MLS has helped, but it will take longer than 12 years to win a title.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2002
This being America, there is only one surefire way to capture the respect and attention of the sporting public.
On the biggest stage.
Perhaps this explains, as much as anything, soccer's mid-tier placement in the American sports hierarchy. The U.S. men's national team has not won in elite international competition and is not established among the world's best.
The Rothenberg Initiative sought to change that. Before the World Cup in 1998, U.S. soccer federation president Alan Rothenberg declared the United States, which in 1990 emerged from a 40-year drought of not qualifying for the World Cup, would be poised to win the World Cup by 2010.
Rothenberg based his projection on skyrocketing youth participation figures, significant resources funneled toward the national team program and the establishment of a competitive, American-dominated professional league in the United States.
Rothenberg hasn't been off target. Youth involvement continues to swell. The national team's support and structure has strengthened, and Major League Soccer, then a fledgling league, is better established.
Yet the United States still is not expected to be among the World Cup favorites by 2010.
After just four years, the 12-year Rothenberg Initiative has been deferred.
"I think the 2010 is a goal that will be very, very difficult to achieve," said Robert Contiguglia, Rothenberg's successor. "I don't believe Alan really had that expectation. It's a great symbol to help us build our program and a goal to aim for, but realistically, we have a ways to go.
"MLS has to mature. We need to turn out more players."
Across the board, U.S. national team players believe MLS is churning out international-caliber players with increasing frequency. In their view, the 2010 goal is not so quixotic thanks to MLS.
"MLS has been really, really important for the growth of American soccer," said U.S. defender Eddie Pope, who has helped D.C. United win three MLS titles.
"In order for our national team to be successful, we needed that league. I've certainly grown because of MLS and hope to continue to grow. It's so important for the young guys to have a league to play in."
Incrementally and indisputably, the United States is improving despite the hiccup in the 1998 World Cup in France, where it went 0-3. Qualifying for a fourth consecutive World Cup is proof of the national team's steady progress. (Just 32 of 203 nations qualify.) But crashing the iron-clad circle of dominant teams is a daunting, long-term undertaking.
Italy, Brazil, Germany and Argentina have occupied the elite rung for decades, and others such as England, Holland, defending champion France and Spain also are consistent threats.
In these countries, the success of the national team is as important as anything in sports. It is deified.
Here, it's only during the World Cup that the national team is noticed, if at all.
But due in large part to the development of MLS, the quality and quantity of American talent is considered the best ever.
The quartet of Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Josh Wolff (blossoming world-class strikers 25 or younger) has cut its teeth in MLS.
"Without MLS, you don't have Landon Donovan. You don't have Clint Mathis. You don't have a whole bunch of us, quite honestly," veteran U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola said. "Landon, if it weren't for MLS, could have been buried in Leverkusen (Donovan's former German team) right now as the 30th guy on the roster because he's the young guy (age 20).
"It's always better to play than be sitting on the bench. For a guy like him, MLS (which Donovan joined last season) was a godsend. It probably changed his career."
Meola has a unique perspective on the evolution of U.S. soccer. His first international appearance came in the 1980s, and he was the starting goalkeeper for the 1990 and '94 U.S. World Cup teams.
"The jersey says USA, but not much else is the same," Meola said. "In 1990, we were trying to fill the last two or three spots with anybody. Now (national team coach) Bruce (Arena) has to cut 20 or 23 guys from the team, and it's going to continue to grow."
In the early '90s, John Harkes (in the English Premier League) and Eric Wynalda (German Bundesliga) were considered American trailblazers when they joined (and thrived in) professional clubs in the top European leagues.
Now elite European teams commonly pluck top American players from lower-paying MLS for hefty transfer fees.
MLS also has been a boon to late-developing U.S. players who otherwise might be carpenters or accountants.
"I don't know where a lot of these guys would be," Arena said. "We always use the (national team midfielder) Chris Armas example. I don't think Chris Armas would be a professional soccer player. He'd be working and maybe playing part time with the (semi-pro) Long Island Roughriders."
Mathis, a gifted scorer, has cultivated his game in MLS since 1998 and reportedly is being courted by Bundesliga teams.
"(MLS) has changed my life," Mathis said. "I'd have had to take my chances overseas somewhere. It's helped my game a lot to still be at home and not worry about the pressure of being overseas and being in a foreign country. "Things like that make a big difference, especially when you're 20, 21 years old coming out of college. It was important to have this league for me to develop in."
The next step, of course, is parlaying that development into international success. The next few weeks will be a significant gauge.
Is the United States an impending threat to pierce the upper echelon? Or will U.S. soccer federation presidents be tossing vain projections of distant success -- "initiatives" -- for decades to come?
-- Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report, which used information from other news organizations.