In their last Cup encounter with Germany in 1998, they showed they couldn't. The Germans knocked both the ball and the Americans around the park. This time a more skilled, better coached American team took the game to the Germans from the outset, with 20-year-old Landon Donovan creating several chances in the first 30 minutes. He forced German keeper Oliver Kahn to demonstrate his world-class rating. Although Germany broke through with a classic header from Michael Ballack in the 36th minute, the U.S. never retreated, forcing their opponents to defend deep and sometimes desperately in the second half. "Those guys really put pressure on us," said Ballack. "They really deserved to be in the quarterfinals."
After the Poland defeat, the U.S. seemed destined to lose to Mexico in the round of 16. Over the years, the Tricolores had treated their northern neighbors like kid brothers, regularly slapping them around. But what the world hadn't realized is that during World Cup qualifying, the balance of power had shifted. The U.S. forced the Mexicans to play a qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, in frigid temperatures—far from the warmth of Los Angeles, the usual site, where 90,000 fans, most of them Mexican, would turn a U.S. home game into an away contest. The U.S. rocked the chilly Mexicans, 2-0. In the knockout round of the Cup, the Yanks repeated the performance, absorbing Mexican pressure and executing two crisp counterattacks for goals.
The U.S., which had not reached the Cup quarterfinals since 1930, are soccer somebodies again. In large measure that's due to the launch of a new professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS), in 1996. Created in the aftermath of a successful World Cup hosted by the U.S, MLS now provides a reliable supply of quality footballers, such as national squad teammates Brian McBride, Clint Mathis, DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Pope, to augment the Yank's European-based stars. Arena, a former MLS coach, made a point of selecting MLS players for qualifying games and for friendlies, allowing his European players to stay with their clubs. The international experience was crucial to the MLS players.
The flow of talent will continue, because the game continues to flourish beyond the professional level. American youth soccer has been criticized as merely a weekend pastime for most kids and their "soccer moms." And it is. Yet select teams from all over the country—even in Texas, that gridiron football mecca—are developing talent just the way the vaunted youth programs of Holland and France do. And consider the population the U.S. can draw upon.
The gritty midfielder Donovan, who finished the Cup with two goals, is the standard bearer for the future. He embarrassed German defender Christian Ziege, beating him through the legs and nearly besting goalkeeper Kahn. In all likelihood, German team Bayer Leverkusen, which owns Donovan's contract, just might want him back from MLS's San Jose Earthquakes. Indeed, the national team's success may hurt MLS: The sprightly Beasley may have also punched his ticket to Europe, and Mathis has stirred interest too.
The rise of the U.S. in yet another global arena isn't sitting well everywhere. Continental critics such as John Vinocur of the International Herald Tribune bad-mouthed the team for not playing a "pretty" enough game, for being all hustle and no skill—the usual American stereotype. It's a silly comment, given the quality of the U.S. goals and the performance of European teams. Italy's dull, defensive posture isn't exactly Renaissance football. Portugal and France, the glam teams, self-destructed. And England hasn't exactly been poetry out there for what, three decades?
The U.S. as a football force? It's just another reason not to like the unlovable superpower.