ISAAC HEATH - Friday, October 9, 2009
While the 2002 quarterfinal run and the recent 2009 Confederations Cup second place finish were watershed moments in United States soccer history, the 1994 World Cup was the greatest moment.
Hosting the World Cup and advancing through group play without having a domestic professional league was a remarkable feat for the US, and undeniably has allowed the US to progress greatly as a soccer nation.
The event not only would prove to be an igniter for the growth of soccer in the US, but also a career launching pad for players like Alexi Lalas, whose tournament performance gained worldwide respect and provided playing opportunities overseas.
"I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual and saw the US soccer landscape completely change," Lalas told Yanks Abroad. "For the first time the culture was shown what soccer can be when it is played at a high level."
Much like how the 2009 Confederations Cup saw Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies earn contracts with AC Milan and Sochaux respectively, the great 1994 World Cup run allowed Lalas to catch the eye of Italian Serie A club Padova, making Lalas the first American to play in the top Italian flight. He thrived in Italy despite his team nearly being relegated to Serie B, anchoring the Padova defense while giving performances that undoubtedly paved the way for other Americans abroad today.
After returning to the US from Italy, Lalas would further take part in the development of US soccer first as a player, then a general manager, and now as a soccer analyst.
Starting with the New England Revolution, Lalas began an eight year career in the MLS that finished with the L.A. Galaxy in 2004. Following his retirement, he began a string of general manager positions that included the San Jose Earthquakes, the then MetroStars, and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
During his time as a general manager, Lalas was constantly at the center of developmental efforts within MLS.
As president and general manager of the MetroStars, he was instrumental in the transition to the New York Red Bulls after AEG sold the club to Red Bull, and more recently and famously, he helped bring David Beckham to the league.
Today, evidence of the growth of US soccer can be seen everywhere. The national team player pool is much larger, and the players have been in the US soccer program from the youth ranks. Additionally, players today have the option of developing their game in MLS in addition to playing abroad - a luxury that was not available to Lalas and the rest of the 94 national team.
"I came in to the team at the Olympic level," explained Lalas. "It was the Under-23 team and most of the other players on the 94 World Cup team got their start with the national team then."
While the US has progressed immensely as a soccer nation, with progress comes expectations. Recent performances by MLS teams in international competition and the US national team in CONCACAF qualifying have come under a high level of public scrutiny, which is a reflection of the growth of soccer in America.
"The soccer media has progressed," says the now-ESPN analyst. "There is much more analysis, critique, and criticism than there used to be and that's a good thing."
"However, regardless if you are a player or a coach on the national team, the reality is that you've got it good. The pressure and criticism that our team receives at this point is absolutely nothing compared to teams around the world."
"In order for us to progress to a point where we are competing on and off the field with the elite around the world, the media has to be much more focused, educated and there have to be diverging views."
There is also a growing concern among soccer fans in the United States about the lack of player development for younger players. The recent failure of the MLS developmental league and the embarrassing performance in the Under-20 World Cup by a Thomas Rongen team full of inexperienced players at the club level only add fuel to the fire.
"We have to find a way to get players games, and quality games" added Lalas. "If there's not going to be a legitimate reserve league then teams have to find a way to get their younger players playing, either through loans or through a specific relationship with a USL team."
"You just can't have players that you recognize have the potential to be professionals, and then not put them in the environment where they can develop into those professionals. It's a waste of talent."
Despite the obvious cracks in the US soccer shell, MLS has grown stronger, and the national team, although not dominant, has become a force to be reckoned with.
The US national team can certainly take a step in the right direction in its quest to be a great soccer nation by taking care of Honduras and Costa Rica in the final week of World Cup Qualifying. After all, clinching another World Cup berth will do a lot to validate both the work of Bob Bradley and the US soccer federation.
"I think Bob Bradley has done a wonderful job in terms of the results and bringing some new talent into the fold. Ultimately Bob and the team are going to be judged on how they perform next summer, but I think at the very least, regardless of how far Bob takes this team, he will have left it in better shape than when he arrived."