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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK

US take huge strides forward

By Sean Wheelock
BBC Sport Online

By reaching the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, the United States simultaneously accomplished three things they had never done before.

First, the team has established supremacy as the top dogs in Concacaf, by defeating arch-rival Mexico in the second round and advancing further than any other side from the North and Central American confederation.

" For the first time ever, Mexico will not enter the next cycle of World Cup qualification as the Concacaf favorites "

Their 2-0 victory in the second round means the US have now defeated Mexico in five of the past six matches.

For the first time ever, Mexico will not enter the next cycle of World Cup qualification as the favorites. Instead, that honour will now go to the United States.

Qualification for Germany 2006 would mean five consecutive appearances in the finals for the US, an achievement unprecedented in Concacaf history.

Secondly, World Cup 2002 finally showed the planet that the US are capable of playing quality football at the highest level.

With a sports-obsessed population rapidly approaching 300 million, the United States can now truly lay claim to being correctly identified as an emerging football nation.

Fourth-place finishes at the last world under-17 championships and Olympic Games, combined with an appearance in the last eight at World Cup 2002 make this point all but irrefutable.

" No longer does the US have to rely predominantly on naturalised citizens and first-generation Americans to lead the squad "

While it is true that the US's best young male athletes still choose to play sports such as American football, basketball, ice hockey, and baseball ahead of football, the figures are not nearly as lopsided as they were even a decade ago.

No longer does the US have to rely predominantly on naturalised citizens and first-generation Americans to lead the squad.

Young stars such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Mathis represent the emergence of a generation of outstanding American athletes who chose football above all other sports, with no family or historical ties to the game.

Finally, the US's success at World Cup 2002 proved the old axiom that the country loves a winner.

After the victory over Portugal in their opening game, the World Cup suddenly became the thing to watch and follow in the US.

This momentum built rapidly through the first round, then the victory over Mexico, and finally to the competitive quarter-final defeat by Germany.

Television ratings and media coverage vastly improved along the way.

" Football, or rather soccer, was a word on the lips of Americans more than at any other time in the nation's history "

The defeat by Germany ranks not only as the most watched football match in the history of the television network which broadcast it live, but also as cable television's highest-rated morning broadcast of all time among men age 18 to 34.

The last statistic is most significant, because it is exactly that audience that football is looking to for future growth in the country.

American males who follow football passionately are seen as the group to move the game past the tag of "niche" to "major sport" in the United States.

In June 2002, football, or to be more correct soccer, was a word on the lips of Americans more than at any other time in the nation's history, USA 94 included.

In reality, most of those who professed to love the US squad will have forgotten the names of every member in a couple of months.

But there is no doubt that the sport has greatly increased its fan base in the United States.

More players, more supporters, more ticket buyers and more television viewers. Football is still a very long way from laying claim to be the number one sport in the USA, but it is now a great deal closer than it was just one month ago.


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