Eddie Lewis, a midfielder for the U.S. men's national soccer team, probably would be in retailing today if American professional soccer had not resumed in 1996.

Early in his high school years in Cerritos, Calif., he liked playing football or tennis, racing cars, getting his nose pierced, surfing -- anything other than soccer. After deciding to get serious about soccer after his sophomore year, he went on to have a fine, but not extraordinary, college career at UCLA. And after his four years with the Bruins, he lasted until the third round of Major League Soccer's inaugural college draft.

But as a member of the San Jose Clash, he has become a player of not only national prominence but international promise. Playing against international competition for the first time in his life, he has started all five of the U.S. team's games this year and is tied for the team lead in points (one goal, two assists) and is second in minutes played (414). Suddenly one of the best left-footed players in the country, Lewis will start Sunday's match against Argentina at RFK Stadium.

As with several players U.S. Coach Bruce Arena has called up for this game, including Chris Armas, C.J. Brown, Leo Cullen, Robin Fraser, and D.C. United's Roy Lassiter, Carlos Llamosa and Richie Williams, Lewis's ascent shows that while MLS is still progressing, it already is developing players who can compete worldwide. Not coincidentally, the national team's coach is Bruce Arena, who coached D.C. United for three years.

Playing in MLS "was a chance to get my feet under me," the 25-year-old Lewis said. "I think entering [the national team] at my age has helped the transition."

The transition began at UCLA, where he totaled 88 career points, including 11 goals and 10 assists as a senior. But after his senior season in 1995, Lewis figured his only chance to continue playing was to trek to Europe and hope to latch on with a team. However, the Clash selected him. A lifetime Southern Californian, he couldn't say "yes" fast enough to play in San Jose, although, as Lewis says, "the water's not as warm; the girls aren't as cute." He went from starting only 13 games in 1996 to not starting only three in 1997. Last year, he was the only Clash player to start every game, and he missed only 45 minutes all year.

Lewis squirmed at the end of the MLS leash, though. Six weeks into the 1996 season, Arena, then coaching the U.S. Olympic team, called to inquire about Lewis joining the team. But Laurie Calloway, the Clash coach at the time, wouldn't release him. After that, Lewis wasn't asked back to the U.S. World Cup team after a tryout. National teams 2, Lewis 0.

But then he got a call from Arena to join the national team this year, and he has left bad luck in the rear-view mirror. Lewis has marvelous dribbling and one-on-one skills. He can center the ball with touch and can also finish the play. He knows when to attack and when to pick his spots. And he can do it all with his left foot, which is a rarity here.

"We have a shortage of left-footers in the country," Arena said. "Why I don't know. Regardless, we're very happy to have Eddie."

When asked if Lewis would be on the team were it not for MLS, Arena is as straight as a left jab.

"No," he said. "He'd probably be selling insurance."

As gorgeous as Lewis's skills are, he can play with a touch of grit and a lot of pain. In 1994, a Cal State-Fullerton player's head smashed Lewis's right cheek. Lewis played the rest of the season with a mask covering the break. Metal detectors everywhere remind him that he still has three metal plates and nine screws to hold the bone together.

Lewis (5 feet 10, 155 pounds) can also be the instigator. "I've been known to give a few cheap shots and talk a little trash, I guess," he said.

Regardless, Lewis can't wait to step on the field. During his first international game in Bolivia, bottles were thrown at him and he was called all kinds of nasty names, which was fine by him because he couldn't decipher the language anyway.

"Playing on this level brings so much more out of the game and it makes it that much better," he said. "I've played [left midfield] my entire life, so I think my instincts will take over and I'll be fine."

U.S. vs. Argentina

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2.

Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).

Tickets: $18, $25, $32, $45. Available at TicketMaster locations and stadium.

Of Note: Fearing long lines at the stadium, game organizers are urging fans who have tickets at will call to arrive early. Parking lots also may get backed up. Will call windows open at 10 a.m. Gates open at 11:30.

CAPTION: The U.S. national team will be counting on midfielder Eddie Lewis, left, to provide offense in its exhibition against Argentina on Sunday at RFK.