SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2001/Opinion

Uncle Sam’s soccer team needs you, too

Recent events have returned the slogan "Uncle Sam Needs You" to its original, bellicose meaning, but I think it's still possible to employ it in a lighter context. The one I have in mind has to do with soccer, and the fortunes therein of the U.S. national men's team.

Just last June, that unit was gliding along splendidly in its six-nation World Cup qualifying group, boasting a 4-0-1 record that included a decisive victory over Mexico, long this hemisphere's soccer power. A U.S. berth in the quadrennial fest scheduled for next June in Japan and Korea seemed certain, followed, perhaps, by a run up the world ladder in the sport.

The Yanks might not have looked quite ready to win the thing, but many hoped that, at last, respectability was in sight.

But then came injuries to key players, and three straight losses that brought back memories of the team's former doormat status. Now, to claim one of its group's three spots in the finals, the fourth-place United States probably will have to beat Jamaica in Sunday's match in Foxboro Stadium near Boston and Trinidad-Tobago in a Nov. 1 road go. The possibility looms that, for the first time since 1986, the Cup might be contested without us.

That would be a revolting development to some on these shores, but to many it couldn't matter less. Indeed, Americans' indifference toward their male soccer reps may have contributed to their plight. The most galling loss in the team's current streak came in a Sept. 1 meeting with Honduras at RFK Stadium in Washington, where at least half the crowd of about 54,000 rooted lustily for the visitors. A lot of people didn't know there were that many Hondurans in the United States. Some didn't know there were that many in Honduras.

The U.S.'s soccer blahs are nothing new, of course, but they were supposed to have disappeared by now. The 1994 World Cup was staged in this land partly to change American hearts and minds about the sport that captivates much of the rest of the globe. It succeeded beyond its promoters' expectations, producing record crowds, excellent contests and a celebratory atmosphere that the self-proclaimed "world's championships" of our homegrown games rarely achieves.

A big-time U.S. men's professional soccer league formed after the World Cup survives if not thrives, as does a season-old women's pro circuit. The U.S. Soccer Federation's A-list sponsor roster (Allstate, Budweiser, Chevrolet, Gatorade, Havoline, Hershey's Syrup, Nike and Philips) attests to corporate hopes for a marketplace dividend.

Most heartening to soccer devotees has been the sport's two-decades-long boom in youth participation, but a lack of carryover from there to the top level has led to the suspicion that American boys carry a gene that turns off their desire to play the game after the age of 12.

The notion that a few lads had escaped that fate surfaced with the dashing contributions of a couple of Georgia-raised 24-year-olds, Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis, to the national team's early success, but injuries kept both out during the losing streak, and they're not expected to return for the final two qualifying games. An injury also has made Claudio Reyna, the veteran midfielder who's the team's most accomplished player, iffy the rest of the way.

As of last week, more than 20,000 tickets remained unsold for U.S.-Jamaica. Jamaica's no pushover (it tied the U.S., 0-0, in a previous qualifying match in Kingston) and a large pro-U.S. turnout could make a difference. People who normally don't follow soccer might consider going, because the World Cup always is a great television show and a U.S. presence, even in a minor role, would make it more fun hereabouts.

Yes, Uncle Sam has other things on his mind these days, but I'm sure he'd appreciate the effort.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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