At the World Cup, soccer's most prestigious event, some of the best-known American names have helped alter the future of the sport. They are Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Gillette and Camel -- among 11 official sponsors of the tournament.

But, except for the media and some die-hard fans, they were about the only U.S. representatives here. The national soccer team, most obviously, sat this one out. The Americans have not qualified for the Cup finals since 1950.

For the United States, what U.S. team Coach Alkis Panagoulias calls "the No. 1 human event in the world every four years" has become the No. 1 athletic embarrassment.

"The U.S.A. is large and filled with superb athletes," said Scottish fullback Richard Gough. "But when it comes to soccer, it has nothing."

"When you think of American soccer, nothing comes to mind, really," said Erik Hyldstrup, general secretary of Denmark's soccer federation. "I cannot think of outstanding individuals or good teams or even a defined style of play.

"It must be a source of irritation for the United States. They dominate the Olympics, but in soccer, well, perhaps it is not a country that likes to play soccer. But the Soviet Union is here. Even the small nations from South America do better -- Uruguay, Paraguay."

It was a very small Latin nation, Costa Rica, that eliminated the United States last summer, 1-0, in World Cup qualifying. That match was played in Torrance, Calif., before fewer than 10,000 spectators, many of whom were rooting for Costa Rica.

Rick Davis is one U.S. soccer player who is here. And he remembers the Costa Rica loss as the low point of his athletic career.

In 1982, Davis was a member of the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the World Cup. But his disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that the team was not yet good enough and that he would get another chance.

This time around, Davis, 27, knew the Americans had the ability to qualify from their region, which includes 23 nations in North America and the Caribbean.

To qualify for the 1986 Cup, the team needed at least a draw against Costa Rica. For starters, Davis and Panagoulias were critical of the site the U.S. Soccer Federation chose for the match -- Southern California, which has a high concentration of Mexican nationals and Latin Americans.

"Why would you play a Latin American team in that area?" said Davis, who is working as an NBC analyst on Cup telecasts. "Play it in St. Louis, where you have the die-hard American fan."

"Why not play it in Maine or Minnesota?" Panagoulias said.

Still, the United States was on home turf, and the United States lost. "Very simply, the players did not perform," Davis said, "and Rick Davis is at the head of that list. We had much more ability than Costa Rica."

"The loss devastated me. I became a recluse for the next three weeks. That had always been my dream, to represent this country in the Cup. There's no greater honor. It seemed like my world had caved in. I didn't return phone calls. I secluded myself."

For Davis, it might have been his last Cup hurrah. He played with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1978-83. He was NASL player of the year in 1979, captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and selected as the best player on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984.

But with the NASL's demise two years ago, his only professional option in this country is indoor soccer, which little resembles world-class outdoor soccer.

There is no shortage of theories as to why the United States cannot consistently compete at the top levels of international soccer -- some blame the U.S. Soccer Federation, some blame the quality of American coaches at all levels, some blame the fact that other sports take precedence in the national consciousness.

But virtually everyone agrees that the Americans cannot seriously compete with nations such as Brazil and Italy until a professional soccer league returns. The country's top players badly need a competitive outlet.

Panagoulias: "The No. 1 problem is a lack of an outdoor league. We can't do anything internationally without an outdoor league. We are the strongest, richest country on earth and it is unthinkable to me that there is no sponsorship for a league."

Davis: "Without professional outdoor soccer, we are all living in a dream world if we think we can compete internationally . Our players certainly were not prepared. The bottom line is players need a lot of games in a competitive environment."

Former French national coach Michel Hidalgo: "The United States cannot think of making up ground internationally until it gets a professional league. And the Americans, for all your size and wealth, are falling further behind the last few years."

The NASL, which began play in 1968, struggled for years before folding in 1984. The league suffered from financial mismanagement, and Davis complains the approach taken by most clubs also hampered the development of U.S. soccer.

"Almost every American player who made it in the NASL was moved to fullback," Davis said. "Goal-scoring roles were left to foreign players."

Many NASL teams felt they needed to bring in foreign talent. But aside from a couple of big names such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, most players were unknown to Americans.

Veteran U.S. professional Shep Messing once was quoted as saying, "I was a player and I never heard of half of them."

There is a feeling in some quarters that soccer never will penetrate the American sports psyche. A recent Wall Street Journal survey on consumers' leisure tastes listed the top 25 participation sports in America; soccer was not among them. The United States always has loved baseball, football and basketball, and despite the huge numbers of children playing soccer, the sport loses something when those youngsters become adults.

Gardner and Davis cited another major problem.

"Coaches in the U.S. are even further behind in development than the players," Davis said. "You have players with tremendous ability and coaches are not capable of training them properly. Coaches end up retarding the growth of a player."

As a possible solution, Davis suggested a multi-tiered system -- an advertising campaign to educate the public on international soccer, establishment of a stronger national soccer federation and creation of competitive leagues at every level that run up to nine months a year. Panagoulias suggested a sort of national tournament, in which local teams compete in state tournaments, state champions go to regional play and so on until you get a national champion that can form the core of a national team.

Even so, there are formidable obstacles.

"First of all, we're not a traditional soccer country," said Paul Gardner, a highly regarded international soccer journalist who immigrated to the United States from England in 1959. "We don't have a built-in framework of kids growing up seeing the game. Instead, what we do here is overorganized, overcoached soccer. We are not allowing players to develop."

"It's like the East Germans. In terms of athletics, the East Germans are way ahead. They have it down to a science, and they win more Olympic gold medals per capita than anybody. But they never win a thing in soccer and, in my opinion, they never will."

Staff writer Greg Dowling contributed to this report.