In Soccer, an American Evolution

U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller makes a save during practice for the World Cup.
U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller makes a save during practice for the World Cup. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)

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By Steven Goff and Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 8, 2006

HAMBURG -- The silence in the sleepy Hamburg suburb of Norderstedt was shattered by a wailing convoy of police cars and motorcycles escorting a bus full of soccer players to their practice session. Residents waved flags and honked their horns as the bus drove past, and hundreds of fans gathered at an athletic complex for the team's only public workout before the World Cup, soccer's grandest event, opens on Friday in Germany.

But it was not the beloved German national squad, the spectacular Brazilians or the glamorous English causing the commotion. It was the Americans.

For the first time in its mostly subdued soccer history, the U.S. national team has arrived at the World Cup with high expectations and a popularity usually reserved for the sport's traditional powers.

Four years after their stirring run to the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea, the Americans see this summer's tournament as another opportunity to continue their soccer evolution, capture more fans worldwide and elevate the game back home, where it sits well behind football, basketball and baseball in popularity.

"We're not just playing for ourselves and our team, but for soccer in the U.S.," Landon Donovan, the team's star attacking player, said this week. "We want the game to grow and we can do that by doing well at the highest level of our sport."

While U.S. soccer players and officials see the 32-nation tournament as a grand opportunity, they also acknowledge that, thanks to a brutal first-round schedule, the United States might not be able to produce another success story. Unlike past World Cups, however, there is no longer the fear that a poor performance by the team will severely damage the sport's future in the United States. Some take that as a sign of the game's maturation back home.

"When Argentina or France has a bad World Cup, people are very concerned and there's a national cathartic moment," said Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation. "But no one is questioning the intrinsic importance of the sport in the country. We have to go through that soul-searching basically year-round. So when you get opportunities on the world stage, it's a chance to really skip a rung or two on the ladder. Not to get to the top, but to jump a couple of rungs. . . . It's no longer the case where people ask, 'Will professional soccer be around?' [It] is here to stay. But it could get a big boost."

The World Cup already is seeing an increase in interest. More than 50 U.S. media outlets sent correspondents to the national team's training camp in Cary, N.C., last month, double the number that attended in 2002. The number of U.S. media requests for credentials to cover the tournament has reached an all-time high, according to Jim Moorhouse, the soccer federation's director of communications. At least 32 daily newspapers will send reporters to Germany.

The U.S. Soccer Federation received more than 40,000 applications for tickets, and sold out its initial allotment of 10,000 in a day. Another 5,000 tickets were bought by American fans through FIFA, the international soccer federation.

The growth in fan interest was apparent even in Norderstedt, the site of the U.S. practice on Tuesday. There were about 1,000 spectators, most of them Germans, including dozens of schoolchildren wearing USA T-shirts. The Germans even knew most of the U.S. players' names; Germany knocked the United States out of the 2002 World Cup, and more than half the U.S. team plays professionally in Europe.

A team of 16-year-olds from Illinois also attended. The team is affiliated with a youth program run by Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, and was in Hamburg for a tournament.

"It's a great experience, especially to see them in another country," said Blake Bochnak, the youth team's goalkeeper. "What they did in 2002 has been a great pickup for soccer in the United States. It gave everyone hope that we can play against the rest of the world and, for younger players like us, it makes us believe that we can accomplish the same things and play in the World Cup and play professionally someday."

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