U.S. Soccer Will Target Youth
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 1998; Page C1
PARIS, July 9 Two weeks after the United States lost three consecutive matches on the way to finishing last out of 32 teams in this World Cup, U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said the USSF would focus on youth development to make what remains a quantum leap to the highest levels of international soccer.
But Rothenberg also attributed part of the U.S. team's problems to the relative inexperience of former coach Steve Sampson and said the federation would attempt to hire a highly regarded foreign coach with a strong record to lead the national team and prevent a repeat of these World Cup results.
While Rothenberg said this year's U.S. team exceeded the caliber of play of the 1994 team, which advanced to the second round, he said he was disappointed with the results and cited a lack of experience in Sampson, who at 41 became the first American-born coach to qualify the United States for a World Cup.
Sampson's predecessor in 1994 was Bora Milutinovic, a longtime World Cup coach who is among the candidates to replace Sampson. Sampson resigned after the U.S. team's elimination.
"When you get on this level, the competition is palpable," said Rothenberg, who plans to choose a new coach before he departs as USSF president in August. "It's awfully hard if you haven't been through it as a coach or player. ... I'm sure if I went back, I wouldn't look at any one decision of Steve's. ... It's just more the totality of it. Despite what I said about performance [of the '94 vs. the '98 teams], I think Bora was cagey enough to get results.
"A lot of it was the respect the players had for the coach. A coach at the international level, the players wouldn't second guess and they would probably perform better for him. If not, they wouldn't second guess. The fact that this guy was almost their age; he didn't have professional let alone international experience; it was easy for the situation to go wrong."
Sampson, reached at his home in Agoura Hills, Calif., said tonight that questions about his age and experience came only after the team lost to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia in the World Cup not from the time he came on in the spring of 1995 as interim coach, earning a full-time position in December 1997.
"No one was talking about age and experience after Copa America [in 1995] or after we qualified for the World Cup," he said. "I find it all very interesting. I hold true to the story: had our team been a little more precise in finishing, the whole scenario would be different now. Individuals would have been heroes, systems would have been justified and this coach, obviously, would have been heralded."
Rothenberg, who said Wednesday he hadn't begun interviewing potential replacements for Sampson, doesn't see the United States as merely a scorer or two away from international success.
And, Rothenberg said, the United States could not expect to replicate the success of a soccer-obsessed country such as Brazil through mere development programs.
He said it could use the Netherlands as a model for building a strong soccer nation despite many other athletic and entertainment diversions.
"To get to the top level, you're talking about a quantum leap," Rothenberg said during an interview in the courtyard of his hotel in Paris.
"We've made significant progress in terms of getting among the elite teams. ... Brazil is something that, in some ways, I don't think we can replicate in my lifetime. This is the personality of the nation. Every kid born in Brazil wants to be on the World Cup team.
"It's a cultural battle. We must do something affirmatively. We're not going to do it on one or two days a week of soccer practice and games on weekends."
The USSF's newly unveiled Project 2010 program, whose stated goal is to bring a World Cup triumph to the United States by 2010, will aim to identify the top youth players in the United States and provide opportunities for substantial immersion in the sport.
This weekend, Rothenberg said, about 20 soccer players ranging from 16 to 18 years old will gather in Bradenton, Fla., for the start of a one-year residency program.
Rothenberg and Sunil Gulati, the deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer who also participated in this interview, agreed that U.S. players who played professionally in Europe for a few years could ultimately benefit not just themselves, but also the U.S. national team and even the three-year-old MLS.
D.C. United's Eddie Pope is among a handful of U.S. national team players being pursued by European club teams. Pope has not announced whether he will return to MLS or go overseas to play.
"I doubt any of them would never come back," said Rothenberg, who also is the chairman of MLS. "It might be the best way to accelerate MLS to the level you want it to be. If a player leaves when he is 24, he can come back at age 27 as an international superstar."
Rothenberg and Gulati said the aim of the USSF was to give talented youngsters, many of whom might consider dropping soccer in their late teens, incentive to stay with the sport through soccer-intensive camps and full-time academies.
"But when we really succeed," Rothenberg said, "it's because kids do like they do elsewhere: from the time they're 6 years old, their outside activity is soccer. "Nobody had to train Ronaldo."
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