Is soccer US sport of the future?

United States soccer coach Bruce Arena has a timetable for when the global game will join the elite American sports scene and allow the US squad to schedule World Cup qualifying matches anywhere.

“In about 100 years,” he said.

It seems like that long since soccer has been called the US sport of the future. It might always be since the future never arrives and stars such as Pele have tried in vain to make a lasting US success.

US women are a world power. Children play in record numbers. But basketball, baseball, American football, auto racing and even ice hockey capture more attention than football, despite a US quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup.

Saturday’s US-England friendly in Chicago figures to have huge vocal support for the visitors, something US players accept even as they try to make Major League Soccer, in its 10th season, into more than a feeder for European leagues.

“This isn’t 1900. This is a time when sports are prevalent and massive in this country. We’ve come a long way in 10 years,” US midfielder Landon Donovan said.

“We have a much bigger country [than England]. It’s spread out. We have four other major sports that have 50, 60, 100 years of tradition. We don’t have some of the negatives you have in a small country. That’s a blessing.”

Hooligans aside, US teams play North American World Cup qualifying matches in places where ethnic populations from rival nations are unlikely to follow.

“We’re playing in Salt Lake City and Birmingham, Alabama, for a reason,” Arena said. “There’s a big Hispanic population here. We couldn’t play Mexico here.”

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose players make headlines with nearly every utterance, lives in a fishbowl while US talent struggle for attention, Arena said.

“To be in the headlines is a bit difficult in this country, and that’s a pity,” Eriksson said. “I’m sure they’ll qualify for Germany and they will do well there as well.”

The Americans rank 10th in the world by Fifa, but know that until they can start beating the best, they will not own a spot among the global elite—no matter who is paying attention.

“We have that mentality now but we’ve failed to do it,” Donovan said. “Until we get to a point where we’re beating the likes of England and Germany, we’re not going to be in that next level.”

But the Americans are growing more dangerous by the day.

“The mindset is totally different from 10 years ago,” Donovan said. “We’re not going in to be defensive for 90 minutes and come out with a point. We have chances. We have a chance tomorrow. It’s just doing it. That’s where experience and knowledge come into play.”

England defender Sol Campbell of Arsenal respects the threat posed by the US squad.

“They’ve proved themselves. They are a team to be reckoned with,” he said. “They spend a lot of time together. That will make a special feeling. They will be getting better and better.”—Sapa-AFP

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