Americans still battling to keep the ball rolling: Only an impressive display by the USA can revive flagging interest back home. Ken Jones reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN we were watching a better than average World Cup, people confidently went around saying that football at last had a future on the only continent cool to it.

Vast crowds, record profits and the enthusiasm generated by the United States' spirited efforts on the field were reasons to suppose that a major breakthrough had been achieved.

Less than two months later, the game appears to be back where it was in the consciousness of most American sports buffs before USA '94 got under way, struggling to establish a consistent presence in newspapers and on television. There is no guarantee that a new professional league will start on schedule next April, so has the impetus been lost?

The fact that the American sports cable television network, ESPN, is putting out live coverage (3pm New York time), even if on a subsidiary channel, of tonight's match between England and the States at Wembley, persuades the US Soccer Federation's director of communications, Tom Lange, to think otherwise. 'Most importantly, ESPN, who took most of the World Cup matches and were delighted with the ratings, are repeating the game at prime time on their main programme,' he said. 'I think that confirms the World Cup's impact and indicates progress.'

Equally, Lange thinks, the US national team, astutely coached by Bora Milutinovic, can no longer be taken lightly. 'Results show that we have come a long way,' he said. 'For instance, we squeezed into Italia '90 with a 1-0 victory against Trinidad and Tobago. Last year we won 8-0 against El Salvador, who have appeared in the World Cup finals. I don't think it's extravagant to assume that we are alongside Mexico as the strongest soccer nations in our part of the world.'

If ESPN's decision to transmit tonight's game was taken belatedly in consequence of the baseball strike it places a special emphasis on performance. 'At this stage of things there could not be a more important match for our players,' Lange said. 'The World Cup proved to be a marvellous experience for them, now here they are in the home of football and about to appear in the most famous of stadiums. As with all US teams there will be a lot of national pride involved but the way they perform matters as much as the result.'

Scattering after the World Cup, the US players were not fully reunited until assembling this week at a hotel in Hertfordshire. Three days for most of the squad to recover from jet lag is hardly ideal preparation for tussling with a rejuvenated England, but the US expect to give a good account of themselves. 'A number, Lalas, Stewart, Kerr, Dooley, for example, gained status during the World Cup and they will want to keep that going,' Lange said.

The future? Walk not run is a good maxim. 'The object is to steadily build on what was achieved in the World Cup and, of course, a thriving professional league would help immensely, enabling us to bring players forward,' Lange added.

Meanwhile, the US Soccer Federation, fancifully you may think, will seek to further encourage women players who, astonishingly, make up 40 per cent of an estimated 16 million participants in schools, colleges and minor leagues. 'Our women are the current world champions and that aspect of soccer could become immensely popular,' Lange said.

It might also strengthen opposition to football in the US as a game lacking manly virtues, but Lange cannot imagine any obvious drawbacks. 'If there is a market for women's football, and I think there is, we should go for it.'

This hardly lends itself to advancement of the US as a major power in football with a league strong enough to fund the recruitment of leading foreign players. After the promise of USA '94, football in the US is once again in limbo, inevitably overshadowed by the start of a NFL season. 'Probably, a lot more people are playing but take away the excitement of the World Cup and how many spectators could the game count on?' asks an observer of American sport. 'How many Americans are aware that the US are playing England this week?'

Critically, how many will switch on today?

(Photograph omitted)