Had anybody but football diehards been watching when the United States opened the 2002 World Cup in South Korea--it was a 5 a.m. start in America--the game might have been memorialized as the "Miracle on Turf." The Yanks stunned powerful Portugal with three goals in 36 minutes, then held on for a 3-2 win. The upset helped propel the U.S. team to unprecedented Cup heights, and only some bad bounces and a blown call kept the Americans from an even bigger upset of Germany in the quarterfinals.
The U.S. squad that will kick off its 2006 World Cup campaign Monday against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen won't stun anybody. That's because the United States, long a football backwater, is now recognized as an emerging power--currently ranked fifth in the world. At a time when it can no longer claim supremacy in homegrown sports like baseball and basketball, America can finally compete at the highest levels of the world's game. U.S. team manager Bruce Arena has made that faith the centerpiece of his eight-year tenure. "You can't go into the World Cup just happy to be there," says Arena. "We're starting out June 12 with the thought that we're going to be hanging around Germany for a while."
The 2002 success was spurred by a high-energy attack led by a tandem of fearless 20-year-olds, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. As a highly touted teen player, Donovan fled the Bundesliga for a more laid-back lifestyle at home; he returns to Germany as the offensive linchpin and a marked man. But this American squad is bigger, faster and--thanks to homegrown Major League Soccer, where half the team plays--far more talented than previous incarnations. "If they want to shut me down, that's fine," says Donovan. "We have six others who can make them pay."
Unfortunately, six may not be enough to overcome an unlucky draw. After opening with the No. 2-ranked Czechs, the United States will meet perennial power Italy, and, finally, talented Ghana. The Americans possess one clear advantage over their rivals: less pressure. The World Cup doesn't represent the hopes and dreams of the nation. If it ever does, though, America's football lads just might be ready to meet them.