Soccer inhabits the periphery of America's sports consciousness. Despite a professional league in existence since 1996 (Major League Soccer, or MLS) featuring several world-class players, the vast majority of Americans pays absolutely no attention to the game except for one period every four years. That's during the World Cup.
Even then it's probably because the event is too hard to ignore; the rest of the world comes to a standstill as the month-long tournament reveals what nation has the best national team on the planet.
Part of the reason Americans don't care too much is that their team has given them little reason to. The U.S. is a perennial qualifier for the tournament, but never a threat to do anything other than show up. The squad had an abysmal showing at the France '98 Cup, losing all three of its matches in ignominious fashion. Ever heard the epithet "Couldn't Score in a Whorehouse"? That was the U.S. in France. The team scored fewer goals in the tournament than any of the other 31 teams in the Finals.
Worse than merely losing, the U.S. commits the grave sin of playing uninspired, stodgy soccer. Year in and year out the team has shown little creativity, next to no elan, and none of the panache that makes well-played soccer not just a game but an exhilarating aesthetic experience.
Not for nothing is soccer known as the Beautiful Game. The artistry with which its top practitioners perform can occasionally be so inspiring as to render the result of secondary importance. But with Americans involved, the Beautiful Game is usually anything but. Often it is dreadful, win or lose.
But there is hope. A sun-drenched Sunday afternoon just a few days ago at Washington's RFK Stadium showed signs that the days of the awful American style of soccer might be coming to a merciful end.
In a friendly exhibition against fellow World Cup entrant Uruguay, the U.S. National did the unimaginable: It entertained. It created. It threatened. And in winning 2-1, it showed a very good South American squad that, for the first time in anyone's memory, the U.S. might be able to create chances and score a few goals.
Contrast this to the scene four years ago. Just before shipping off for France, the U.S. played an RFK friendly against Scotland. It ended 0-0, a match not nearly as exciting as that score might indicate. It was the perfect harbinger for the sour Cup the U.S. would experience. That was the bog in which American soccer appeared doomed to be mired.
But on Sunday, the Americans were buoyed by a home-grown youth movement that isn't just young. It is imaginative and fast and daring, exactly the opposite of what most people picture when they think about the U.S. National Team.
Clint Mathis, a product of Georgia who plays for MLS, gives the American squad something no one can recall having -- a truly creative maestro who can thread passes to cutting teammates deep inside in opponents' defenses. He is also a threat to blast home shots from long range. Nineteen-year-old DaMarcus Beasley just might be the fastest player the U.S. has ever had. He displayed several breathtaking moves on Sunday, including one that resulted in him netting the team's second goal.
And then there's Landon Donovan, who has the potential to be the first true international superstar produced by this country. The 20-year-old Donovan can finish plays and make sure the ball hits the back of the net. Such skills are uncommon in a country that produces more than its share of plodders but few with any finesse.
On Sunday this crew more than held its own against a Uruguayan team comprised of stars from top clubs in Italy and Spain. And it demonstrated the hope that the dull, methodical style that has sadly marked American soccer might be a receding bad memory.
Of course, a friendly a few weeks before the World Cup isn't exactly the same thing as playing in that fabled tournament. The competition will be markedly tougher in the Orient next month, where the U.S. is slated to play Portugal, Poland, and co-host South Korea in first-round World Cup games that mean quite a bit more than Sunday's.
So how much of a test was this weekend's contest? It's hard to say if it was a test at all, but the offensive skills on display are heartening as the team gets ready to cross the Pacific.
The real pre-World Cup test should come later this week. After the team plays Jamaica in New Jersey Thursday, they will travel to Foxboro, Massachusetts, to face Holland. The Dutch squad may be one of the four or five best teams in the world. But they're not going to the World Cup. They are victims of the cutthroat European qualifying process, and they undoubtedly are looking to prove that their omission is a mistake. The Dutch are bringing nearly every star they have, including Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy, Barcelona's Patrick Kluivert, and Juventus's Edgar Davids. Move over Uruguay, this is the big time.
If the U.S. is really ready to ascend to the lofty ranks it aspires to join, it will have to keep from getting pasted this weekend. It will also have to improve upon the first-round performance in France '98. Portugal may well be the class of the tournament, and Poland and South Korea should both be extremely tough.
But if the National team plays with the same attacking brio it displayed Sunday at RFK, this country will be a little further down the road to one day -- and possibly sooner than many realize -- really contending for the World Cup championship.
(Coming Soon: Soccer's Conservative Guardian Angel)