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Shocker inspires online soccer fever

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

The United States' surprising victory over Portugal in World Cup play Wednesday has helped send unprecedented hordes of soccer fans online this week.

How big is the sport's online following, currently unleashing four years of pent-up anticipation? Enough that the Cup dethroned Star Wars this week as the most-searched topic at search engine Lycos.com -- and those statistics were taken before the United States entered the fray.

Yahoo.com measures hot topics with a "buzz index," based on the number of people searching for something, and the World Cup topped Thursday's buzz leaders. Three times more people searched for the Cup than the next closest topic (resurgent rapper Eminem), and the nearest sports topics, the NBA playoffs and MLB draft, drew one-sixth of the Cup's searches.

If one site can claim it was loyal to American soccer before the bandwagon started taking on new fans, it would be sams-army.com, home to U.S. soccer fans since the Cup gave this country a taste of the sport in 1994.

Thursday's New York Times featured a story about the team's biggest fan club, responsible for a sea of red shirts even at games played in South Korea. The club's official site is as enthusiastic and dedicated as its fans in the stands.

The site's player pages are exhaustive, offering "match ratings" grading each player's performance game by game, then averaged for a collective score. Goalie Kasey Keller leads the way with a 6.75 rating, and former Mutiny defender Frankie Hejduk is among the lowest with a 5.23. It's hard to imagine a fan base -- even impassioned ones with longstanding followings -- assessing grades on a game-by-game basis.

The evaluations aren't reserved solely for players. The Army's links page rates each site from 1 to 10 before sending fans in its direction. Rare 10s include ussoccer.com and Major League Soccer's mlsnet.com, as well asibiblio.org/footy, home to "The Yellow Card Journalism Footy Photo Service."

Fans wanting to dress the part can purchase the official shirt of Sam's Army, red with the club's logo, a soccer ball wearing a red, white and blue top hat. The hat itself is $8, and a World Cup scarf showing the team's opponents and dates is $30.

The Army wants soccer fans to stand throughout the match, and just as important, it wants fans to be singing. One page offers lyrics on everything from the rousing Let's Go U.S. (lyrics: "Let's Go U.S., clap-clap-clapclapclap") to George M. Cohan's patriotic Over There to what was once practically the official song of U.S. soccer, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

And you can't help but love polls that attempt to be unbiased despite having no chance to do so. Much like standing in Yankee Stadium to conduct a scientific survey of who will win the next World Series, the Army site innocently asks which country will win the World Cup. The jingoism nearly triumphs over the long odds facing the Americans, as the U.S. squad ranks second in the voting, garnering 24 percent to Argentina's 27. TID-BYTES: Winston Cup driver Kevin Harvick makes his cartoon debut on NASCAR.com's "The Kellys" today, with appearances in two more episodes of the animated series planned. Harvick recently auctioned the hood from the truck he drove at Martinsville in April at his site, kevinharvick.com, and the used part was good for $4,500 for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. ... A pair of front-row tickets for tonight's Lakers-Nets game sold for $8,350 Wednesday, and another pair on the floor drew $10,500 this week. Both listings boasted proximity to Lakers regular Jack Nicholson. ... Fans not in attendance will have a chance to decide the Finals MVP by logging on o NBA.com and voting during the fourth quarter of the deciding game. The site also offers "The Run," a postgame four-minute video clip of a key stretch of the game, as well as live audio broadcasts of each game in 11 languages, including Mandarin Chinese and the Philippine language Tagalog. Here's hoping Dr. Jack Ramsay sticks to English tonight.

-- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at auman@sptimes.com.

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