In the hallowed halls of European soccer, where crumbling stadiums are treated like ancient cathedrals and the talk in the neighborhood pubs centers around the performance of the local lads, the Americans have arrived.

Seven players who were in Italy last summer for the United States's first World Cup appearance in 40 years have since joined middle-level European clubs, gaining valuable experience unavailable in their own country.

They are in cities like London and Prague; in towns like Landskrona on Sweden's southern coast and Figueras in northeast Spain.

And although most are having the time of their young lives, they still are trying to convince the doubters that, indeed, Americans can play the world's most popular sport.

"No matter what I did or where I did it, I knew I had to do it ten times better because I'm American," said Tony Meola, the 21-year-old former University of Virginia goalkeeper who was with last-place Watford in England's Second Division before getting a release Dec. 4.

"You have to work a little harder and prove yourself more than the English players," he said. "Being American is a stigma."

While most of the Americans are playing significant roles, Meola was frustrated as a backup to David James, a rising English star. He was relegated to the reserve squad and didn't get his first start until Nov. 20, a 2-1 loss to the Bristol Rovers.

"I know I should be playing," he said. "I understand you have to pay your dues. Everyone has to do it, no matter how good you are. I'm willing to do it for a year, but I have to do what's best for me. I need to play every day."

That is why he requested the release and went looking for a club that will offer him a chance to play regularly. France is a likely spot.

But despite Europe's professional and cultural allure, many players say they would prefer to play here and help develop a sport that is played by about 13 million U.S. youths but repeatedly has failed on the professional level.

Meantime Europe has become a haven for promising U.S. players who lack a stable league at home. Restrictions on the number of foreign players and limited skills once made signing an American a gamble. But with the World Cup coming to the United States in 1994, the rest of the world is curious about the players from the country that is considered soccer's final frontier.

None is playing in the first divisions of Europe's premier leagues (England, Italy and Germany's Bundesliga), yet their mere presence is a step forward for American soccer.Defender Steve Trittschuh, 25, was the first foreigner to sign with a Czechoslovakian club (Sparta Prague) and the first American to play in a European Cup match.Former University of Virginia midfielder John Harkes, 23, is turning heads for Sheffield Wednesday, currently third in England's Second Division. After signing a 2 1/2-year, $185,000 contract two weeks ago, he scored on a 30-yard shot that beat legendary goalie Peter Shilton in a 2-1 victory over Derby County.Tab Ramos, 24, in midfield for Figueras, was named one of the five best players in Spain's Second Division by a Spanish magazine.Midfielder Paul Caligiuri, 26, began playing overseas in 1987 and now starts for Hansa Rostock, a former East German team that may qualify for admission to the Bundesliga next year.Chris Sullivan, 25, a midfielder who played in Hungary last year, and defender John Doyle, 24, played this fall for Swedish clubs Landskrona Bois and Orgryte, respectively.

"The Americans did themselves proud in Italy," said Steve Wicks, a former English player and coach. "Except for that first encounter {a 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia}, they proved they can hold their own with anybody. American players have superb natural ability, and there's going to come a time when all these young kids who are playing will come through. They just need heroes to aim for."

And there are others. Former Howard University forward Phillip Gyau, who has played for the national team but didn't go to Italy, joined RC Genk in Belgium's First Division. Another part-time national, Hugo Perez, also played for Orgryte.

John Kerr Jr., 25, a Falls Church High School graduate, signed with Boulogne in the French Third Division after playing for Portsmouth in England's Second Division two years ago.

Steve Snow, a former under-20 national player who attended Indiana University for one year, is with Tilleur St. Nicolas in Belgium's Third Division. Former national Frank Klopas is playing in Greece.

"If it was a perfect world, we would have a top-notch pro league in this country today," U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said. "Unfortunately, we do not . . . and Europe is the best possible option. We'd like our best players to play against good, tough competition abroad. They're only going to improve if they play something other than a Harlem Globetrotters-type schedule."

That may change in 1992 when the USSF is expected to inaugurate a national outdoor league. The top division probably will consist of teams from the financially shaky American Professional Soccer League and the Major Soccer League, which competes indoors.

Said Kerr's father, John Sr., director of the MSL Players' Association and former professional player in Europe and North America: "In Europe, you either go all out or you don't go at all. You can't go over halfheartedly. It's such a tough environment, not just the soccer side, but living and adjusting to the culture. One of the problems we will face as a soccer nation is we don't have the players who have suffered in that environment and been toughened by it all. Perhaps this is a start."

Europe, however, is not the answer for everyone. Two members of the national team from the Washington area, Bruce Murray and Desmond Armstrong, turned down offers from European clubs this fall.

Murray, 24, a Churchill High School graduate, holds the U.S. record with 11 international goals. The former Clemson all-American played for FC Luzern in Switzerland last year and was one of two U.S. goal scorers in the World Cup.

"I'm not convinced Europe is the answer," Murray said. "I think the answer is right here in America. If the {USSF} can offer the same competitive environment, whether it's with an outdoor league or a better situation for the national team, then what reason is there to go to Europe?"

Murray rejected an offer from Sparta Prague and is uncertain about his future with the national team, with which contract negotiations began this month. He also had a tryout with Ipswich in England, and his only play since the World Cup has been in U.S. exhibitions.

SV Meppen of West Germany's Second Division and Luton of England's First Division expressed interest in Armstrong, 26, a Washington native, but nothing materialized. He also had offers from Hansa Rostock and Hajduk Split in Yugoslavia's First Division.

Instead, Armstrong expects to renew his contract with the national team and become a coaching coordinator for the Soccer Association of Columbia, a popular youth program in Howard County. He also is pursuing a promising art career and taking classes at the University of Maryland, where he's a few credits short of an English degree.

"Coming over here has given us experience that we'll take back to the United States," Trittschuh said from Prague. "It gives us something to bring to the national team and to the country. Hopefully, we can teach the younger players and give them something to work for."