents a meaningful connection to the seminal event that made everything about their sport in this country possible -- from Real Salt Lake to Rio Tinto Stadium to the very existence of Major League Soccer itself.

"Absolutely," said Robin Fraser, an assistant coach for RSL who earned 27 appearances with for the national team between 1988 and 2001.

While the Americans are widely expected to defeat El Salvador at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday and continue their march to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they were not always so well respected. For years, in fact, nobody in the soccer world had thought much about them at all.

By the time FIFA, the world's governing body for soccer, awarded the 1994 World Cup in 1989, the Americans had gone nearly four decades without actually reaching the event, and seen death of their only outdoor professional league -- the NASL -- just a few years earlier.

"The landscape," longtime soccer writer Michael Lewis of the New York Daily News wrote recently, "well, there was no or little landscape, it was so barren."

So it was not without furor that FIFA allowed the Americans to host the world's biggest sporting event, choosing their bid over rivals from Morocco and Brazil. But international soccer officials saw an opportunity to ignite interest in their sport in one of the world's largest consumer markets (as well as severe logistical concerns in the rival bids), and made their move.

Boy, did that pay off.

Not only was the 1994 World Cup a massive commercial success -- it still holds the record for total attendance of nearly 3.6 million fans, even though the tournament field has grown by eight teams and a dozen games since then -- but it was the seed that sprouted into a whole new era of soccer success in the United States.

"Without a doubt, because it was the first time that world soccer was brought to the U.S. stage," Fraser said. "A lot of Americans couldn't figure out how soccer was selling out 100,000-seat stadiums. 'How was that possible?' It just brought into America's forefront the fact that soccer is big everywhere else. ... It was eye-opening."

Perhaps most importantly, it led directly to the creation of Major League Soccer, because U.S. Soccer officials had to promise FIFA they would form a new professional league if they were awarded the World Cup. So MLS was born officially in the months before the 1994 World Cup, and began play in 1996 with 10 teams. The league was hardly an immediate success, but it hung in there, gradually improving the training ground for many of the country's top players while slowly gaining legitimacy within the sports landscape. It also finally allowed players to make a full-time living playing professional soccer, around the time that many more children were taking up the game around the country.

"That was a real seismic change in the sport," said Bill Manning, the RSL president who played a role in the birth of the league as general manager of the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Now, the league has 15 teams -- many of them, like RSL, with their own stadiums -- and plans to add three more in the next two years. Ten of the players named to the 24-man roster for the El Salvador game earn their living in MLS, and seven others started there before attracting enough interest to jump to more prestigious leagues around the world.

"We have legitimate professional players on our national team," Manning said, "who arguably could play on most clubs in the world."

The national team has seen its fortunes change dramatically, too, since the 1994 World Cup.

The Americans had snapped a 40-year drought by surprisingly qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, yet did not have much success -- they lost all three of their group games -- until hosting the '94 event. Playing on home soil, they advanced to the knockout stage for the first time since 1930, and laid the foundation for greater success to come.

"That was a big part of it," RSL's Kyle Beckerman said. "It showed so much interest" in the game.

Though the U.S. bombed out and finished last at the 1998 World Cup in France, it rebounded to reach the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, and soon watched its FIFA ranking soar into the top 10.

By then, interest was at an all-time high, and the team has since grown into a regional power that is widely expected to be competitive on the global stage. If they qualify for South Africa, the Americans will be playing in an unprecedented sixth straight World Cup -- a far different environment from what Fraser remembers, playing his first game for the national team against a Mexican club team on a craggy little field in Dallas.

"Just think about where we've gone from there," he said.

All because of 1994, and the forebears to the men who will play in Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.

World Cup qualifier

El Salvador vs. USA

Sept. 5, 6 p.m.

TV » ESPN Classic, TeleFutura