The Full 90

U.S. soccer is on more solid footing

Updated: 2012-10-14T01:04:53Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

After a two-year absence from the U.S. men’s national team, Eddie Johnson saved the red, white and blue from potential disaster and certain embarrassment Friday against Antigua and Barbuda.

Johnson was a head-scratching choice in many circles when Jurgen Klinsmann announced the roster for the latest round of FIFA World Cup qualifying, but nobody was complaining after the Seattle Sounders striker’s two-goal performance.

Johnson’s header in the 90th minute pulled a 2-1 win from the fire and all but assured the U.S. will advance from group play in the CONCACAF semifinal round of qualifying, which concludes Tuesday against Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park.

A draw would have left the U.S. in limbo, backing Klinsmann’s squad into a must-win position in the quest for a seventh straight World Cup. It also would have been regarded as one of the worst results in U.S. soccer history.

Of course, Johnson’s goal will never be remembered and revered quite like Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” during a 1-0 road win against Trinidad and Tobago on Nov. 19, 1989.

That goal ushered in a new era of U.S. soccer as Caligiuri’s looping left-footed shot secured the final berth for the 1990 World Cup in Italy and ended a 40-year drought between appearances at arguably the world’s most important and celebrated sporting event.

“It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” said Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, who played on that groundbreaking U.S. squad. “The dynamic is so different now. Then, we had been on the outside looking in, 40 years of not making it to the World Cup. Now, the expectation is, ‘Of course we’re going to qualify.’ The mentality has completely changed.”

Soccer in the U.S. turned a corner that day, and the national team hasn’t missed a World Cup since.

“Everybody knew the story of how they hadn’t been to a World Cup in 40 years, but the feeling was soccer wasn’t really America’s game,” said ESPN soccer commentator Ian Darke, who called the 1990 World Cup and will call Tuesday’s game at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2. “It was something of a sideshow. People wondered if they would see the USA at many future World Cups, but they’ve become a standing dish.”

Not even England, which failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, can claim as many consecutive World Cup berths as the U.S., but the nation’s soccer resurgence remains near infancy.

“When you look at the progress we’ve made in the last 10 or 15 years, we deserve to pat ourselves on the back,” ESPN soccer analyst and former U.S. men’s national team defender Alexi Lalas said. “U.S. soccer fans are being treated to a soccer landscape that is much deeper and richer than anything that’s ever existed in our time. Just good enough to be there was good enough for a long time, but that’s no longer the case. Now, the most crucial and most difficult progress still needs to be made to be elite.”

Reaching the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 was hailed as proof that U.S. soccer had arrived, but the 2006 World Cup proved to be a bitter disappointment with a last-place overall finish.

The U.S. won its group in 2010, including a draw with England in pool play, but was knocked out in the round of 16 by Ghana.

Still, by then it was clear this wasn’t your father’s U.S. national team.

Hoping to help the U.S. take another step forward, Klinsmann, who helped West Germany win the 1990 World Cup and later coached the German national team and Bayern Munich before taking over the Yanks last year, came in promising sweeping stylistic changes.

There have been flashes of the “proactive soccer” Klinsmann has championed as well as a few historic results — a 1-0 win Feb. 29 against Italy, the first U.S. victory versus the Azzurri, and a 1-0 win Aug. 15 at the Estadio Azteca, the first victory for the U.S. on Mexican soil — but there also have been some struggles, including Friday’s closer-than-anticipated battle.

“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that the U.S. in on the cusp of the elite level as a national team,” Lalas said. “It’s still in a state of evolution, but also in a state of flux under Jurgen Klinsmann.”

Still, U.S. soccer can be proud of how far it’s come.

While Klinsmann’s squad won’t be mentioned in the same breath with Brazil or Italy, Germany or France anytime soon, there is substantial momentum for soccer in the U.S. as the sport continues in popularity and prestige.

“I’ve always felt that perhaps American soccer, there’s a feeling that American soccer has a bit of an inferior complex,” Darke said. “The truth is, if you talk to soccer fans in Europe, there is a lot of respect for U.S. soccer. There’s a healthy respect.”

Every time forward Clint Dempsey scores in the English Premier League — he had 50 goals from 2007-2012 with Fulham before transferring to Tottenham Hotspur — that respect grows.

It’s a similar story every time Tim Howard posts a shutout for Everton or Michael Bradley dictates the tempo from the center midfield spot for Roma in Italy’s Serie A.

In fact, there’s so much depth for the U.S. men now that selecting Johnson for inclusion over Jozy Altidore, who leads the Dutch Eredivisie with eight goals, and over Chris Wondolowski, who leads MLS with 25 goals, caused widespread social media panic.

It may not happen in time for Brazil in 2014, but the U.S., which had its best finish (third place) at the 1930 World Cup, is inching closer to possibly joining an elite club.

Only eight nations — Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England and Spain — have won a World Cup since the inaugural world soccer championship 82 years ago.

“It’s all the things we’re doing right now,” Vermes said. “The rise of MLS is a huge component in that. Some of the decisions U.S. soccer has made in developing the youth soccer league, those are steps in the right direction. I don’t think we’re as far along as some people think we are, but I don’t think we as far away either.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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