World Cup: U.S. Soccer's Evolution

 U.S. national team members

U.S. national team members Brian Ching (from left), Landon Donovan, Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey train for the World Cup. Tom Goldman,NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman,NPR

Two forwards on the American World Cup team represent soccer's evolution in the United States over the past decade. Brian McBride, 33, turned professional when soccer had a lower profile and a pool of mostly suburban prospects. Eddie Johnson, 22, was raised in a Florida housing project where the game wasn't played.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Tomorrow in Cleveland, the U.S. Men's Soccer Team has another chance to get a little momentum for next month's World Cup tournament. They're playing Venezuela. The World Cup happens once every four years and this time around, the U.S. has a number five ranking. It was just eight years ago that they finished dead last in the tournament. In 2002 they made the quarter finals. So, how'd they get so much better so quickly?

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

The story of how can be told through two players, let's call them the star and the kid. 2002 was the breakout year for the U.S. men at the World Cup and forward Brian McBride was as big a star as anyone.

(Soundbite of 2002 World Cup match)

Unidentified Announcer: McBride to the box, a hard cross, McBride scores. It's three, zero, United States. (unintelligible) come on up, right up to the corner, cuts it back, here's McBride, scores. One, zero, United States.

GOLDMAN: The two goals broadcast lustfully on ESPN proved to be the winning scores in America's victories over Portugal and Mexico. McBride's shining World Cup moments came as he turned 30, the product of a steady climb through the American soccer system.

A star at his Illinois high school and an all-American in college, McBride became a professional at 22. In 1996 McBride was the first draft choice in the new American Pro League, Major League Soccer. He recalled the leagues embryonic days last week when national team members met with reporters during World Cup training in North Carolina.

Mr. BRIAN MCBRIDE (U.S. Men's Soccer team member): The process that I had going through MLS is, you know, there was, gosh, I don't know how many new professionals, at least 15 on each team, new professionals, you know?

GOLDMAN: Now in its 11th season, major league soccer is stocked with experienced and talented pros.

Brain McBride can see the difference on this, his third World Cup team, half of which is made up of MLS players.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Before when we were a team, we were, we had to be a team, and now we have players on this team that can, you know, break games.

GOLDMAN: Which brings us to the kid. Forward Eddie Johnson has been a high scoring game breaker for the U.S. He's the youngest player on the team, but at 22, the age Brian McBride became a pro, Eddie Johnson is a fifth year professional with MLS and the kid with the two sparkly earrings doesn't stand out just for his ability.

Mr. EDDIE JOHNSON (U.S. Men's Soccer team member): Not in a million years coming from where I come in the inner city. You know, I would have thought anyone where I come from would have a chance to even play in a World Cup.

GOLDMAN: Johnson, who's African American, grew up in a tough neighborhood in Palm Coast, Florida. He was a great athlete and excelled in football. He learned about soccer at a summer camp program and sometimes annoyed his friends by showing off his foot skills.

Mr. JOHNSON: I played basketball a little growing up and whenever we would be in a gym and we would play 21 and it would take a while, I break out and start juggling a basketball and then they were like, this ain't a soccer ball, you know, go out on the field and kick the ball around with those little white guys, but -

GOLDMAN: Johnson did. He made the rare decision for an all-around athlete in the U.S., forget football and basketball, and go for soccer. Johnson got really good and at the age of 15 got scooped up by a program that kicked his soccer development into warp speed.

In 1999, the year after the U.S. finished last in the World Cup, American Soccer's governing body created an under 17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida, where young promising players live, go to school, and train.

Mr. JOHNSON: That environment gives us the opportunity to play against different countries, see what it's like to play in big atmospheres and at a high level and it prepared us for the MLS.

GOLDMAN: For all he's gotten at home, Eddie Johnson's goal is to play in Europe. It's still the place to go, he says, if you want to get really good.

And of course, if the U.S. doesn't do well at the World Cup in Germany, it'll confirm for many that the new and improved soccer system in the U.S. still is second tier, which is why the kid and the star will be doing all they can next month to prove the evolution of American men's soccer is no fluke.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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